Language Barriers

Liturgy can be a very divisive and contentious matter in the life of the Church. It is a sad reality that the setting in which we are most perfectly united to each other – literally “in communion” with one another – can become a source of division and disunity. It is one thing when these division arise over aesthetic preferences, or generational divides, or even serious disagreements about the theology of the Eucharist. But in recent decades there’s been another kind of division that has received much less notice.

It begins with a story we all know well by now: The Second Vatican Council opened to the promise of a new engagement of the Church with the modern world but was followed promptly by a period of dramatic upheaval in Catholic life. Men abandoned the priesthood; monasteries and (especially) convents emptied; Catholic marriage rates began a long decline from which they have not recovered; Mass attendance fell; sacramental discipline evaporated.

And, of course, there were the changes to the Mass: a new rite, versus populum, and in the vernacular.

There were, of course, good reasons for the Second Vatican Council to allow the celebration of Mass in the vernacular, just as there were also good reasons the Council explicitly called for the preservation of Latin as the norm for the Latin rite, as it did in Sacrosanctum Concilium (“On the Sacred Liturgy”).

[T]he use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites. But since the use of the mother tongue, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or other parts of the liturgy, frequently may be of great advantage to the people, the limits of its employment may be extended.

I don’t know what fraction of Catholics have ever read Sacrosanctum Concilium, but I doubt very much that it is even one in fifty. Most Catholic have no idea that what the Council actually said about liturgy – about a lot of things, really. There’s no clearer instance of the actual words of the Council being countermanded in practice by the “Spirit of the Council” than in the liturgy.

But this isn’t a column about all that. At least not exactly.

In the United States, Mass in the vernacular doesn’t necessarily mean Mass in English. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, to pick one example, is home to some 4.3 million Catholics. Mass is regularly celebrated within the archdiocese in 42 different languages. In all that multiplicity and diversity, we see all the nations of the earth sharing in the one sacrifice of the Mass.

*

Viewed from one perspective, this is a remarkable testament to the universality of the faith – to its catholicity. The Church, in proclaiming the Good News and celebrating the Eucharist, is truly a light to all the nations.

Viewed from another perspective, however, it is a reminder of how Catholics, especially in a place as diverse as Los Angeles, can be separated by language at the very moment when the communion of the Church – its oneness – is, or ought to be, most evident.

Mass in the vernacular can create a deep separation, based on language, between Catholic communities within the same local Church and even that same parish. This is not always, or even usually, a hostile separation. More often, what happens is that communities that share a common faith, live in a common place, and even share a church building, have very little cause or occasion to interact with each other. This is perhaps especially true of the one place they ought to be most united: the Mass.

Of course, there is only one perfect sacrifice of Christ, so every Mass is, in some real sense, a participation in the same reality, regardless of language, rite, place, or time. We shouldn’t dismiss or discount that fundamental reality. But neither should we discount the importance of worshiping together with other people in a shared space in a particular time.

You need not be in a place as exceptionally diverse as Los Angeles to see the challenge presented by local churches divided liturgically along linguistic lines. Virtually every diocese in the United States has a Spanish-speaking minority that is large and growing. If all the Spanish-speaking Catholics go to one Mass and everyone else goes to another, where do the two parishes-within-the-parish meet? It is easy to celebrate diversity and appreciate the unique differences and contributions highlighted, but how do these communities become one?

In the past, one of the most pressing pastoral questions the Church had to face regarding immigrant communities was one of cultural integration. And while the old urban-ethnic enclaves of the Northeast and Rust Belt may have had parishes divided by ethnicity (St. Joseph parish for the Italians, St. Stanislaus parish for the Poles, St. Patrick for the Irish, St. Boniface for the Germans, etc.) the liturgy celebrated in each was largely the same.

If liturgy was once the universal common denominator for Catholics the world over, it no longer is. At least not in the way it once was.

None of this is meant as a criticism of pastoral efforts aimed at ethnic (or linguistic) minorities. These are good and necessary, and likely to become more important, not less, in the future. It is simply to point out one unintended (and underappreciated) consequence of liturgy in the vernacular. My concern is less about cultural or linguistic assimilation than it is about solidarity.

In the coming years and decades, the Church in the United States is likely to have to draw on every available source of solidarity. Returning to our common liturgical language for all or most Masses in the United States, or even in a given diocese, is unlikely to happen anytime soon. But a concerted effort to strengthen a shared ecclesial life – and especially shared liturgical life – across linguistic barriers ought to be a pastoral priority.

 

*Image: The Mass of Saint Gregory the Great by Adriaen Isenbrandt, early to mid-16th century [J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles]

Stephen P. White

Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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