Views of the Vernacular

The recent cold and snowy conditions are very conducive for reading, and I’ve continued to delve into historical background on the pre-Vatican II decades, particularly in regards to the use of vernacular languages.  At first glance, the question of language seems to originate with Vatican II, but in reality it’s been an issue in the Church for many centuries.  Dynamic Equivalence: The Living Language of Christian Worship by Keith Pecklers, S.J. details these developments.  I take heart from the longer view this book provides.  The dynamics feel so familiar – the hierarchy’s resistance to change, grassroots advocacy for change, two steps forward followed by one step back – that I’m amused and consoled.

The early Christians worshiped in Aramaic, the language of Jesus.  As the faith spread, Greek became predominant, though other local languages also were used.  Ironically, Latin was adopted in the late third/early fourth centuries because Greek was no longer understood by most people!   Although Latin became the official language of the Church in the west, the Eastern Church did not adopt it because the use of varied local languages was already well established; even in the west, there have always been groups who were granted exceptions, especially in missionary work.  And, it seems, some people have always been supportive of the vernacular and have gone ahead and published translations.

Closer to our own day, I’ve been particularly fascinated to learn about the work of the Vernacular Society from the 1940s to 60s.  Affiliated with the larger liturgical movement of the time, which supported increased use of vernacular, still they were considered renegade by some, regarded as too confrontational in their efforts.  A variety of “concessions” were granted for English in certain parts of the liturgy and sacraments during the 1950s, which raised expectations leading up to the Council.

Interestingly, Pope John XXIII, known for “opening the windows” of the Church as convener of the Second Vatican Council, issued a document called Veterum sapientia – On the Promotion of the Study of Latin – in February 1962, on the eve of the Council, which had a chilling effect.  Priests and bishops who were members of the Society felt it necessary to withdraw.  Concurrently, the Society and other groups were circulating petitions in favor of the vernacular to be sent to the Council delegates.

Now I’m in the midst of the chapter on the deliberations (actually, machinations) in preparation for and during Vatican II for the document on the liturgy, the first one approved by the Council.  Given the political and ecclesial forces at work to resist, it seems truly miraculous that any changes occurred at all.  So there’s always hope!

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