John Paul II’s View on the Vernacular

A look at liturgical changes in the Mass after Vatican II -- Part 3

Topics

Latin

I begin this installment by stating my love for the Latin language. I studied it in high school and graduate school. I drew on my knowledge of the language to write my master’s thesis, Aquinas on Marriage. I recently taught Latin for five years to grade schoolers on Saturday mornings. In a 2015 essay, I laid out how Catholic schools could do a much better job of teaching the Faith and Latin at the same time (“Teaching Latin to Catholic Students,” published by Spero Forum, Oct. 4, 2015, https://archive.is/hOQOR). And I lament the recent death of Father Reginald Foster, O.C.D. (1939-Dec. 25, 2020), who taught fluency in Latin to generations.

Nonetheless, I bear in mind St. Paul’s admonition not to allow anyone to speak in an assembly unless he or she can be understood or has an interpreter (1 Cor. 14:2-12). Since few around the world are fluent in Latin, I applaud the use of the vernacular, and I bring to your attention a particularly poignant example of the importance of the vernacular to catechesis and evangelization.

When Pope St. John Paul II scheduled a February 1981 trip to Japan, he studied Japanese, but not with the intent of learning the language, as he had a number of other languages. Instead, he spent hours learning how to pronounce the language, and in Japan he celebrated Mass in Japanese. In doing so, he showed the Japanese respect and love, and he mimicked the respect and love shown to his native Slav nation by the Apostles to the Slavs, Saints Cyril and Methodius.

John Paul II wrote an encyclical four years after his apostolic visit to Japan, called Slavorum Apostoli (June 2, 1985, http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_19850602_slavorum-apostoli.html), in which he praised Cyril and Methodius for, among other things, translating the Greek-language Bible into Slavonic in the ninth century A.D.:

For the purposes of evangelization, the two holy Brothers…[m]aking use of their own Greek language and culture for this arduous and unusual enterprise, [] set themselves to understanding and penetrating the language, customs and traditions of the Slav peoples, faithfully interpreting the aspirations and human values which were present and expressed therein.

            In order to translate the truths of the Gospel into a new language, they had to make an effort to gain a good grasp of the interior [spiritual] world of those to whom they intended to proclaim the word of God in images and concepts that would sound familiar to them. They realized that an essential condition of the success of their missionary activity was to transpose correctly Biblical notions and Greek theological concepts into a very different context of thought and historical experience. It was a question of a new method of catechesis… (Para. 10-11)

Both the Brothers were aware of the antiquity and legitimacy of these traditions, and were therefore not afraid to use the Slavonic language in the liturgy and to make it into an effective instrument for bringing the divine truths to those who spoke it. This they did without any spirit of superiority or domination, but out of love of justice and with a clear apostolic zeal for peoples… (Para. 12)

[T]he holy Brothers, working in such complex and precarious situations, did not seek to impose on the peoples assigned to their preaching either the undeniable superiority of the Greek language and Byzantine culture, or the customs and way of life of the more advanced society in which they had grown up and which necessarily remained familiar and dear to them. Inspired by the ideal of uniting in Christ the new believers, they adapted to the Slavonic language the rich and refined texts of the Byzantine liturgy and likewise adapted to the mentality and customs of the new peoples the subtle and complex elaborations of Greco-Roman law. (Para. 13)

It is interesting, is it not, that this Slavic pope regarded Greek language and Byzantine culture of “undeniable superiority” reflecting “advanced society.” Cyril and Methodius did not have “any spirit of superiority or domination” over the Slavs and did not “seek to impose” on the Slavs. They were “aware of the antiquity and legitimacy” of the Slavic traditions and they sought to “adapt” Greek language, Byzantine culture, and Roman law to the Slavic people.

For centuries, the Latin Church regarded Latin and Roman culture and law as undeniably superior to the vernacular languages and cultures of Western Europe (English, French, Spanish, etc.), not to mention those of Asia, the Americas, and Africa. Vatican II’s permission to use the vernacular in all liturgies did two things. First, as pointed out by Pope St. Paul VI (mentioned in Part 2 of this series), the Church did in 1964 what it would have done at the Council of Trent if it had not been for the Protestant Reformation. Second, the Church in the 20th century did for the world what Saints Cyril and Methodius did for the Slavs in the 9th century.

In Part 4 I will discuss then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s views on Latin, and the terminology surrounding rite and language.

 

***For Part 2 in this series, click here

 

James Thunder is a Washington, D.C., lawyer and author, with degrees from the University of Notre Dame, the University of Virginia, and Georgetown. He is former general counsel of Americans United for Life, and past grand knight in the Knights of Columbus.

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