Mass in the Vernacular

A look at certain liturgical changes in the Mass after Vatican II -- Part 1

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Faith

This new blog series addresses certain liturgical changes in the Latin Rite Mass, from the vantage point of a half century after Vatican II. These changes notably began with Mass in the vernacular languages rather than solely in Latin. I begin by observing that I know of two instances in history when people were overcome with joy at the public proclamation of the Word of God in their own tongue.

Ezra and the Book of Nehemiah in the 5th century B.C.

The first instance when people were overcome with joy at the public proclamation of the Word of God in their own tongue was in the 5th century B.C., when the king of Persia, Artaxerxes I or II, sent the priest Ezra to Jerusalem. Ezra went, as did many exiles. No doubt you have heard this passage read at Mass from the Book of Nehemiah (sometimes called the Book of Ezra), chapter 8:

Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate…All the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. Ezra, the teacher of the Law, stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion…All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened [the Book], the people all stood up.

…The Levites [13 are identified] instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing… [verse 8:] Ezra read clearly from the book of the law of God, interpreting it so that all could understand what was read. Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.

I highlight verse 8 because, although it is translated in various ways into English, it prompts us to ask: in what language was the Torah written and proclaimed? And what language was commonly used by the Jewish residents and the Jewish returnees from the Babylonian Exile? (Persia had conquered Babylon and its Jewish captives.) Answers: The Torah was in Hebrew. Some of the people would have known Hebrew, at least to speak and hear it. Others spoke Chaldee and/or Syriac. So, for these latter, either Ezra and his helpers translated the Hebrew-language Torah into Chaldee or Syriac or, at minimum, they “instructed” the people on the Law’s requirements in their mother tongues so it could be “understood.”

The “Great Bible” in 16th century England

The second instance is from the 16th century A.D. University of Notre Dame Professor Mark Noll wrote, in In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783 (2016), of William Tyndale’s work “that led in 1525 to the first Protestant-inspired English-language New Testament” and of the “[v]isceral spiritual hunger [that] inspired the longing for a vernacular Bible” (p. 49). When the first complete Bible, known as the “Great Bible,” appeared in 1539, it was a “public event.” The King required that a copy be set up by each parish in a convenient spot to allow parishioners to read it. And read it they did. Professor Noll describes the “rapt enthusiasm that in many parishes greeted the public reading of the Bible in English…[T]he public excitement…met a widespread longing in the populace” (p. 56).

1964 United States

Now we turn to the United States. On August 24, 1964, over 56 years ago, the first Mass was celebrated entirely in English. I haven’t searched for stories of people weeping with joy when attending Mass in their native tongues, but I do know that Mass in the vernacular spread like the wildfire of the Holy Spirit. I know; I lived it. I served Mass in Latin for four years before the change in one diocese and then two years after the change to English in another diocese.

In future installments of this 7-part series, I will look at:

  • Part 2: the situation in 1964, and the 1969 changes
  • Part 3: two events in the papacy of Pope St. John Paul II
  • Part 4: then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s views on Latin, and the terminology surrounding rite and language
  • Part 5: liturgical reforms other than use of the vernacular
  • Part 6: celebrating Mass facing the people or facing the altar
  • Part 7: some changes I recommend, and conclusion

 

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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