A “dead” language for the Liturgy?

This is all wrong. Just all wrong. Not just in the sense that Kate points out (as in what’s a Bishops’ Conference sponsored website doing hosting such open opposition?), but in the substance of its argument.

“Liturgy no place for dead language”?

It is very hard to get past that pejorative term “dead language”. Of course, the usual language to which the term “dead” was applied was Latin and Greek.

Latin is a dead language,
As dead as dead can be.
First it killed the Romans,
And now it’s killing me!

Well, you can sympathise with the school boy who wrote that, but watch this and ask yourself if Latin is a dead language:

And so, of course, we know that Latin isn’t dead. Ancient hieroglyphic Egyptian is, as far as I know. So is ancient Hittite. Aramaic isn’t. Hebrew and Greek isn’t. Latin certainly isn’t.

Still, this isn’t about Latin. This is an argument about English! The Queen’s English! The language you and I speak! How can a style of English language – which uses words easily found in the Oxford English Dictionary – be called “dead”?

Okay, the language of the new translation of the missal isn’t street or pub language, but is that an argument for saying its “dead”. I don’t think so.

Reader: “But David, but David, there are words in the new missal I don’t understand.”

That doesn’t mean the language is “dead”. I read words in books and novels every day that are new to me, and I find I have to look them up. Just the other day, I came across the word “prurience”. That’s a real word with a real meaning. Not used often, granted, but not “dead”. And the meaning of the word is quite specific. It hasn’t been replaced by any other form of the word. It’s in the dictionaries. I know what it means now, and could use it in conversation if the opportunity arises. And if you google it, so will you. See? You’ve learned something. (Just as an aside, have I mentioned that I heard Stephen Fry use the term “consubstantial” in a casual, non-religious conversation recently on TV?).

You all know that joke in those B grade comedies when the smart sassy girl calls some big tough gangster a “troglodyte”, and he says “What’s a troglodyte?” and she says “a big tough ganster like you”, and he says (puffing out his chest) “Yeah, I’m a troglodyte and proud of it!” and we all laugh. We laugh because he is also an ignoramus. Knowing what words mean is a “smart sassy” thing. People who say we should only use words whose meaning is utterly plain to even the uneducated are…well, troglodytes.

So, what about the style of the language? Should Liturgical language not only be allowed to use “big words”, but also be free to be a distinctive style from other language?

Well, duh. Have you ever seen the play “Cyrano de Bergerac”? If you have, you know the importance of style. Whether you saw it in the original French (which is delightful even for someone who doesn’t understand a word of French, such as me – I recommend the Gerard Depardieu version) or in English (I saw a live performance by our Aussie star, David Wenham in the lead role) or even the spoof “Roxanne” (with Steve Martin), you will soon get the idea of how important style is when you are wooing a girl. Okay, the language would sound flowery and silly in any other context, but when uttered between two lovers…

“And what is a kiss, specifically? A pledge properly sealed, a promise seasoned to taste, a vow stamped with the immediacy of a lip, a rosy circle drawn around the verb ‘to love.’ A kiss is a message too intimate for the ear, infinity captured in the bee’s brief visit to a flower, secular communication with an aftertaste of heaven, the pulse rising from the heart to utter its name on a lover’s lip: ‘Forever.'”
– Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, Act 3

Ah, poetry. Ah, the Liturgy. The liturgy isn’t a newspaper. It isn’t a text book even. It isn’t something designed purely to convey information to the people gathered to celebrate it. In fact, it isn’t designed “to communicate” to people at all. It is designed as the communication of lovers to the One whom they adore. It is the language of love, of poetry, of adoration, of desire, of passion.

A brief example.

When I was on the Liturgical Commission of the Lutheran Church of Australia, we were preparing a Lutheran version of the order of Compline. There is that great response after the Little Chapter, which begins (traditionally in English):

“Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit…”

We had a very good linguist on our committee. I loved him dearly and was deeply sorrowed by his passing a few years back. But he had a knack for taking a beautiful line of English prose and boiling it down to the level of pure information. It still said the same thing, but not in the same way. The response became:

“I put myself in your hands, Lord.”

Compared to the previous version, this line fell like a lead sinker to the mud on the bottom of river of the soul. Plop.

But the author of the Cathnews blog piece objects:

Under the at-times gleeful dismissal of ‘banal’ is the turn to an esotericism indicative of all mystery religions, and especially hostile to the universality of a revealed religion as is Christianity.

The Good News is not about secrecy. The Good news is not about special languages by which only initiates will nod in exclusive and excluding assent. The Good News is not about a restless and never-ending search for the perfect liturgical language – as if the current push for the arcane will be the last.

Let’s see: “gleeful”, “esotericism”, “indicative”, “universality”, “initiates”, “arcane”, … I wonder if those are the kind of words that he means are “dead” language? Surely they are not any more common in English than “consubstantial” and “dewfall”? Oh, but they are, you say. Yes, in the realm of the academy, but not down at the pub. He does you the honour of not treating you like a troglodyte. He uses exalted language in his writing to honour you, his reader, with the compliment that you can understand such words.

Ah, but no such exalted language is to be used in the liturgy. NO! The Liturgy is for the simple people! It is to communicate information at the lowest common denominator! Nothing above the Daily Mail and the Herald Sun should be allowed to appear in the black bits between the red bits. How utterly patronising.

Reader: “David, David, calm down. Take a Bex or get to your point.”

Sorry, my point is that there IS mystery at the heart of what is going on in the Liturgy. Okay, Christianity isn’t just a mystery cult, but there is a good reason why it was mistaken for one in both the ancient and modern world. There really is a real dinky-di, ozzie-cobber-wombie mystery at the base of our religion: the mystery of the dying and rising God-Man, officially referred to as “the Paschal Mystery”.

The Cathnews Blog author seems to be under the modern Protestant “Church Growth Movement” (have I mentioned that phenomena recently?) impression that the whole purpose of the Liturgy is communication of “the Good News” to the “Great Unchurched”.

NEWSFLASH! NEWSFLASH! The Liturgy is “Divine Service”, worship paid to the Creator of the Universe, who is a Triune God, an Undivided Unity and yet Three Persons, the Second Person of Whom was Incarnate of the Virgin Mary and Became Man (“for us men”) and suffered death and rose and now lives exalted at the Right Hand of the Father and who comes to us in the mystery of the Transubstantiated Bread and Wine with his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.

Like, WOW!!!

And you want to use street-speak to talk to this Guy?

Reader: “David, calm down.”

It’s okay. I’ve had a cup of tea. I’m better now.

Really, though. The whole thrust of this article is wrong. Just wrong.

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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33 Responses to A “dead” language for the Liturgy?

  1. Tony says:

    … (as in what’s a Bishops’ Conference sponsored website doing hosting such open opposition?) …

    Can’t quite get past this, David.

    There have been a number of posts lately that have commented on the fight for more democratic in places like the middle-east and Tibet and, particularly, the Freedom of Religion.

    Isn’t the Bishop’s allowing criticism on their own site a powerful witness that they take freedom within as seriously as the church in general asks of other religions and governments?

    It seems as if you are implying that freedom of expression is OK for others but not within the church.

    • Schütz says:

      It is one thing to permit dissent, Tony. It is another thing to give it a soap box, a megaphone and a pat on the back!

      • Tony says:

        In democracies there is the government and there is the opposition. We the citizens expect the parliament, which we pay for, to provide a ‘soap box, a megaphone and a pat on the back!’ to both.

        To ‘permit’ is, again, the luke warm language of an organisation that says democracy is good for everyone else.

        If democracy is not a core value of the church then it is in no position to preach to the world about democracy.

        You wrote passionately about Shahbaz Bhatti who in the context of his society and culture was very much a dissident, but even he was a member of parliament; he had a state sponsored ‘soap box, a megaphone and a pat on the back’. For all it’s faults as an open democracy, at least Pakistan does more than ‘permit’ opposition.

        • Tony says:

          From Australia Incognita:

          And there is also the old maxim: Rome has spoken, the case is closed!

          Could you imagine how this kind of attitude would play out in Australia with regard to the recent Carbon Tax Framework? ‘Canberra has spoken, the case is closed’!!

          The time for debate was before the final decisions were made.

          Really? Where were the forums? Where were the mechanisms that encouraged a wide-ranging debate?

          • Schütz says:

            Tony, what are you doing? Do you need reminding that I am the host of this table you are sitting at, not Kate? If you wish to debate Kate’s comments – made on her blog not mine – please go and do so there and not here.

            Now if you have an issue with the points I make I’m MY post, I would be glad to discuss it.

            • Tony says:


              I would not have made mention of Kate’s blog had you not introduced it in your original post. It seemed to me that it was relevant to the point I was making which, in turn, was a response to your original post.

              I have no intention of conducting some sort of proxy exchange with another blog.

              I understand that this can be a grey area and that I may have overstepped the boundary, but I’m not sure why you are coming on so strong.

          • Bear says:


            many, many Canberra bureaucrats certainly believe ‘Canberra has spoken, the case is closed’!!! This also includes our esteemed Kate.

            Unfortunately, it is a vice of all administrators to assume that they have the best judgment (okay, it is a vice of ALL of us, including me). But bureaucrats generally do not like debate – it makes their jobs much harder. This is coupled with the fact that it is easier to assert from authority rather than go through all the hassle of arguing the case and demonstrating points – particularly, when the argument is dubious or weak.

            And yes, the language of the liturgy is a largely prudential matter, rather than one about faith and morals. And in the spirit of St. Augustine, we should allow for a range of opinions, debate and discussion in this rather important matter.

            The question of translations is a rather technical one also – and the contributions of linguistic professionals is useful.

            So I do not have a problem with the bishops providing such a forum – it is just what they do with the contributions….

            • Schütz says:

              I think it would be true to say that never in the history of liturgical translation (or perhaps any kind of translation) has the “consultation” been so broad.

              Compare, for eg., how much consultation went into the Book of Common Prayer? It was translated by one man, and its use was enforced by a King. For all the unhappiness of the latter part of that process, one has to say that Cranmar (leaving out the innovations and subtractions in the book itself) did a very beautiful job of rendering the Latin into English, as can be demonstrated by the fact that the BCP remained in use with minimal changes for 400 years (and is still used, here and there). Actually, there is some wisdom in having just one translator in such a project – at least the style is consistent and true poetry can’t be voted out by a committee.

              Compare too, for eg., Luther’s translation of the German bible – it was also a one man show, but became an instant classic that formed the German language. Much the same as the King James Version did (although that was the work of a committee) for English.

              As other commentators have pointed out, consulting every priest and every parishioner on every word and phrase of the translation was simply impossible. So the Church consulted as widely as was both possible and necessary. It was necessary that those who have actual responsibility for liturgy in every Church have a say, ie. the Bishops. It was also possible to consult these people through the structure of the Bishops Conferences. Every bishop who is required to impliment this new translation was also consulted about it in the process of its being put together. A sort of “democratic” process was used to determine the final outcome – the voting of bishops is an ancient and time honoured way of going about such matters. And many bishops (knowing their own limitations in this area) consulted experts and trusted priests and laypeople.

              In the end, the product was not, I think, as happy as Cranmar’s BCP, whose English the German Lutherans in Australia and America generally adopted rather than create entirely new texts. Basically, before ICEL, there was Cranmar. Someone on this blog asked why on earth we didn’t just accept the going English translations back in 1970. In fact, I have a story to tell about this. I know someone who was on the Lutheran Hymnbook committee of 1972. They told me that that committee actually wrote to Lambeth Palace to ask whether the BCP language was going to be retained in the forseeable future, and received the answer yes. The result was that I grew up praying the BCP collects and Gloria and Sanctus and the rest. Of course, then the Anglicans world wide adopted ICEL – or at least the version of ICEL produced by the English Language in the Liturgy Consultation (ELLC) in “Prayers we have in Common”. I still think that Cranmar’s Gloria is rather better than the new Roman Missal translation, but there it is…

              Engough of this grumbling about consultation, eh? There is no proof that it would have given us a better translation than the one we are getting. (And for the record, at least this time the Bishops of the English speaking world WERE consulted, unlike last time…).

            • Tony says:

              You are right, of course, it’s not easy.

              As I understand it, in our dio the priests have had some sessions to familiarise themselves with the new words. I believe the reactions have been positive.

              Next there will be some sort of deanery-level meetings and then parishes will organise some sort of pre-launch meetings.

              I don’t have a strong view about how consultations could have happened better before the decisions were actually made, but there are certainly mechanisms that could work.

            • Terra says:

              I’m an ex-bureaucrat Bear, not a current one!

              And the experience just enhanced my understanding of how processes properly work, when the line has to be drawn. It certainly didn’t lead me to conclude anything great about the value of judgments of said persons!

        • Schütz says:

          You must think me, not to mention the Pope, a complete idiot, Tony, that I am unable to draw the obvious lines of conclusion that you do and that I cannot see the inherent contradiction in my position.

          On the contrary, it is again you who are playing thick. Democracy is a form of civil government, regarded by the Church as a most fitting (not necessarily the only fitting) form of government because of its congruence with human nature and dignity.

          However, forms appropriate to the State are not necessarily appropriate for other corporate bodies. The Church has never taught that democracy was the most appropriate form for the life of the Family, nor for Economic units such as businesses, nor for private associations or clubs, nor for Religious bodies, and certainly not for the Church .

          Thus the Church does not defend a child’s democratic right to disobey his parents, nor does she defend the employee who is sacked for disobeying his employer. Such bodies are not State civil societies.

          This isn’t inconsistency – it is, rather, making distinctions of kind, nature and purpose. Those who know Aquinas will probably be able to cite something relevant. It sounds like the kind of thing he would have dealt with.

          By the way, would it be too much to plead that you stick to the topic at hand and not go down this rabbit hole? After all, as I said, it was Kate’s point, not mine – I was just agreeing with her.

          • Tony says:

            You must think me, not to mention the Pope, a complete idiot, Tony, that I am unable to draw the obvious lines of conclusion that you do and that I cannot see the inherent contradiction in my position.

            I’m doing my best to see how the world sees the church given that the church is one voice that wants to tell the world that democracy is good especially in the context of people dying for that good.

            The resolution of the inherent contradiction may be obvious to you, but I don’t think it is to the world especially the democratic world. If the church wants the world to listen to what it says about human nature and dignity, then I think it needs to explain this contradiction.

            I don’t think that’s a particularly offensive or ‘thick’ thing to say.

            • Schütz says:

              The resolution of the inherent contradiction may be obvious to you, but I don’t think it is to the world especially the democratic world. If the church wants the world to listen to what it says about human nature and dignity, then I think it needs to explain this contradiction.

              Well, I might “think with the Church” but I am not the Church, Tony. The Church is doing nothing wrong, there is no “inherent contradition”, though it may appear to be so. Perhaps you should write to someone who IS “the Church”?

  2. Terra says:

    You are right of course David about the misguided thrust of the actual content of the argument.

    I guess I read too many US blogs where much of this stuff was endlessly spouted in the context of fairly transparent US Bishops’ Conference discussions and votes on the Missal and so am a bit inured to it!

    But this is the sell period for the new missal so your defense of the language approach is timely…

    And I fully agree with your points on why democracy is not always (or even often!) appropriate.

  3. Gareth says:

    the bleating obvious – it would not have been practically possible for every single parish to sit around and discuss the new translastion as if affects millions of people.

    The arrogant refusal to accept them on a positive note proves just that.

    I think one would find there was more collobaration that one thinks.

  4. “It is the language of love, of poetry, of adoration, of desire, of passion.”

    And of propitiation, once upon a time. Another ‘dead’ word as far as the Novus Ordo Missæ is concerned, in its Typical Editions and hence in any of its vernacular translations.

    • Schütz says:

      Really, Reg? Could you please give us an example, eg. of where the word “propitiate” is used in the Extraordinary form but not in the Ordinary Form?

      • The Sacrifice is explicitly described as a sacrificium propitabile–a “propitiatory sacrifice”–in the Placeat tibi, and elsewhere too (though I don’t have time to give the references), and the concept is clearly implicit in the Offertory and throughout the Mass. It is nowhere to be found in the N.O.M., however.

  5. Matthias says:

    David the Church growth Movement within protestantism i think has died- thank heavens – but left us with it’s children-Hillsong and Rob Bell’s MARS HILL BIBLE CHURCh and Rick warren in the USA.
    I recall singing with you at your Church a Taisze hymn of course in Latin , and I found it far more uplifting to sing than some of the hymns i have been singing.

  6. PM says:

    I couldn’t improve on anything you’ve said. But on your distinction between the language of conveying information (the plonking statement, as Herbert McCabe called it) and the language of worship (which is the language of a lover), I thought I might pass on an observation on the 1973 translation by Nicholas Lash. In treating us as too dim to cope with relative clauses, it makes the collects, offertory and communion prayers, and parts of the eucharistic prayers, faintly ridiculous by purporting to give God information about Himself (‘Lord, you have….’), as if He needed us to tell Him.

    Paradoxically, we may have ended up in our present pickle by not being ecumenical enough. The 1973 ‘translators’ resolutely ignored 400 years’ experience of englishing the liturgy, and I suspect a sectarian chip on the shoulder had something to do with it. (In the course of his demolition of the 1973 translation, Eamon Duffy points out that Cranmer’s translations of the Roman Missal are generally much better.)

    I suspect also that the pelagianising tendency of the 1973 version had something to do with an unconscious sectarian assumptions that talking of the primacy of grace over human achievement was somehow ‘Protestant’. (It is, of course, sound Catholic doctrine, but the ordinary pew-sitter of 1950 may not have been very clear on that. I liked the tongue-in-cheek title of a lecture I saw advertised for the Year of St Paul: ‘Was Paul a Catholic?’)

    • Schütz says:

      As I said in another comment, I too think it a pity that Cranmar’s voice was not given a place at the table in the new translation.

      • PM says:

        A further thought on the relationship with Anglican liturgy. The priest’s part of the new Mass translation will require not a reversion to the ‘pre-Vatican II’ ars celebrandi (which for many of us was a monotone muttered at speed in an Irish accent), but a more consciously declamatory and ‘Anglican’ style with attention to pitch, phrasing and pauses. A visit to a well-conducted choral evensong could be part of the training.

  7. Jim Ryland says:

    A “dead language” is one that is no longer “alive” and in use. It has taken a lot of patience over the years to explain to choirs (and many clergy) that Latin is a “static language” and therefore a perfect tool for conveying thoughts and expressions in a manner less sullied by modern connotation than a current evolving tongue.

    PM is spot-on. Language has two functions, one to communicate and one to express or evoke. Liturgical Latin (I detest the misnomer “Vulgate”) falls into the second category along with poetry although they are not quite the same. The form predates the church by centuries and every soul in the Latin world knew that when it was spoken, it addressed the divine.

    • Schütz says:

      Thanks for that term, “static” language, Jim. A good distinction!

      • Jim Ryland says:


        I agree with your above comments on the language of the BCP. The Elizabethan era also had its sacred form of the language, not that of ordinary commerce and not quite Shakespeare and Spencer. The works of Myles Coverdale and Andrew Wycliffe are elegant, evocative, and most definitely worshipful. The Cranmer Communion Service is also lovely but, whether by choice or by political pressure, he has skewed some texts in a manner that appears to appease the reformers to the North.

        The Book of Divine Worship used in Anglican Rite Roman Catholic parishes in the States is basically the BCP Service with a bit of tweaking to make the Canon conform to the Roman standard. It’s not perfect but all the meat is there and the potatoes of Matins, Evensong, Compline, and the Coverdale Psaltry survive quite nicely. The 39 Articles are not to be found ;-). It is interesting to see the growth of these parishes, not so much from disaffected Episcopalians as from attendance by other RCC parishioners who have discovered the beauty and the dignity of the BCP Mass.

        It will be interesting to see if that authorized celebration influences the larger church. Some say that it already has via the rework of the Novus Ordo ICEL. The Vatican, long dominated by Italians, shunned anything that reminded them of the Tudor fiasco. Having a few popes from other regions has perhaps opened their eyes a bit as it concerns Anglo-Saxon worship, at one time a very dominant face on the Church.

        The Ordinariates may further the cause, hopefully with great strength, in Australia. .

  8. Michael Root says:

    If you want to news each week in Latin, you can read it or listen to it at Nuntii Latini – http://yle.fi/radio1/tiede/nuntii_latini/. Granted, the reading is in a Latin with a heavy Finnish accent!

  9. Matthias says:

    To those who think Latin is a dead language all I can say is ‘Nil Sphincterati toleratum”

  10. Louise says:

    … (as in what’s a Bishops’ Conference sponsored website doing hosting such open opposition?) …

    Actually, I don’t think that’s a big problem as far as the liturgy is concerned. I think it’s okay for people to be vocal in their opposition on this issue. Belloc noted that “controversy [is] the mother of all truth” and we have to be careful to distinguish between the things Catholics are bound to receive as true and binding and those things we aren’t. This is not to say that I wish the people in opposition to this reform wouldn’t pipe down, but I don’t think I can agree that they shouldn’t be allowed to say it.

    Having said that, I agree that the new translation will be a vast improvement and one can only hope that music, vestments and art will follow suit.

    • Louise says:

      David, I’ve just found your earlier remark:

      It is one thing to permit dissent, Tony. It is another thing to give it a soap box, a megaphone and a pat on the back!

      Except that this might be one of those occasions where dissent amonng the bishops is okay. I’m thinking more of how things ought to have been when the new Mass was thrust upon everyone. That’s all.

  11. Susan Peterson says:

    In light of the silly comment about not being a mystery religion….

    In the rite of St. John Chrysostom the communicants say “Accept my today as a partaker in your mystical supper, oh Lord, for I will not reveal your mysteries to your enemies, nor will I give you a kiss as did Judas, but like the thief I profess to you, remember me, O Lord, when You come into Your Kingdom. ”

    Susan Peterson

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