Monday, January 15, 2007

Latin and the Wedding Feast of Christ the Bridegroom

Homily for the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Second in a series of three homilies on the Liturgy

Isaiah 62: 1-5
Psalm 96: 1-2, 2-3, 7-8, 9-10
1 Cor. 12: 4-11
John 2: 1-11

In our Psalm response a few minutes ago, we sang "Proclaim his marvelous deeds to all the nations", and we heard the cantor sing in the first verse:
Sing to the Lord a new song;
Sing to the Lord, all you lands.
Sing to the Lord, bless His name.

That, my brothers and sisters, is precisely what happens in the liturgy: Every time we gather here to celebrate Mass, the marvelous deeds of the Lord are proclaimed to all the world, to every creature. Every time I offer the sacrifice of the Mass, we sing the new song of the Lord, for we are singing, we are praying, the prayer of Christ himself, offered by and through His church.

And the marvelous deeds of God, the saving work of Christ, is not only proclaimed in word, but it is actually made present to us here and now. We are made present at the eternal sacrifice of Christ which was offered at Calvary and the Last Supper. Heaven comes to us on earth, so that we may be lifted up into the very life of heaven.

And all of us are invited, are called, to share in this proclamation, this making present, of the saving work of God. For we all, as members of the Body of Christ, participate in Christ's offering of Himself to the Father. That is what St. Paul is getting at in our second reading from his letter to the Corinthians. He tells us that there are different kinds of gifts, given to each of us, but they are all given by the same Spirit. We serve in different ways, but we all serve the same Lord. Indeed, we all have our part to play in the offering of the Holy Liturgy, whether we have any formal role or not. Indeed, there is no such thing as "just" attending Mass. There is no such thing as "just" attending Mass because each of us is united, in and through the church, to this offering. We are all presented to the Father by Christ in the Mass.

So the church, wanting to draw us more deeply into this offering of the sacrifice of Christ, has always had two major concerns. One of these concerns is that the liturgy be in some sense accessible, understandable, to us, so that we can consciously participate in this offering. Another concern is that we are always faithful to the Tradition that has been handed down to us by Christ through the apostles. The church has been entrusted with the sacraments, with the liturgy, by Christ: she must be a faithful guardian and steward of the great treasure she have been given. The church wants to be sure that the faith we hold is the same faith we have received from the apostles. She wants to be sure that the Eucharist we celebrate is the same Eucharist that Christ gave the apostles at the Last Supper.

These two concerns are not opposed to each other, but they must be balanced. And that is where the history lesson comes in:

Now, we all know that at Vatican II, the council fathers decreed that the Mass be made available in the languages of the people, the vernacular. The council fathers decided that the liturgy would be more accessible if it was available to us in our own languages. So the Holy See entrusted the bishops of each land the task of translating the prayers of the Mass into their own language: French, Spanish, German, English, and the rest.

So far so good. The American bishops set up a commission of experts to translate the Mass into English. And when it was ready, we started having Mass in English. But something else happened as well: In most places in our country, not only was English introduced, but, almost overnight, the Latin was thrown out entirely. Those of you who are old enough to remember may recall this. I was only a child at the time, but I have heard from some of those who were old enough to remember that in some places people literally went to Mass one Sunday and it was in Latin, and the next Sunday they went and it was in English. And the Latin, all of the prayers and the Tradition that went along with it, disappeared almost overnight.

But the problem is that that was never the intent of the council fathers; that was never the intent of the church. Indeed, the documents of Vatican II say as much. The ushers have handed out a pamphlet to you that I made up, on Latin and the Liturgy. On the first page, right in front, you'll see I have quoted from Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Liturgy of Vatican II. It says:
The use of the Latin language... is to be preserved in the Latin rites.

(By the way, we belong to the Latin or Roman rite of the Church, as opposed to the Eastern or Greek rites.) The council fathers go on to say:
Nevertheless care must be taken to ensure that the faithful may also be able to say or sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.

So you see, the church never intended for us to get rid of Latin. The church meant for us for us to have both English and Latin, not either one or the other. And since then, our popes have urged us to hold on to our Latin tradition. Each pope since the council has encouraged the use of Latin in the liturgy. In the pamphlet you have been given I have included some statements of the popes and recent bishops about the use of Latin in the liturgy. They have reminded our bishops and ourselves that Latin is part of our heritage as Catholics, that it is a sign of unity for the church, not just for the church of today, but the church as she has been down through the ages.

And so it is. When we pray the Mass in Latin, we are praying in the very same words used by countless saints and martyrs down through the ages. We are singing the very same chants and hymns that were sung by millions upon millions who have gone before us, and are now praising God in heaven. The use of Latin unites us to them in a particularly literal way. Let's remember as well that thousands upon thousands of martyrs through the centuries died for those words, and for the faith that those words represent and communicate.

We must cling to, hold fast to, our Latin tradition because it is our heritage; it is where we have come from as a people. As my friend Mark Shea described it, if we forget who we are, if we forget where we have come from, it is a kind of suicide. A people who forgets is a people in danger of extinction.

Over the last decade or so, the urgings and warnings of our popes have started to take hold among our bishops, priests and many laypeople, and a movement has emerged to recover and restore our tradition of Latin in the liturgy. It has been growing for some time, and more and more parishes have been taking part in this movement. You have all seen in recent months that we have been using Latin more in the liturgy here. Some people have asked me, "Why are we doing this? They aren't doing this in other parishes." Well, it all depends on what other parishes you're going to. I know that they've been using Latin in some liturgies at the cathedral for a long time now. At St. Charles in Coldwater, Fr. Brian Stanley has been leading his parish in this direction. Last month I had lunch with another pastor, and we talked about his plans for re-introducing Latin at his parish. Parishes are going in this direction because this is what the church is asking of us. And it's not new, because in fact this is what the church has always asked of us.

It's important to stay in contact with our Latin heritage for another reason. You'll recall, as I said a few minutes ago, that the bishops of this country were entrusted with the task of translating the Mass into English. And they felt they needed to do it very quickly, because they wanted to make the Mass available to people in our own language. Now, who can tell me what can happen when you do something in a hurry? [a pause, then someone says] "You make mistakes". That's right, you make mistakes. And that's what happened when they translated the Mass into English.

[Going over to a lectern and picking up a large book...] You've probably noticed this large book up here at the front of the Church. This is the Missale Romanum editio typica. Now, I know that's a mouthful, but this book is the official Latin missal for the whole church. This is the church's official Latin edition of all the prayers of the Mass. And every version in the languages of the people is supposed to be a faithful, accurate translation of this book. The problem is that the book we've been using isn't always accurate. The pamphlet you've been given provides some examples of the inaccuracies in our current translation of the Mass.

Now the translation we've been using was intended to be temporary, and the church moves slowly. It should give you an idea of how slowly when you realize that "temporary", in this case, means thirty years! But the bishops began to realize a while back that there was a problem, and the Holy See started insisting that they do something about it. So, after many years of debate, last summer the bishops approved the first in a round of corrections and changes to the prayers of the Mass. For example, when we say the Confiteor, instead of saying "I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault...", we'll say "...I have sinned greatly...through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault". I notice some of you older folks nodding your heads. You're remembering what we used to say in the old Mass before Vatican II. Well, the fact is that the church never changed those words in the new Mass, but somehow they got left out of the English. So now the bishops are fixing that, and some other things. We'll probably start seeing these changes take effect in the next year or two. After Mass, the ushers will give you a handout with excerpts from a Catholic News Service article which talks about some of these changes in more detail.

Ultimately ,what these changes, and the movement to recover the Latin tradition of the Church, is all about is faithfulness: Faithfulness to the great treasure we have received. Faithfulness to the liturgy by which we are made present at and participate in the great eternal sacrifice of Christ.

Our gospel today tells of the wedding feast at Cana. The Church Fathers saw the wedding feast at Cana as a prefiguring, an anticipation, of the wedding feast of Christ the bridegroom and his bride, the Church. And we celebrate this eternal banquet of the Lamb every time we gather with the priest to celebrate the Mass. Christ eternally offers the sacrifice of Himself for his bride the church, and in the Eucharist this sacrifice is made present to us here and now. We have been invited to enter into, to take part in, this sacrifice. By being faithful to what we have received from the apostles, by being faithful to what the church offers us, we will indeed be drawn into this sacrifice, we will indeed find our place at this, the eternal banquet of Christ the Lamb, the Bridegroom, the High Priest.