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The New Testament was originally written in Greek. But yet Roman Catholics held Mass in Latin for hundreds of years.

What scriptural evidence, if any, caused Latin to be picked over Greek?

Was any scriptural reasoning used to defend keeping the Mass in Latin for so long? What are the reasons?

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The evolution of the Latin Rite as we know it today does not necessarily come from Sacred Scripture as much as it does ecclesiastical functionality.

As The Roman Rite aritcle at The Catholic Encyclopedia puts it:

The Roman Rite was adopted throughout the West because the local bishops, sometimes kings or emperors, felt that they could not do better than use the rite of the chief bishop of all, at Rome. And this imitation of Roman liturgical practice brought about in the West the application of the principle (long admitted in the East) that rite should follow patriarchate.

Apart from his universal primacy, the pope had always been unquestioned Patriarch of the West. It was then the right and normal thing that the West should use his liturgy.

The Church does, as it always has, teach that the the Greek language used by the New Testament writers is the inspired "language" chosen by God to reveal his Truth. Prior to the invention of the printing press only about 10% of the population could read. This number dropped even lower with the advent of the "dark" ages initiated by the Barbarian invasions and the fall of Rome.

The New Testament as we know it was not officially canonized until A.D. 397 with the ratifying approval of Pope Damasus. By this date the Mass had already been celebrated in and around Rome for over 300+ years prior. St. Jerome was commissioned by Pope Damasus to translate the newly canonized Greek texts into Latin so that more people could understand the New Testament texts. This is the same reason why the King James/Douay-Rheims editions have been translated into the more universally spoken English language of today.

(See Canon of the New Testament from The Catholic Encyclopedia.)

Keep in mind that the Eastern Catholic (and also Greek Orthodox) churches have all along used Greek in all of their liturgies and rituals to this day. It is arguable that the language chasm that existed between the East and West is what ultimately lead to the East-West Schism.

Later, during the Reformation period, the Council of Trent was convened to address and severely condemn the rampant abuses that had crept into the Church's liturgies, as well as respond to the Reformers. The Council led to the solidification of the Tridentine Mass, which was celebrated universally in the Western Latin Rite for over 400 years until Vatican II. Elements of the Tridentine Mass still exist in the "Novus Ordo" liturgy, which uses both Latin and the vernacular of the local region (i.e. English, German, French, or Spanish).

(See Reforms of the Council of Trent.)

Latin's superiority and precision is 2nd only to Greek in the history of languages. Perhaps this is why the Holy Spirit chose Greek for divine revelation. This is also why the Catholic Church was hesitant to translate the Bible into English from Latin. English is more likely to be manipulated to misrepresent meanings conveyed. Latin is more pure than English. Greek, however, is the purest of all languages.

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    Aha! Sources! This is a fabulous answer, and an amazing first answer. Needless to say, welcome to C.Se, and thank you! This is great! Normally, I tell people to check out our tour, but it looks like you already have! – Affable Geek Aug 2 '13 at 3:16
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    For "Nova Sorto" you may have meant Novus Ordo ("New Order"). Good answer though. +1. – Andrew Leach Aug 2 '13 at 8:03
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    An interesting side bar on how Latin allegedly led to other divisions too: "Jerome's Latin Vulgate (Rome's official New Testament translation) was seriously flawed in a number of places and influenced the church for the worse. For instance, the Greek verb "to justify" (dikaiooo), a courtroom term meaning 'to declare righteous in the sight of the law,' was translated by the Latin verb justificare, which meant 'to make righteous.'" (cont) – metal Aug 7 '13 at 20:18
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    (cont) "According to the former, an instant verdict is issued. According to the latter, something bad is gradually made good. In the Renaissance, humanists such as Erasmus pointed this out, and although they never actually joined the Reformation cause, their brilliant linguistic acumen cut a path for the Reformers." -- Michael Horton, "Evangelicals, Catholics, and Unity" – metal Aug 7 '13 at 20:18
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    @metal I wonder what Horton would say about the Orthodox churches, who have never used the Vulgate but still have a sacrament of penance/confession and also reject a forensic understanding of justification. – Ben Dunlap Aug 8 '13 at 15:22
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I don't think that there really is any scriptural reason for using Latin as the official language of the Church.

However, the Church has been located in Rome since St. Peter was crucified there in about 64 A.D. In Ancient Rome, the language that was the official language was that of Latin.

The reason Mass has been said in Latin for so long is that it is the official language of the Church, even if it is no longer the official language of Rome.

  • Thank you for your answer. That was what I had anticipated but was curious is there was more to it than just the local language and tradition being reasons behind Latin. – TronicZomB Aug 1 '13 at 21:52
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While formulating this question I found this reading that helped me answer one of my questions, why the church had retained one single language across the world for so long.

The scriptural reasoning that was used to defend keeping the Mass in one language, Latin, for so long was Genesis 11:7, The story of the Tower of Babel.

Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another's speech.”

Since different languages was punishment because of sinning against God, the Church wanted to do away with sin and therefore different languages.

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    I think this is a spurious reference. If you could find a theologian who advanced this hypothesis, I'd gladly upvote you (and probably throw in a bounty), but as it stands, I don't think this is indicative of anything historical. – Affable Geek Aug 2 '13 at 3:15
  • @AffableGeek Thank you for your comment. I will work on researching this further to find out if a theologian has put this hypothesis forward before. – TronicZomB Aug 2 '13 at 12:36
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    This is an interesting point of view--one which I've never heard or thought of before, but if it isn't one of the actual reasons why the Catholic Church standardized on Latin, it isn't really an answer to this particular question. – Steven Doggart Aug 2 '13 at 18:11
  • @AffableGeek After a little more research, the author, if it is the same person, is a Father that was "ordained in 2005 at Holy Cross Seminary, Goulburn, Australia". Still searching for more info. – TronicZomB Aug 3 '13 at 0:16
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The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: Dogmatically, Liturgically and Ascetically Explained (1902) by Fr. Nikolaus Gihr writes in the first footnote of §32, "The Language Used in the Celebration of the Holy Mass" (p. 319-328):

Whether the Apostles celebrated the Holy Sacrifice in the language of each individual nation or only in the Aramean (Syro-Chaldaic), Greek and Latin languages cannot be determined with certainty. In any case, from the first four centuries no liturgy can be shown composed in any other than the three languages of the inscription of the Cross [i.e., Hebrew, Greek, Latin]. In the West, for example, in Italy, in Germany, in Spain, in France, in England, Latin was at all times the liturgical language. Toward the end of the ninth century Pope John VIII. (872-882) permitted the Moravian Slavs, converted by Sts. Cyril and Methodius, to celebrate the liturgy in their (Slavonic or Glagolitic) native language, and that probably in order to prevent their apostasy to the Greek Schism. In the East also the Church later on permitted some schismatics and heretics, who had returned to the unity of the Church (for instance, the Copts, Armenians, Ethiopians), to retain their native language in the liturgy.

Fr. Adrian Fortescue's 1917 The Mass: A Study in the Roman Liturgy says, in §3 "Latin as a Liturgical Language" of the ch. "The Origin of the Roman Rite," that (p. 126-127):

Latin was apparently first used by Christians in Africa. Pope Victor I (190-202), who was an African, is generally quoted as the first Roman to use it.³ Novatian (c. 251) writes in Latin; since about the third century this becomes the usual and then the only language spoken by Christians at Rome. When it replaced Greek in Church is disputed. Kattenbusch dates it as the liturgical the second half of the third century,⁴ Watterich,⁵ Probst⁶ and Rietschel⁷ think that Greek was used till the end of the fourth century. In any case the process was a gradual one. Both languages must have beenused side by side during a fairly long period of transition. A certain Marius Victorinus Africanus, writin about 360 in Latin, still quotes a liturgical prayer in Greek.¹ The Bible existed only in the Greek Septuagint for some time.² The lessons were read in Greek at Rome, at any rate on some days, till the VIIIth century;³ some psalms were sung in Greek at the same time.⁴ Amalarius of Metz⁵ († c. 857) and Pseudo-Alcuin⁶ still mention Greek forms. The creed at baptism may be said in either Greek or Latin, at the convert's discretion, according to the Gelasian Sacramentary.⁷ But our present Greek fragments⁸ are later interpolations.

By at least the 12th century, the Latin language in the Roman (i.e., Latin) Rite was most widely used, and, as Fr. Gihr writes (p. 319-320), it was attacked by heretics and schismatics:

The Mass considered in itself could assuredly be celebrated in any language, but by the Providence of God the Latin language has become, and still continues to be of all languages the most widely diffused for divine worship.² The very ancient practice of the Church of celebrating Mass in the West, not in the living language of the country, but in a dead language, that is, in Latin, for the most part a language unintelligible to the people, has since the twelfth century to the present epoch been frequently made the subject of attack.

Between the 12th century and the Council of Trent, there were some oddities or abuses like half-Latin, half-vernacular sequences (cf. Fortescue p. 275), but the Council of Trent curtailed these by saying (Session 22, can. 9):

Canon IX.—If anyone saith, … that the mass ought to be celebrated in the vulgar tongue only… let him be anathema.

Regarding homilies: These are meant for the instruction of the faithful, and thus they were in the vernacular.

For the most recent scholarship on this topic, see:

International Federation Una Voce (FIUV)'s position paper:

FIUV is an international organization promoting the pre-Vatican II Roman Rite Mass in Latin.

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The Church in the first millennium comprised five ancient Sees, of which Rome was only one. There other four were Alexandria, Constantinople, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Their jurisdictions were defined in the canons of the 1st and 2nd Ecumenical Councils.

Greek was the language of the eastern Sees, Latin the language of the Roman see. So naturally the Roman See used Latin and the rest of the Church used Greek.

Even though the eastern Patriarchates are today much diminished in size, all but Antioch still cling to Greek as their official ecclesiastical languages.

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