Thursday, July 27, 2006

Whose Vernacular?

TULSA, Okla. (CNS) -- When Bishop Edward J. Slattery of Tulsa met with 60 Anglo parishioners of Sts. Peter and Paul Church over a potluck dinner in late June, he told them he had come to listen.

He got an earful, and he issued some blunt rebukes in response.

Many of the English-speaking parishioners -- some of whom were founding members of the 55-year-old parish in Tulsa -- said they have felt "a sense of disruption" since Father Tim Davison arrived as pastor two and a half years ago and intensified efforts to reach out to the growing Hispanic community within the parish.

As a result, some Anglo parishioners feel unappreciated and unloved, they told Bishop Slattery.

Their discontent boiled over this spring when Bishop Slattery came to confirm young people from Sts. Peter and Paul and St. Thomas More parishes and celebrated the Mass mostly in Spanish. Some people walked out, and the family of at least one confirmand left the parish over the incident…
From Catholic World News – read the whole article here.

I have sympathies for both “sides” in this issue. I’d certainly get mightily irritated if Fr. Len at St. Francis started doing the Eucharist in a foreign language. On the other hand, if you have a majority of parishioners who don’t speak English, you certainly need to address their needs.

In the case of St. Francis, I think the case could be made that, since it’s an Anglican Church, English is the proper liturgical language for use in an English-speaking country unless there are pressing reasons to use another. The Church of, say, Nigeria, as an independent organization, is free to choose its own language(s) for liturgical use.

In the case of the Catholic Church, which is a worldwide organization without national boundaries, I think this is an example of the intrinsic problem of having the Mass in “the vernacular.” Whose vernacular? In this particular case in the USA, the Anglos can claim primacy of culture while the Hispanics can claim, I assume, primacy of numbers. You can’t have the service in the language of the people when the people have two different languages – somebody wins, and somebody gets left out. Doing it half-and-half is even worse and confuses everyone.

When I was a kid, the (Latin Rite) Catholic Church had a universal liturgical language – Latin. The Church went to great pains to catechize the local populations in the meaning of the different parts of the mass and in the responses. Wherever Catholic secondary education was available, Latin was taught with the (usually unstated) goal that the liturgy of the Universal Church would be universally understood, independent of cultural background. I can’t help thinking it was a mistake to throw that away.

I certainly have no intrinsic issue with services in the local language. I do, however, think that the exclusive use of the vernacular is not an effective means for increased inclusion in a global body. As in the case above, the regional language is a major determinant of regional power and control that cannot help but include some and exclude others. Universal entities need something more, well, universal. Alexander understood that, and made Greek the common language of the Eastern Mediterranean world for centuries to come. Rome understood that, and made both Latin and Greek the universal tongues of empire. I think the Church has forgotten the lesson. A Latin Mass would have kept the article above from ever having to be written. Preventing such an easily-foreseeable conflict strikes me as a matter of simple charity.