IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Facts on Latin in the Roman Catholic Church

A new Vatican document instructs bishops around the world to reintroduce the old Latin mass abandoned in the late 1960s if traditionalist Catholics in their areas request it.
/ Source: Reuters

A new Vatican document instructs bishops around the world to reintroduce the old Latin mass abandoned in the late 1960s if traditionalist Catholics in their areas request it.

Pope Benedict first issued a decree to that effect three years ago but the so-called Tridentine mass is still quite rare in Catholic churches, where a modern mass in the local language is the norm and will continue to be the standard liturgy.

Here are some details on how Latin has been used in the Catholic Church and Pope Benedict's efforts to support it.

* FROM GREEK TO LATIN: Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic, a language close to Hebrew, and the evangelists wrote the Gospels in Greek, lingua franca of the Mediterranean area at the time. Christians in Rome adopted Latin and it became the Church's language in the fourth century. Saint Jerome's Bible translation into Latin is called the Vulgate because it used common (or "vulgar") Latin.

With Scripture in Latin, the Church adopted the Roman tongue for its mass everywhere. This continued even as the use of everyday spoken Latin slowly declined over the centuries and successor languages such as Italian, Spanish and French emerged.

* THE TRIDENTINE MASS: The Council of Trent (1545-1563) codified the Latin mass from earlier liturgies and approved the Roman Missal used from 1570 until the mid-1960s. The priest celebrated mass with his back to the congregation, which prayed silently or followed the Latin prayers in books called missals. This is the "Tridentine mass" which is often referred to as the "old Latin mass."

* REFORMS OF THE SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL: The Council (1962- 1965) allowed the use of vernacular languages at mass. Latin was not meant to be fully scrapped, but it was quickly abandoned by local churches. The pontifical universities in Rome, where many future Church leaders are educated, stopped teaching in Latin in 1967. This decision eventually all but dried up the small pool of priests who could actually speak the dead language.

* THE "MASS OF POPE PAUL VI" UPDATE: In 1969, Pope Paul VI issued an updated version of the mass that made significant changes such as turning the priest toward the people, simplifying the rituals and using more Scriptural readings. The pope says this modern mass in Latin at the Vatican and it is celebrated in vernacular languages around the world. Traditionalist Catholics reject this mass as less spiritual and aesthetic than the Tridentine mass.

* SYMBOLISM OF LATIN: Restoring Latin became a rallying point for traditionalists. It was one of several differences that the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) group of priests had with the Vatican that led to the excommunication of their four bishops in 1988. Pope John Paul tried to head off that split with a declaration in 1984 authorizing bishops to allow the Latin mass to be celebrated occasionally. Traditionalists complained that few bishops agreed to allow this.


Unlike almost all other Catholic leaders, Pope Benedict is fluent in Latin and has long supported greater use of it. In 2007, he issued a decree allowing wider use of the Latin mass. Traditionalists cheered but many bishops were still reluctant or opposed and many priests no longer knew how to celebrate it.

Benedict's determination to bring back some traditional elements in the Church led to a major row in 2009 when he lifted the excommunication ban on the four SSPX bishops, including one -- Richard Williamson -- who is a known Holocaust denier. This caused an uproar among many Catholics and Jews as well as some politicians in his native Germany. The pope later said he would not have lifted Williamson's ban if he had known his views.

The Vatican and the SSPX have been holding doctrinal discussions to reintegrate the ultra-traditionalists into the Church, but they have reportedly made little progress because the SSPX rejects several other Vatican Council reforms.


The number of Latin masses celebrated around the world has been rising since 2007, but only slowly and from a tiny base. A recent report by Una Voce, an international pro-Latin group, said most growth was in the United States, Britain and France with bishops in developing countries -- where a growing majority of Catholics lives -- showing little or no interest. It sent the Vatican a confidential list of bishops it said were not complying with the decree to allow the Latin mass more often.

On May 13, 2011, the Vatican issued a directive reminding bishops they must allow celebration of the Latin mass and giving the Vatican the power to decide any disputes if traditionalists claim their bishop is blocking the use of the old liturgy. Source: Reuters/