Christine Mohrmann and Sacral Language

[Following are excerpts from a series of recent posts by Fr. John Hunwicke on his blog. I’ve tried to remove allusions to current liturgical controversies in favor of allowing Christine Morhmann’s research to speak for itself, free from the turmoil of the moment.]

Here is a narrative which I think is often at least implicit:

“In the Early Church, Worship was always in the same everyday language that common people used all the time. So, in Rome, as soon as Greek became less common as a language, Latin, the prevailing vernacular, replaced it. Sadly, as the centuries passed, Latin in turn became incomprehensible to most. So, happily, the Second Vatican Council decreed that all worship should be in the vernacular again. And in the simplest possible language so that the greatest number of people could understand it. Because this would serve the cause of Active Participation.”

You are waiting impatiently to explain to me that the last three sentences represent a complete travesty of what Vatican II decreed. Well done. But I think it is important to understand that the whole of this narrative is completely erroneous, and constitutes a deception. One of the greatest scholars of the twentieth century was a Dutch Classicist called Christine Mohrmann. In a long series of articles and books in all the main European languages, she demonstrated that Liturgical Latin (and, indeed, Liturgical Greek) were never intended to be vernaculars; that, indeed, they were deliberately designed to be formal, archaic, and hieratic. I will let her speak to you in her own words (1957): “Liturgical Latin, as constituted towards the end of Christian Antiquity and preserved unchanged – in its main lines at least – is a deliberately sacral stylisation of Early Christian Latin as it gradually developed in the Christian communities of the West. The Latin Christians were comparatively late in creating a liturgical language. When they did so, the Christian idiom had already reached full maturity and circumstances rendered it possible to draw, for purposes of style, on the ancient sacral heritage of [pagan] Rome … As regards the plea which we hear so often for vernacular versions of the prayer texts, I think … that we are justified in asking whether, at the present time, the the introduction of the vernacular would be suitable for the composition of sacral prayer style. As I have pointed out, the early Christian West waited a long time before adopting the use of Latin. It waited until the Christian language possessed the resources necessary to create an official ecclesiastical prayer language. … the modern, so-called Western languages … are less suitable for sacred stylisation. And yet we must realise that sacral stylisation forms an essential element of every official prayer language and that this sacral, hieratic character cannot, and should never, be relinquished. From the point of view of the general development of the Western languages – to say nothing of the problems raised by other languages – the present time is certainly not propitious for the abandonment of Latin”.

“Father Mars, I pray thee that thou wouldst forbid defend-against avert diseases seen and unseen dearth and ravage calamities and disorders”. ” I beseech solicit and seek favour of thee that thou desert this people and state and leave the sacred defined spaces and their city and go away from these …”. The first was a prayer for the lustration of fields used in ancient Rome centuries before the age of the Caesars; the second the text of a prayer by which the Romans attempted to persuade the Gods of an enemy city to desert it. Here are the original texts; and I ask those who do not understand Latin to spot at least the parallelism, the wealth of words, the alliteration, the rhyme, the lawyer-like precision. “Pater Mars, precor uti tu morbos visos invisosque vidueritatem vastitudinemque calamitates intemperiasque prohibessis defendas averruncesque”. “precor veneror veniamque a vobis peto ut vos hunc populum civitatemque deseratis loca templa sacra urbemque eorum relinquatis absque his abeatis …”.

These pieces of archaic Latin were used by the great Christine Mohrmann (the towering intellect of liturgical scholarship in the generation before the Council, whom the Conciliar generation ignored or chose to forget) to explain the nature of the Latin of the Canon of the Mass. She has in mind, to offer but one example, the words of the Quam oblationem: benedictam adscriptam ratam rationabilem acceptabilemque [blessed written-up ratified reasonable and acceptable]. What she is demonstrating is that there is nothing vernacular about such language, nothing simple and clear, nothing that the-man-on-the-top-of-a-Clapham-or-Aventine-omnibus could understand.

Mohrmann argues that Christian liturgical Latin is a hieratic dialect deliberately created in the image of the liturgical Latin of pagan Rome centuries before Christ. The rhythmically balanced flow of words, the juridical precision, the monumental verbosity, combine with scrupulosity towards the Gods.

Forget the idea that when the Roman Church replaced its Greek liturgy with the Latin, it was trying to be more understanded of the people and comprehensible by the man in the street. It was trying to do exactly the opposite. It was trying to be dignified and obscure.

I have enabled some intelligent comments questioning whether … granted that Liturgical Latin is the way it is presented in the ancient Roman Sacramentaries and as it is analysed by Christine Mohrmann … we really do need to worship like that. To this point, I would reply:

(1) The Liturgy we use is described as the Roman Rite. That is the label on the tin.

(2) Vatican II, which I regard as a true Ecumenical Council, did lay down in Sacrosanctum Concilium that the Roman Rite, while being up for revision, was to be substantially retained.

(3) In the fifth part of this series, I shall summarise Mohrmann’s own account of twentieth century work on linguistics and varied linguistic registers.

(4) Liturgical Greek … which Mohrmann also worked on … is certainly not reductive or banausic. I do not know Coptic and Church Slavonic, but I have been told that the same is true of them.

(5) There is currently a sweet little exhibition in Bodley including a late Medieval Altar Missal with the Roman Rite in the Croatian language. I would love to be told what sort of Croatian that is!

(6) If we do not retain the tradition of the Sacral Language, I do not entirely see why we should retain traditional gestures, traditional vestments …

(7) One comment, which suggests that we should change the language because we now see God differently, seems to me to give several games away.

(8) I think that most societies have had a more sophisticated set of linguistic presuppositions than Modern European Man. Classicists will recall the Homeric rhapsodes, who did business in a dialect of Greek which never ever had been used anywhere in Greece. And the Doricising traits of choral lyric.

Here is a passage kindly sent in by Thomas a couple of years ago, taken from The Earliest English Poems by Michael Alexander (Penguin 1966).

” … old English prose never achieved the sophisticated word-order and complex synrtax of Greek or Latin. This does not apply to verse … the poets used a special archaic diction inherited from days when their art had been purely oral. This word-hoard amounts almost to a language within a language; it differs greatly in vocabulary and syntax from the rudimentary attempts of the prose writers – because … the poet is the keeper of the traditions which hold the cynn (the kin) together … the older a word was, the more it was vlued by the cynn … the poet is historian and priest, and his songs have ritual significance. That is why the language of the poets was so deeply conservative, and why the written records of it that we have show it so different from the language of the earliest prose-writers.”

To which I would add a reminder of (the Anglican) Catherine Pickstock’s brilliant account of the Classical Roman Rite in terms of oral culture (Beyond Writing). As well as reading Mohrmann, the tinkerers in Rome would be well advised to read Pickstock.

The ancient Romans were very legalistically minded. When they prayed to the Gods, they did their best to ensure that they covered everything; that they addressed the Gods by the right titles (and all of them) so that they could be assured that they were heard; that they asked for everything that they required so that an accidental omission would not frustrate their petitions. Christine Mohrmann showed that there is more than a little of this attitude in the prayers which comprise the Roman Rite of the ancient Latin Church.

In the Canon of the Mass, perhaps this is shown most clearly in the word ‘adscriptam’. It means, I suppose, “written on the list”. It’s lawyer-like. If something’s in the Statute, in the inventory, then it’s covered. If not, not. We pray that our oblation be “written up”. The old ICEL version simply ignored the word; the new ICEL, currently in use, renders it “acknowledged”, which is still a trifle coy.

It is not difficult to understand the nervousness of the translators. “Legalism” is not instinctively seen as a virtue in modern culture, still less in modern religious thought. God is not, we feel, a crabbed old backwoods attorney or solicitor just looking all the time for an opportunity or a pedantic excuse to catch us out. He’s loving, merciful, generous, understanding. Perhaps, it is suspected, the authors of the Roman Canon were a little bit too Roman and a little bit less Christian than they should have been.

But No. Long before the Roman Canon was written, S Ignatius of Antioch wrote that the Eucharist had to be celebrated by the Bishop, or by one to whom the bishop committed it, for it to be bebaios: a Greek word meaning sure, certain, secure, safe. Conditions have to be fulfilled. To some, this may seem like Legalism. But it is a principle which in turn is based on two root principles of our Faith.

God is true and will do what he has promised. We are called to be faithful and to do what he has commanded in the way that he has commanded. When we are obedient we know that what we have done is official, valid, in the archive, stamped by the clerk.

Praise to him for his faithfulness.

Christine Mohrmann followed de Saussure and Bally in pointing out that “language by no means serves only to communicate actual facts but is also … a medium of expression. Whereas … language used purely as a means of communication normally strives towards a certain degree of efficiency, which results in linguistic simplification and standardisation, language as expression usually shows a tendency to become richer and more subtle. It aims at becoming, by every possible means, more expressive and more picturesque, and it may try to attain this heightened power of expression … by the preservation of antiquated elements already abandoned by the language as communication”. It is on these grounds that she resisted the introduction of the vernacular into the liturgy (except for the readings); modern languages, in her view, develop their efficiency as media of communication, but this makes them less suitable for sacred stylisation.

It was not until 1997 that the Magisterium of the Latin Church caught up with the questions Mohrmann had posed, and in an admirable instruction Liturgiam authenticam … called for nothing less than the creation of new sacral vernaculars. “If, indeed, words or phrases can sometimes be employed in liturgical texts which differ from common and everyday speech, this in fact quite often actually leads to the texts being more memorable and more effective in expressing heavenly things. So it appears that observance of the principles explained in this Instruction tends to the gradual production in every common language of a sacred style, which also is to be recognised as the correct dialect for worship (sermo proprie liturgicus). So it can happen that a certain way of speaking which might seem a trifle obsolete in everyday speech, can be preserved in a liturgical context”. Speaking in 2001, Fr Aidan Nichols envisaged the enrichment of the ‘classical’ – that is, Tridentine – Roman Rite with”all that is best in the Pauline reform” and its “diffusion” either in Latin “or in a ‘high’ vernacular capable of exercising the functions of a sacral language”.

In the ordinariates, we do, of course, already possess a high, hieratic vernacular. And we use it!


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