There are many excellent reasons for singing at least some of the main parts of the Mass in Latin - singing the same words for 2000 years since the Early Christians and the universality of its use across the Catholic Church today, for starters - but experience is what brought Latin to life for me. A couple years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland. Five friends and I joined with an estimated 3-5 million other young adult Catholics to celebrate Mass in a huge field with Pope Francis. Throughout Mass, the readings, intentions, and various prayers were proclaimed in several languages from French to Vietnamese. However, when it came time to sing the Mass parts (Gloria, Holy Holy, etc.), I found I actually knew what to sing because we sang the same Latin parts I’d learned in my tiny hometown of Fowler, MI. It’s hard to describe how, during a week of often frustrating moments of cultural differences and not being able to communicate because of language barriers, that moment of singing the same words, in the same language, of the prayers sung across the church brought beauty and unity.
Perhaps my favorite thing about being Catholic is the very meaning of our name: universal. As a small child, it blew my mind that across the world on Sundays, people were hearing the same scripture readings as me. As a college student, I found refuge in the unwavering teachings of my faith as I watched my nondenominational friends disagree over numerous essential beliefs. Now, whenever I have doubts about the faith or unsettling questions, I take a lot of comfort from the long history of theologians far more intelligent than I’ll ever be who have deliberated about the same questions I struggle with today. The prayers we pray and sing as a Church are an essential mark of that history and universality. It doesn’t matter whether I stumble over how to say “Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus Dominus Deus sabbaoth” because I’ve been singing “Holy holy holy Lord God of hosts” since I could first speak.
Saint Augustine said “If there are some present who do not understand what is being said or sung, they know at least that all is said and sung to the glory of God, and that is sufficient for them to join in it devoutly.” This means that it doesn’t matter if I know the word-for-word translation and can pronounce it perfectly, the point is that I know what the prayer of the church is, and if I’m singing to worship God, then I’m a part of something beautiful.
This Lent, we’re also going to be learning some new simple chant called the Entrance Antiphons to use as our opening hymn. These are specific scripture verses which actually correspond to the readings for the day, which the Church gives us. They’re another part of that universality of Catholicism, and these antiphons are actually the church’s preference for the entrance because they are fitting for the readings of the day. I do my best to select opening hymns that correspond to the themes in the antiphons and readings, but especially in a season such as Lent, I think there’s a certain weight the antiphons can bring in how they draw our focus to the scriptures.
A novelist whom Pope John Paul II quoted, famously wrote “Beauty will save the world.” I say this because I want to step away from discussing Latin and chant to say that I know these are not the things that are going to save the Church. The Pope didn’t say Latin would save the world, or Gregorian chant, or contemporary bands with drum sets and electric guitars. Beauty will save the world because it is a revelation of who God is, and that beauty can be revealed in music in any form from ancient Latin chant through contemporary worship music. That could mean that during communion at a single Mass, we sing “Pange Lingua” (Latin chant, circa 1250 AD), Gift of Finest Wheat (1977), and Receive (Audrey Assad, 2014). Each of those songs articulates something beautiful about the Eucharist and carries legitimate theological weight, but they’re all in very different styles.
My hope is that singing the Latin Mass parts and the entrance antiphons will increase the impact of what the Lord is revealing to us in scripture every Mass this Lent. We’re not going to sing everything perfectly, so let’s offer our stumblings together to praise God in union with the whole Church.