In the last year or so I have attended Masses in the extraordinary form in both Germany and Poland. I was taken aback to hear the readings delivered in the vernacular, not from the pulpit before the sermon, but in the place in the liturgy itself where the readings would normally be proclaimed in Latin. I am aware that this is now permitted but I assumed that it was permission that no one committed to the Gregorian Rite would every wish to use. I have never seen it done in England (though irregularities do seem to be on the increase as there are more priests saying the Roman Rite for pastoral rather than ideological reasons). In the German instance the priest even turned his back to the altar and faced the people. When I say I was shocked I am not exaggerating for rhetorical effect. I experienced the sound of the vernacular readings as if he were swearing at me. At first I thought this might be a special case as I always experience the sound of German as if someone were swearing at me but when I went to Poland I had exactly the same experience.

I reflected on why this might be. I do not have the same experience when I simply attend the Novus Ordo in a foreign tongue. On the other hand there is something rather uncomfortable about that experience which I think might just be a milder version of the same phenomenon. So I tried to isolate what it is that makes me uncomfortable about that. This led me to think about the little shiver I get whenever I hear a Slav Byzantine priest talk about the nuances of some word from the Divine Liturgy ‘in the original’. The reason for the shiver is because the original he means is Old Slavonic which of course is not the original, the original is Greek.

The origin of my discomfort, of my feeling that a profanity has been committed, is the fact that the holy is other. The putting of the Mass into the vernacular is an appropriation of the holy and the other by the worldly. A nation sets its particular profane and worldly cultural hands on the sacred and the other. I do not notice this in the case of the Novus Ordo and English because I take English for granted and the otherness of the liturgy in the Novus Ordo is so obscured anyway that the feeling is hopelessly muffled. On the other hand, when I attend even the Novus Ordo in someone else’s vernacular there is still enough numinosity left for me to feel some discomfort.This is still the case even in vernacular languages I like such as French or the Slav tongues. In fact it is particularly strong in the case of French.

The effects of this are well illustrated in the case of the Poles who, when they emigrate to Britain, frequently will not attend Mass if it is not offered in Polish but will go to some lengths to get to Mass if it is offered in Polish somewhere. The religion has become theirs. Which I am afraid means that it is a pagan religion. I think it is easier for English Catholics to see this than most. We are in the peculiarly fortunate position of having had our country stolen from us. The English did not want Protestantism it was forced upon them with incredible violence. But the violence succeeded. Consequently, an English Catholic knows that England belongs to him that Protestants are foreigners squatting in upon a land and in buildings that do not belong to them, that they had to invent a foreign dynasty to carry on squatting in them. The nation itself was created out of the mission of St Augustine “a Catholic sent by the Pope” (in the words of George Carey), Parliament (the institution and the building) was established by us, the monarchy is ours, the national anthem was written by one of us (as was Rule Britannia), our greatest composers and poets are Catholics. But we are forced to live as foreigners in our own land. This is how all Catholics should feel just because they are Catholics and this what the three Sacred Languages of the Liturgy – Latin, Greek and Hebrew remind us of.

The Slav nations which have so long had the liturgy in the vernacular are an extreme example of the way in which nationalism appropriates the Gospel and the state appropriates the nation when the otherness of the Faith is compromised by the vernacular. For, ‘the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship the One God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity’. The fact that Old Slavonic is an archaic vernacular arguably just makes it worse. The Greeks are the exception that proves the rule. There the vernacular is a sacred language and the inability to distinguish the faith from the nation and the nation from the state became total and the Great Schism ensued.

Thank God for Latin, thank God for the fall of the Western Empire, may He preserve us from the vernacular. Let us never forget the words of St Augustine we are “Citizens of Jerusalem, God’s own people, the Body of Christ, a high-born race of foreigners on earth—you do not belong here, you belong somewhere else.”

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