In 2002, my family had the opportunity to attend World Youth Day in Toronto, Canada. This week long festival is held every three years at different locations around the world. Hundreds of thousands of young people travel to the gathering to celebrate their common faith in Jesus and His Church. In the morning seminars, we were grouped with other English speakers. But in the afternoons, we were able to visit booths, see presentations or concerts, and hear about Catholic ministries from all over the world. It was common to be with people who did not speak English at all.
On Saturday, we walked—along with a half million other pilgrims!—to an abandoned air field where the final Sunday Mass with Pope John Paul II would be held. After an evening of concerts and prayer, we settled down to sleep under the stars. The universality of the Church was clearly on display. But the next day at the Mass, I made another amazing discovery. Some parts of the Mass were said in French, some in Italian, Spanish or English. But some of the Mass was sung in Latin. At that point, pilgrims from around the world were suddenly speaking the same language! It didn’t matter what country you were from, or what language was your mother tongue. We all belonged to the kingdom not of this world, but the kingdom of God which Christ had established. It was an astounding experience of unity—unity of faith transcending all political, ethnic or social barriers.
After Vatican II, long before Tom and I joined the Church, the discipline of saying Mass in Latin was changed to saying Mass in the language of the people. The use of Latin quickly fell by the wayside, and only a few older people had much remembrance of it. But at that World Youth Day, I was so thankful that my parish priest had re-introduced the traditional Latin Mass parts to our congregation. We had begun to learn them during the Advent season and used them again during Lent. Because I sing in the choir, I was able to practice them regularly. At the time, I thought this was rather strange, but since I had studied French, I could follow the meaning. Little did I suspect when I was learning those ancient phrases, that they would so amazingly connect me to Catholics worldwide—and not only worldwide, but throughout 2000 years of Church history as well.
All important documents, teachings, and encyclicals (letters to the Church written by the Pope) throughout church history have been written in Latin. A well catechized person knows many parts of the Mass in Latin and is also familiar with many Latin terms for Christian doctrinal truths. Here’s an important hint: if you hear something in Latin, pay attention, because this is probably something very important.
What a wonderful language Latin is! It was the language of the Roman Empire, spoken at the time of Christ. It is a complete, beautiful, articulate language. But—and I think here’s the kicker—today it is a dead language. In other words, it is not the spoken language of any country or people group. Because it is “dead”, it is not a language that changes or grows or introduces new words or new meanings to old words.
So here we have this complete, beautiful language just floating out there in the world. It’s not America’s language or the language of Spanish peoples or French or Chinese—a language with no political or ethnic ties. Wow. How cool is that?
Now it is Lent. During this season of reflection on our spiritual lives and “resetting” our spiritual compasses, many parishes use less music, and more quiet music. Our parish is once again singing the ancient Latin Mass parts. Now, these are not just weird phrases to me. These Latin phrases connect me to the worldwide Church throughout time—and it is my treasure to know them.
Melanie Frei was an evangelical Protestant missionary to Hong Kong with her husband Tom, pastor and seminary professor. But when they studied Scripture and Church history, the two of them decided to leave their ministry and enter the Roman Catholic Church. Melanie is the mother of three incredible young adults and three awesome grandchildren and is also a substitute teacher in the Tomah Area School District. Her favorite ministries are leading Bible studies, music and pro-life work. For fun, Melanie is a total fan of BBC dramas and Regency romance.