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Why do we have Latin inscriptions?
One of the first stories told in the Bible is about a plan to build a tower that would reach heaven - the famous Tower of Babel. As well as the tower, people plan to build a mighty city. God concludes that, having one single common language on the earth would not only enable them to build the tower and the city together, but also to plot and carry out untold evil. Therefore, God decides to ‘confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ (Genesis 11:7).
Even with so many languages in the world, history has repeatedly shown the evil that can be done when a group of people have a common language. But the opposite is also true. And common language between Christians has enabled many good things to be acheived which would otherwise have been impossible. We can see the beginning of that in the account of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles.
It’s not surprising then, to find that - especially for liturgy (e.g. the Mass) - having a common language for all Christians to use is something that has been treasured. The progression has been as follows:
- Liturgies celebrated in Aramaic by the Apostles.
- Then, for centuries, since Greek was the common language of the Roman Empire, it became the language of the liturgy.
- As the centuries rolled on, Greek came to be used and understood only by the well-to-do. The common language understood by the vast majority of Christians was Latin. In spite of some resistance, it became the language used at Mass, as well as for other purposes in the Church.
- Liturgies were translated and written down in other languages spoken in the first millenium such as Coptic, Ethiopic, Syriac, Armenian and Slavonic. These languages continued to develop as normal, but the written liturgies were not changed to reflect this.
- By the 15th century the languages used in the liturgy were generally not understood by the faithful. The texts used were essentially those of the first millenium and it was a hot issue in the Church as to whether they should be translated into the vernacular (the languages spoken by the people). The Council of Trent said No, the Protestants said Yes, and translated not only the liturgy, but the Bible as well.
- At the Second Vatican Council in the late 1960’s the Church decided that the Mass could be celebrated in the languages that people spoke.
Most, but not all, of the Latin inscriptions we see in our churches come from the time when Latin was the commonly understood language. These days, especially with the modern digital tools avaiable, those inscriptions can be translated fairly easily. Often they express something about the faith that we might have lost sight of. And even when those inscriptions relate what is very familiar to us, they are also a reminder of something else. The power that a common language gives us to relate to one another, to understand one another better and to do great things for God together.