Monday, July 26, 2010

Out of the mouths of babes...

Among the critics of a further return to the Church's traditional language in the liturgy, there are always those who say that an expansion of Latin would be impractical because nobody would be able to learn or understand it. It is too difficult, they say, to take people who only know English and try to educate them in the meaning and pronunciation of a different language. Nobody would understand what they were saying and, even if they were willing to try to pick up the Latin, it would take way too much time for them to master the phrases. Latin might be fine for those who have taken years of it in college, the say, but for the vast bulk of the laity who have not, this is just a kind of liturgical elitism, a practice that is beyond the ability of most people to find any meaning in. The laity simply does not have the endurance or competency for such an undertaking (a rehash of the old "ignorant laity" argument).

 At my parish we recently did an experiment that blew this argument out of the water. Last week we had about 60 kids from many surrounding parishes participate in our yearly Catholic Vacation Bible School program. Instead of singing a lot of insipid, Protestant-inspired songs, the music director decided to teach the kids to sing the Our Father in Latin. The majority of the kids (I'd say 80%) had never heard it before; I know this because we took a "show of hands" poll to see who had prior exposure to the Pater Noster - very, very few did.

 The student guinea pigs were from grades 3 to 6 and spent 45 minutes with the music director each day (though perhaps only ten or fifteen minutes were devoted to the Our Father specifically). On day one they were introduced to the prayer, were taught why we use Latin, were taught the prayer in its entirety, worked on pronunciation and had an opportunity to listen to the director singing the melody. At the end of the class, they fuddled their way through it once, too.

On day two they practiced singing through the song themselves, working out bumps in the timing and tweaked the pronounciation a little more. 

On the third day they were able to sing through the whole thing, guided by the Music Director, and sounded pretty good. By this time a good number of the phrases were committed to memory.

On day four they rehearsed the whole thing several times - I also reviewed it with them in class, explaining little points about the Latin and how it related to English words they already knew. On the evening of day four, they performed a concert for their parents and sung the entire Pater Noster, reading music off of provided sheets. Was it as perfect as it could have been? Not at all - it could always be better. But the success story here is that we took a group of 7 to 11 year olds who had by and large never heard the Our Father sung in Latin and in the span of four days taught it to them with enough proficiency so that they were able to perform it at a concert.

Our excellent Music Director hit it on the head when, in a little talk to the kids, she said, "You guys are amazing. A lot of adults think what you are doing is too hard, but it's not is it?" The kids laughed and jested at the idea that adults could not do what they themselves were doing with relative ease.

So, are adults too stupid to learn Latin? Are they too busy? Will it take too long to get them proficient? I'd say my Music Director invested maybe two or three hours total time with these kids on this particular song over four days and that was plenty good enough. Next time somebody tells you that a switch to Latin would be too laborious and time consuming, remember that a group of 3rd-6th graders did it in four days. It's really not that big a deal. The obstacles are ideological, not practical.

"From the mouths of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise" (Matt. 21:16).


haskovec said...

I think more likely the adults that are so opposed to Latin are too lazy to spend a small amount of time studying to learn it. While I don't know the Latin Mass yet, I really support a return to it. If you ever have seen that movie Joyeux Noel where you have the Germans, French, and Scotts in World War 1 that all celebrated Mass together, and I think we lose that unifying part of the Mass by doing it in the vernacular vs having a common language to celebrate the mass in. I do go to Mass in Spanish a fair amount since my wife is Mexican so I don't think it would be a big jump to go to Latin. It is pretty easy to follow the mass in Spanish.

A.R. said...

I'm not sure why people think they need to "know Latin" as in "have complete mastery of a foreign language" in order to understand the Mass. That would indeed be intimidating. However, it's all right there on the English side of the missal. If one wants to learn some Latin, most parts of the Mass never change, and that small subset of Latin words can be absorbed and memorized pretty easily with a little time. Plus the scripture readings are read over again in the vernacular. I know enough Spanish to converse about the weather or order a meal. Likewise I know enough Latin to follow along with the Creed, the Pater Noster, the Agnus Dei, the Sanctus, etc.

Athanasius said...

There was a liturgical workshop I was at once, where the presenter totally dismissed Gregorian chant and Polyphony as impossible to sing, then an older man raised his hand and said "I don't know about you but when I was in grade school a nun wrote gregorian chant on the board, and we learned it by lunch time, sang it and then sang it in the parish choir on weekends. We were 9 and 10 years old."

By contrast, no one in the workshop could learn the rot she was trying to teach, unless it was something traditional like the Lydian Mode. Modern dissonant hymns are not easy, and to boot they are boring as salt.

Henry B. said...

I am a huge fan of Latin,having been in an SSPX school for one year and parish for 2 and a half, but studies show children's brains are much better at learning new languages. But I also agree one can learn the mass quickly and easily.

Anonymous said...

I just returned to the USA after 21 years in Europe. There, I found children and adults alike making a game out of stuff like "in how many languages can YOU say the Hail Mary?" I once saw a 10-year-old girl rise to this question by non-chalantly rattling it off in 9 languages, and she was not so unusual, as most of the adults within earshot (many of them strangers) joined in her rendition during most of the languages recited. I will concede that, at the time I was standing in the gift shop of The Lady of All Nations (Amsterdam's approved Marian apparition site,) so it was a particularly Catholic and multilingual place to ask such question, but still. Suffice it to say that language does not have to be such a barrier as many Americans mistakenly think.