Latin is just a neat language. I don’t mean neat as in “cool,” like the kids say these days, although it can be that. I mean it’s just a neat, tidy language that expresses thought and emotion in a tight little package. Witness: my favorite Christmas hymn: Veni Veni Emmanuel.
Veni Veni blends the “O Antiphons” of the octave before Christmas (December 17th through 23rd), which themselves date back to maybe the 9th century. The hymn probably originated in the 12th century, although some dates place it as late as the 18th, which marked its first appearance in print.
Here are two notable performances, first in Latin, then English.
Note the compression of thought in “captivum solve Israel / qui gemit in exsilio / privatus Dei Filio” and how it’s lacking in “and ransom captive Israel / that mourns in lonely exile here / until the Son of God appear.” The Latin flows better, and takes fewer words, creating a greater impact. I love English. I study it, I work with it, I dig deep into it’s weird little dark alleys and disreputable haunts, and keep up my skills in Middle English. (I do a mean Chaucer: buy me a beer and I’ll recite “Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote” better than you’ve ever heard it.) It’s just a grand and amazing language.
But the simple reality is that the Church thinks in Latin, and therefore expresses itself more precisely and fully in Latin. I spent a lot of time studying St. Thomas Aquinas, and the ability to switch back and forth between the Latin and English in Verbum was essential. I don’t read Latin fluently: I kind of pick through it, and therefore it’s not practical to read hundreds and hundreds of pages of the Summa in a compressed time in Latin. It’s just not my primary language.
I found, however, that there were certain issues that are not rendered as precisely or clearly using English terminology alone, and there other places where the Latin just explained things better. (The phrase “terminus ad quem” is one.)
The same goes with hymnody. The most moving moment of the liturgical year in parish in the singing of the Pange Lingua on Holy Thursday. Is it a coincidence that it’s the only Latin hymn we’re expected to sing?
I don’t attend a Extraordinary Form as my regular mass, because I prefer a well-said Novus Ordo. (Note the qualifier.) There’s an openness to it that a prefer in regular worship, in contrast to the more interior, mystical approach of the Extraordinary Form. There’s a place for Latin and Greek in the NO, however, and we need to recapture it. We need to press our pastors and liturgists and music directors to include it more. It elevates us. It calls us to attention. It’s the voice of history ringing down through the years. It’s part of our heritage, and we deserve it.
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For a compare and contrast: Veni Veni Emmanuel (alternating Latin/English)
And here are the words in alternating Latin and English.
VENI veni Emmanuel
captivum solve Israel,
qui gemit in exsilio,
privatus Dei Filio.
R: Gaude! Gaude! Emmanuel,
nascetur pro te Israel!
O COME, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
R: Rejoice! Rejoice! O Israel,
to thee shall come Emmanuel!
Veni O Sapientia,
quae hic disponis omnia,
veni, viam prudentiae
ut doceas et gloriae.
O come Thou Wisdom, from on high,
and order all things far and nigh;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.
Veni veni Adonai,
qui populo in Sinai
legem dedisti vertice
in maiestate gloriae.
O come, o come, Thou Lord of might,
who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times did give the law,
in cloud, and majesty, and awe. R.
Veni O Iesse virgula,
ex hostis tuos ungula,
de spectu tuos tartari
educ et antro barathri.
O come Thou Rod of Jesse’s stem,
from ev’ry foe deliver them
that trust Thy mighty power to save,
and give them vict’ry o’er the grave.
Veni Clavis Davidica,
regna reclude caelica,
fac iter tutum superum,
et claude vias inferum.
O come Thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heav’nly home,
make safe the way that leads on high,
that we no more have cause to sigh.
Veni veni O Oriens,
solare nos adveniens,
noctis depelle nebulas,
dirasque mortis tenebras.
O come Thou Dayspring from on high,
and cheer us by thy drawing nigh;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night
and death’s dark shadow put to flight.
Veni veni Rex Gentium,
veni, Redemptor omnium,
ut salvas tuos famulos
peccati sibi conscios.
O come, Desire of the nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid every strife and quarrel cease
and fill the world with heaven’s peace.