The Language of the Liturgy


I wrote the following article for the website of the Religious Information Service of Ukraine (RISU), and by their kind permission am posting it here as well. It will hopefully prove of interest to Eastern Christians interested in the question of the vernacular in Liturgy; I suspect that Western Catholics will find it less compelling. In any case, I urge you to visit RISU often, as it represents a wealth of information and opionion on the Church in Ukraine, but with a global outlook. Whatever you do, please come back here to comment!

The issue of religion and language has been with us since at least the third century BC, when the books of what we now call the Old Testament were first translated from Hebrew into Greek. Three centuries later, by the time the apostles began to move out from Jerusalem and carry the message of Jesus across the known world, each of them will likely have known Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek. Subsequently, as the Gospel spread and the liturgies of the Church developed, the languages of the Church multiplied. As we might expect, Latin was almost immediately added, but so was Syriac, and within a few centuries, native languages from Hibernia to the Black Sea, and beyond. This is to say nothing of Coptic, Ge’ez, and the other great languages from South and East of the Mediterranean.

The importance of this picture rests in what it says about the Church’s mission. Before the Church had emerged from the Synagogue, the assumption was that her language would have to be that of the people to whom she would speak; that if she was to be effective in delivering the Good News, she was going to have to take account of the context in which she was speaking.

Not unlike the Church in the time of the apostles, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is now at a pivotal moment in her history. She can be found worldwide, representing the ‘other lung’ of which Pope John Paul spoke: a Church whose vocation it is to work in tandem with the Roman (Latin) Church, yet to represent faithfully the great Byzantine (Greek) Tradition as it was received in Kyiv more than a thousand years ago. As such, however, her members find themselves in countries whose first languages include English, German, Spanish, and Portuguese, among others. Consequently, those members are faced with a choice: do they, like the apostles and the great missionaries of the early Church, look outward, confident in the knowledge that they have something to share with the world, and so communicate in a language that the world understands? Or do they choose to work only among themselves, and risk hiding their light under a bushel?

There can be no doubt that the Ukrainian language is of immeasurable importance. It is the medium through which more than forty million Ukrainian people continue to express their highest aspirations and noblest impulses, and have for hundreds of years. It grew out of the East Slavic language of Rus’, and has survived political suppression and even severe persecution.

Indeed, as its lineage can be traced directly to Saints Wolodymyr and Olha, it is not just appropriate that it should be a language of worship, but should be considered a real gift. Yet, as Byzantine worship in the Kyivan tradition has spread across the globe, its continued use in places where the dominant language is not Ukrainian also means that, if the Ukrainian Church is to serve the people of God as an ‘Eastern lung’, she will need to do so in something other than – or at least in addition to – Ukrainian.

The fact is, people are hungering for the message of the Church, and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, as the largest Byzantine Church within the family of Churches in communion with Rome, is supremely poised to offer them the nourishment they seek. I say this both from observation and experience. Where the Church is at her most intellectually engaging; most clearly at one with her own traditions, liturgical and theological; most clearly aesthetically-conscious; most mystical in her teaching, she has also proven most effective at communicating the Truth of the Incarnation. And because all of these traits are borne by the Ukrainian Church, her members have the divine imperative to share them.

Ultimately, if the Church’s purpose is Christ’s purpose – that is, to draw humanity into the life of God – then she has a responsibility to make her purpose known, and to facilitate the people’s participation in her life to the furthest extent that she can. This does not mean ‘dumbing down’ the Liturgy in any way (as that would represent a betrayal of her own treasure, and the very means by which she is able to manifest God to the world), nor does it mean abandoning her specific cultural heritage for the something bland and non-specific. But as Patriarch Svyatoslav is reported to have said, ‘This is not a church of Ukrainians; it’s a church of Christ. We are a global church. We are a church of the Ukrainian tradition.’ In many respects, this frees the Ukrainian Church to undertake its work in the world in a more incarnational way; it suggests that Ukrainian tradition resides in more than just language – as important as language is – and so expands the call on the Church to seize every opportunity to go, and make disciples of all nations.

At last, as one commentator put it on an internet forum for Eastern Christians: ‘…it is important to remember our venerable traditions, but we must not be tied to a language or anything else which gets in the way of our ability to transform into saints.’


3 responses to “The Language of the Liturgy

  1. At the grand old age of four, I began to sing in my parish’s children’s choir, in Latin, using Gregorian chant. We, the children, were asked to sing many, if not most, of the masses for the dead. It was an aging parish and I learned the hymns of the Requiem by heart. By the time I was eight, I knew the liturgy for the dead, for Easter, for many of the feasts and the lenten liturgies, and I knew them in Latin and had at least a child’s grasp of their meaning…in two languages. I did not die or wither spiritually because of it, nor have I been thwarted by the fact that I can chant “Christ is Risen!” in Slavonic, Greek, Arabic and Romanian.

    I am NOT on the side of those converts who come into the eastern Catholic parishes and say “I did not come here to learn a foreign language!!” I am on the side of those who have said “What happened to the liturgy that I knew and loved.” I am not an idiot savant with languages. In fact I am a tad slow in some ways. But I am a daughter, rather,of useless repetitions!! The kind that imbed and cement the truth to the heart through song in ANY and as many languages as possible.

    So I understand what you are saying, but I return the challenge to you: Are you and your bishops and brother priests ready and willing to be able to chant the liturgy and parts of the liturgy in more than one language. Are you ready or willing to truly address the family of man?

    Or is this article just another polemic?

    Mary E. Lanser

  2. I love this article. It really shows the opposite mentality from the Latin Church. At least in my experience the people I have met who push for more Latin in the Latin rite do so with the argument that Rome/Italy/The Roman Empire/Roman Culture is superior to all else and therefore we must speak their language. They seem to almost hate English as plebeian and barbaric (a word they love to use to remind us Northern Europeans of our place in the language hierarchy). I must say that one of the most attractive features I have found in Eastern Catholic parishes is that they have a Divine Liturgy completely translated into English with nothing removed or changed. As a Latin rite Catholic I really envy this, since I either have to have an often “dumbed down” English mass or attend a Tridentine mass where I encounter people who test my charity to say the least. If only there were more Anglo-Catholic ordinariate parishes around the world! They seem to get vernacular and tradition quite right for the Western Church.

  3. I am a member of the UGCC – and I’m used to Liturgy in Ukrainian , English and French. I know priests who can slip from one language to the other without missing a beat . In some areas Spanish is used – because it is the language of the people there and I’m sure that happens elsewhere too.

    I’ve also been to Liturgy in the Russian Orthodox Church – sometimes it’s been in English , sometimes it’s been in Slavonic and English

    Yes – our Hierarchs are using the language of the people , so are most of our priests . However the real question is ……

    What is the vernacular ?

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