Sunday, February 12, 2012

Why Latin?

On February 22, 1962, the apostolic constitution Veterum Sapientia (“ancient wisdom”) was promulgated by Pope John XXIII. This document focused on the study and use of Latin, and authorized the establishment of a “Latin academy”; and Pope Paul VI did in fact accomplish this end with the founding of the Academicum Latinitatis Institutum in 1964. On February 23rd of this year, marking the 50th anniversary of the document, the Academy will host a conference entitled "Veterum Sapientia: History, Culture and Timeliness."

Veterum Sapientia is a short document which outlines the reasons why Latin is the language of the Church, and why it is worth learning, preserving, and using. For one thing, we are told:

Of its very nature Latin is most suitable for promoting every culture among diverse peoples, for it gives no rise to jealousies, it does not favor any one group, but presents itself with equal impartiality, gracious and friendly to all.

Aha! The next time someone insists on the necessity of a “bi-lingual” Mass, you might explain how beneficial Latin would be to this end! Hmm…The fact that you are laughing at that thought (or cringing in fear at what the other person might do or say) shows that this document did not receive much attention or respect in this neck of the woods.

A bilingual Mass: Latin and English
In fact, in an interview with Zenit, Father Roberto Spataro, a teacher at the Institute, characterized VS as a document that was “unfortunately quickly, unjustly forgotten”. Indeed! These days, you’d think Latin had been outlawed 50 years ago, rather than promoted and defended.

In the same Zenit interview, Fr. Spataro said of the upcoming conference:

We intend to re-visit that document and to show how it is still very timely in proposing the need that in the Church, especially among priests, that the great ethical, spiritual and religious values be known that the ancient world developed and that Christianity perfected, thus constructing the foundations of contemporary civilization.

Asked whether he believes Latin is a “dead language” Fr. Spataro made this comment:

How can one hold as "dead" a language that is studied today by so many persons, and nourishes lofty and noble thoughts? Not forgetting that it is the language of the Holy See and that the liturgy in Latin attracts in ever increasing numbers the faithful, many of them young people.

And let us not forget that Canon Law dictates that Latin is to be taught in seminaries! Of course, it’s pretty obvious that that requirement has fallen by the wayside in many places. Just try to find a priest in this diocese who is willing and able to say the Mass in Latin! They are few and far between – and mostly due to a lack of knowledge of Latin.

Returning to the document itself, we can find valuable insights into the reasons why Latin remains the official language of the Church. VS states:

The Church should make use of a language that is not only universal, but also immutable… Latin, in fact, is already safe from various ambiguities associated with the meaning of words arising from popular usage, for it is understood to be set and unchanging…

For instance, the Latin word for “gay” still means “happy”! It does NOT mean homosexual!
VS also touches on the splendor and majesty of the Church:

… inasmuch as the Catholic Church is founded by Christ the Lord, and it far surpasses in dignity all other human associations, it is clearly therefore fitting that she should use a non-vernacular language full of nobility and majesty.

Pope John XXIII clearly believed that Latin is important, and that it is to be used by the Church. What could be more to-the-point than these paragraphs?

Bishops and superiors-general of religious orders shall take pains to ensure that in their seminaries and in their schools where adolescents are trained for the priesthood, all shall studiously observe the Apostolic See's decision in this matter and obey these Our prescriptions most carefully.

In the exercise of their paternal care they shall be on their guard lest anyone under their jurisdiction, eager for revolutionary changes, writes against the use of Latin in the teaching of the higher sacred studies or in the Liturgy, or through prejudice makes light of the Holy See's will in this regard or interprets it falsely.

As is laid down in Canon Law or commanded by Our Predecessors, before Church students begin their ecclesiastical studies proper they shall be given a sufficiently lengthy course of instruction in Latin by highly competent masters, following a method designed to teach them the language with the utmost accuracy.

And yet…when I read documents like this, I wonder what went wrong. Nowhere in Church documents is anything written or prescribed that contravenes VS – not even in the documents of Vatican II, contrary to popular opinion!  In fact, Blessed John Paul II reiterated the message of VS in an address he gave to the Institute on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the document in 2002.  He said that the use of Latin "is an indispensable condition for a proper relationship between modernity and antiquity, for dialogue among different cultures, and for reaffirming the identity of the Catholic priesthood."

Latin should never have been “abolished” as it seems to have been in the US, and never should it have been forced to take a back seat to the vernacular in the liturgy.

This final interchange with Fr. Spataro in the Zenit interview may give us some hope:

ZENIT: In recent times, instead, it seemed that Latin was dying out: Seminarians did not study it any longer and it was not used in the liturgy. What is your Institute doing about this situation?

Father Spataro: In recent years, tentative beginnings have taken place within the Catholic Church in terms of renewed interest in the study of Latin. Among these are the birth of new religious communities and lay movements that have understood well how a most precious patrimony belongs to the Tradition, to the life itself of the Church, of liturgical, canonical, magisterial, theological expressions whose content is comprehensible only in its linguistic form, namely, Latin. Hence, our Institute wishes to teach a greater number of clerics and lay people to be able to appreciate this patrimony, so that every Church is able to have access to people who love the way in which truth, beauty and harmony are united in this language.

1 comment:

  1. The Most BEAUTIFUL Holy Mass this side of heaven : The Traditional Latin Mass.
    I am very blessed to be able to attend at St. Francis de Sales Oratory ...where I am filled with AWE of my GOD! Thanks be to God for the Holy Mass in the Extraordinary Form!