Latin is not just for encyclicals. For all Catholics, it is our living history.

Detail from a Latin Missal (iStock/wwing)Detail from a Latin Missal (iStock/wwing)

For a response to this piece, read “The Liturgy Was Made for All People and Languages, Not Just Latin.”

The Catholic Church often faces the perception that it cannot adequately respond to the social issues of our modern age. For example, the Congregation for Catholic Education’s recent document “Male and Female He Created Them,” with its aversion toward the field of gender studies, perpetuates the idea that the church has outdated views on L.G.B.T. issues. Some also call the church misogynistic for its exclusion of women from the priesthood. Many of these critics say the use of Latin is another outdated tradition, a symbol of resistance to modernity.

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On the contrary. Severing our Latin roots may only further confuse and divide us. To demonstrate the relevance of Catholicism today, the church should celebrate the Latin language and its significance in our history.

The discipline of studying ancient languages translates to a zeal for learning overall, as well as a dedication to the improvement of the self and the world.

The decline of the Latin Mass, as well as the disappearance of Latin and ancient Greek in education, seems to reflect the belief that classical languages no longer have a purpose for us. We forget the influence of Latin and Greek on leaders across the centuries, from St. Ignatius Loyola to Jane Addams. Far from stifling or limiting their ideas, their knowledge of Latin helped reinforce core values of self-motivation, communication and originality. The discipline of studying ancient languages translates to a zeal for learning overall, as well as a dedication to the improvement of the self and the world. These are among the reasons the church adopted Latin as an official language, and the work of scholars in the church over many centuries proves its effectiveness.

And even as Latin Masses become less common, there is an enduring appreciation for the ancient language. In his apostolic letter “Latina Lingua,” published in 2012, Pope Benedict XVI notes that “the church has spoken and prayed in the languages of all peoples since Pentecost” but adds that liturgical books and Vatican communications are written in the Latin of early Christian communities, “precisely in order to highlight the church’s universal character.” Pointing to a “renewed interest” in the language because of its value in science and technology, Benedict established the Pontifical Academy for Latin to promote the study of the language.

In June, Vatican Radio began broadcasting a weekly bulletin in Latin titled “Hebdomada Papae” (“The Pope’s Week in Review”). In the announcement of the program, Vatican Radio’s editorial director, Andrea Tornielli, described it as a way to bring new life to the language. “We did not conceive it with a nostalgic look to the past but as a challenge for the future,” he said. Meanwhile, Pope Francis’ popular Twitter account has a Latin version with 914,000 followers, a notable increase from its 100,000 followers in 2013.

Latin is not the native language of any one people and thus offers an equal opportunity for all to share in its learning.

We may still be few in number, but some of us see Latin as a way to grow within our faith. Latin’s absence from everyday speech gives a sense of specialness when it is read, heard or spoken. It offers relief from the superficial talk that swarms our daily lives.

When using a foreign language, one must be more intentional since the words do not come naturally. But this is fitting for a global religion: Latin is not the native language of any one people and thus offers an equal opportunity for all to share in its learning.

Even as a long-term student of Latin, I cannot use it colloquially. Reading a Latin prayer challenges me to examine every word and elevate my comprehension of the phrases I have heard since childhood. I usually make the sign of the cross with a mechanical muscle memory akin to scribbling my signature. But when I recite in Latin—In nomine Patris, et Filii et Spiritus Sancti—I slow my gestures and consider the brief phrase that envelops the greatest mystery of my Catholic faith. Latin does not create the Miracle of the Trinity, but it reminds me of it in a way that English cannot.

Does using a language unfamiliar to most of the Catholic community discriminate against certain populations? Remember that women, slaves and prostitutes in the ancient city of Rome spoke at least simple Latin, using the same language that Cicero and Caesar did. Promoting the use of Latin—in Masses, publications and prayers—can foster pride in the church, reminding us of our unique and complicated history. It allows people of all cultures and classes to connect not only with the roots of the church but with the vast population who have spoken the language throughout time.

Offering only Latin Masses would not serve the needs of Catholics today. But incorporating Latin prayers and phrases into everyday spirituality and catechesis can revitalize the striving for holiness and for service to others. It presents an opportunity to interlace our prayer lives with the scores of people who have come before us.

In Horace’s Satire 1, he writes sed quod eram narro, or “rather, I said who I was.” Similarly, the Catholic Church can say what it is without fear of being seen as antiquated. Latin prayers, songs and writing can refresh a wilting pride for Catholicism’s past and present. Latin can help the church declare in honesty what it was, what it is and what it wants to be.

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Bayo Ade
4 months 3 weeks ago

A host of our cultural heritage are actually going on extinction.

Philip Schmidt
4 months 3 weeks ago

It is our lives that speak loudest when it comes to evangelizing. While I can sing the Tridentine Mass, took Latin for three years at university, am fluent in French, as a gay man I recall the exclusion that many of us have suffered in the Church. Mass in the vernacular, well celebrated, has been a liberation. We are called to go forth and preach to ALL nations; the Catholic Church is more than the Latin Rite.
Philip Schmidt

John K
4 months 2 weeks ago

It’s incredible how knee-jerk all of these comments are. The author is clearly not advocating for the return of THE Latin Mass, ie, the Tridentine Mass, but the return of the use of the Latin language in the Church, including the mass. Ie, for more Latin in the mass (our post-Vatican II mass), rather than THE Latin mass (ie, the pre-Vatican II Tridentine mass).
In fact, she does not even seem to know very much about the Latin Mass. She cites “the decline of the Latin Mass” and “and even as Latin Masses become less common…” both of which are, well, wrong. The Latin Mass never declined – it was virtually banned from the top-down following Vatican II. And Latin Masses are not “becoming less common,” but are becoming much more common. If she actually attended a “Latin mass,” she would know these things well.
In other words, dear readers of America: The Jesuit Review, there is no need to worry about this millennial author who likes the Latin language so much that she got a degree in it. She is not advocating for the return of the Pre-Vatican II Latin Mass, but just for more Latin in the Church. She doesn’t want to eliminate the nice and casual English-language mass, with its sing-along songs on the guitar, down-to-earth priests, etc.

William Doyle
4 months 3 weeks ago

I'm 76 years old, and I studied Latin and Greek in high school and college. In 1958 or '59, I wrote in Latin to the Boston Pilot, the diocese's weekly paper, demanding that the Mass be offered in English. The letter was published on a Friday, without comment. The following Monday, I had many slaps on the back from teachers and fellow pupils. The school now offers no Greek, little Latin, more and better math and science, and the head of the school is a lay woman. My later career put my Latin and Greek to good use. I'm glad that my religious life has not depended on a knowledge of Latin, and that my kids' education has been able to make room for more modern languages, math and science than mine could. Progress.

Lisa Weber
4 months 3 weeks ago

I recently attended the first Latin Mass I had been to since the 1960’s. Not only did it give me PTSD, I was astonished at how it seemed to be a rite celebrated only by the priest and the altar boys (no girls allowed, of course). Looking at a priest’s back while he mumbles in Latin made clear why the church mothballed that rite. It is time to move on and not look back at an outdated ritual.

Ruth Powers
4 months 3 weeks ago

Amen. When my 33 year old son attended his first Tridentine Rite Mass last year, his comment was, “No wonder people thought we were a cult.”

Ruth Powers
4 months 3 weeks ago

Oops. Duplicate

Robert Klahn
4 months 2 weeks ago

I had not even thought of that aspect.

You are so right. After Vatican II I liked some of the changes, but the "Folk Music" and the "Sign of Peace" seemed silly to me.

The change to folk music was obviously bad, because American churches seemed to think that meant the then genre of Folk Music that mostly meant recent compositions of little depth performed by musicians and singers who were not very good.

As to the sign of peace, year afterwards I had a day off from work during the week. My Children's school had a schedule of which classes would attend mass what days during the week, and it was their day, so I went to the morning mass. I sat way back in the church, all alone. When the time for the sign of peace I suddenly realized I had no one to share the sign of peace with, and rushed to change seats. That is when I realized just how RIGHT it was. That change turned out to be important to me.

Gerard Say
4 months 3 weeks ago

Latin is part of our history but today it, in no way, can be described as being part of of our 'living history' as Catholic Christians. The fourth-century papal commissioning of St Jerome to translate the liturgy into the contemporary language of most of the people in the Roman Empire was a huge breakthrough in proclaiming the Good News. The scandal was that this process was not repeated throughout the millennia so that the People of God, in the spirit of Pentecost, would be able to understand the Mass and the Scriptures in their own particular languages. It is so sad today seeing a small group of Catholics fiercely clinging to an ecclesiastical Latin. Yes, it once was a great breakthrough when Aramaic, Hebrew and Koine Greek no longer served the People of God. It no longer breaks open God's Word for our contemporary global community. Just as Jesus, our Saviour, did not have Latin as His language, neither do we.

Gerard Say

Denise Delurgio
4 months 3 weeks ago

"The decline of the Latin Mass..." no decline, an abrupt banning after Vatican II. Then in 1984, Pope John Paul II permitted the Tridentine (Latin)Mass under certain conditions. Since then, some bishops have allowed it to be celebrated more often, and recently the demand has grown. Those of us who learned to pray the Mass in Latin needed no translation, but English was printed side by side in the missal. The sermons and scriptural readings were always in English, as were additional prayers such as the Prayer to Michael the Archangel at the end of Mass. Studying Latin in high school or college led to reading scholarly works from Virgil and others. It also increased our vocabulary skills, and paid off in spades if employed in medicine or science. However, the study of the language in school did not impact the intensity of prayer at Mass. 50 years after its disappearance it seems strange and foreign for those who never prayed this way. When I recall my first Holy Communion in 1947, I can still hear the prayers and the choir in the memory that make it the holiest day of my life. Thank you to the young author who wrote this thoughtful article on the subject.

Robert Rine
4 months 3 weeks ago

I'm pleased to note that Ms. Spiewak is enthusiastic about her academic interest but I've been there, done that. I suggest Ms. Spiewak take time to do some research on The Second Vatican Council.

Mary Therese LEMANEK
4 months 3 weeks ago

It is discouraging to hear someone say that returning to our Latin roots would be an effective way to "demonstrate the relevance of Catholicism today"

Tom Poelker
4 months 3 weeks ago

I have been glad for the Latin I was required to learn. I am also glad the the my vernacular English can be used in the liturgy. I am upset that those to attached to ecclesiastical [not the better classical] Latin have abused English in the Mass translation they imposed.
I get some meaning and pleasure from occasional Latin musical texts, but most of the congregation is simply perplexed and silent, removed from the participation demanded by Vatican II.
This proposal is elitist in the extreme, catering to a few at the expense of the many.
Benedict XVI was a culture warrior dedicated to the concept of European Christendom. He was not an expert on Liturgical Theology but on Dogmatic Theology and shared the common mistake of thinking that having jurisdictional authority gave him a right to speak even when he lacked the authority of expertise. He is not a particularly good source when discussing liturgy.
If we are interested in the roots of Christianity then we need to study Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament and of the creeds.

thomas beers
4 months 3 weeks ago

I think a careful reading of Ms Spiewak's article demonstrates that she is no liturgical reactionary, but wishes us all to appreciate a living heritage of our identities as Christians. I say 'Christians' rather than 'Catholics' because I am an (appreciative) Lutheran guest on these pages, and one of the great challenges I see confronting all our churches is maintaining a living understanding that the life of the Church comprehends an active participation in its history. Protestants sometimes need reminding that 'our' history didn't begin with Martin Luther in 1517. My own parish on particular feast days chants the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin. I'm not saying this is common practice among Lutheran Christians, but it helps the lay members of my parish to 'stay connected' -- quite viscerally -- with the Church's full two thousand year history. (I might add that when Luther 'reformed' church worship for his followers in the 16th century, he never proscribed celebration of the mass in Latin. And in the Swedish Church following the Reformation use of the Latin never disappeared from regular liturgical observance.) I think all Christians can benefit from a living familiarity with Latin as a vital component of our participation in the life of the Church across time, although this opinion in no way undermines the need for regular liturgical observance in the vernacular. That's my own understanding of one of the chief liturgical findings of Vatican 2. I don't think Ms Spiewak is suggesting anything to the contrary, and I thank her for her thoughtful contribution here.

Jason Edwards
4 months 2 weeks ago

E contra: multi sunt qui non solum legere sed etiam loqui latine, sive deum precans sive proximum salutans.

Oportet nos Catholicos quibus latintas est patrimonia, exemplum Graecorum sequi: nempe docere pueros conversosque latinitatis rudimenta. Nonne Iudaici Hebraicam et Musselmani Arabicam linguam propagant? Immo, et hactenus laudentur merito.

Deo gratias, in temporibus nostris crescit in dies sacrorum rituum celebratio latina.

At laudabiliter tu dixisti omnes aequales includi cum latino sermone utamur. Fiat, fiat.

jean harrington
4 months 2 weeks ago

There is so much more to Latin than just "Church Latin". It has a long history of Caesar, Cicero and Vergil, to name some people you may know. As for Greek, there is Homer, written down for first time about 800 B.C.Then, there is Attic Greek of the philosophers and play writers (600-300 B.C.) and then there is koine (common) Greek, St.John wrote his gospel. You want to good read https://www.amazon.com/Odyssey-Homer/dp/0393089053 Our secular universities are carrying on with the Classics, so much more than "Church Latin".

thomas beers
4 months 2 weeks ago

But shouldn't part of the point about cherishing the 'latinity' of the Western Church include recognizing that broader latin 'field' that underlies -- and provides cultural support for -- the (historic and contemporary) use of 'church latin'? Augustine was a profound student of Vergil, and Vergilian 'thinking' is evoked throughout the 'Confessions' and 'City of God'. Vergil's obsession with memory as a poetic trope becomes an amazingly potent device by which Augustine traces the journey of his conversion to the catholic faith. I think we can only enrich our own understanding of the faith as a living, diachronically- framed (if not transchronically-framed) 'presence' if we keep alive and explore those cultural and linguistic resonances.

Robert Klahn
4 months 2 weeks ago

Dang it you beat me to that!

Todd Witherell
4 months 2 weeks ago

On Ambiguity

What is the use of being kind to a poor man? said Cicero

Timor mortis conturbat me, wrote David Markson

Contraria Sunt Complementa, being the motto of Niels Bohr

As in this from David Markson:

Wolfgang Pauli to Niels Bohr: you probably think these ideas are crazy.

To which Niels Bohr: Unfortunately, they are not crazy enough.

Rome has spoken. The debate is concluded.

The Wheel is turnin’. Rome is burnin’.Me, I’m watchin’. And I’m learnin’.
Sang Bruce Springsteen.

Vale!

Robert Klahn
4 months 2 weeks ago

I had plenty to say about this, but so many beat me to it. So I will limit myself to this...

If I am going to study any ancient language to improve my understanding of the faith, it will be Hebrew for the history of our faith, or Aramaic to understand the language of Jesus.

John Chuchman
4 months 2 weeks ago

We Byzantine Catholics are Catholics who did NOT use Latin, Ever.

John K
4 months 2 weeks ago

It’s incredible how knee-jerk all of these comments are. The author is clearly not advocating for the return of THE Latin Mass, ie, the Tridentine Mass, but the return of the use of the Latin language in the Church, including the mass. Ie, for more Latin in the mass (our post-Vatican II mass), rather than THE Latin mass (ie, the pre-Vatican II Tridentine mass).
In fact, she does not even seem to know very much about the Latin Mass. She cites “the decline of the Latin Mass” and “and even as Latin Masses become less common…” both of which are, well, wrong. The Latin Mass never declined – it was virtually banned from the top-down following Vatican II. And Latin Masses are not “becoming less common,” but are becoming much more common. If she actually attended a “Latin mass,” she would know these things well.
In other words, dear readers of America: The Jesuit Review, there is no need to worry about this millennial author who likes the Latin language so much that she got a degree in it. She is not advocating for the return of the Pre-Vatican II Latin Mass, but just for more Latin in the Church. She doesn’t want to eliminate the nice and casual English-language mass, with its sing-along songs on the guitar, down-to-earth priests, etc.

Jonathan Lee Ching
4 months 2 weeks ago

The younger generation, myself included I guess (30 years old) have discovered something beautiful in the Latin prayers and devotions that had been set aside and forgotten. We are not saying that everyone would adopt this way of thinking, but at least make an allowance for it to live side by side with our current expression. Though the older generation might find it quaint, they should at least allow for the possibility that recovering long-forgotten traditions is a good thing, rather than trivialise them or making fun of those that come to fall in love with something they never had access to growing up. These things are objectively true, beautiful and practical helps to holiness.

I, for example, have not studied Latin, but the little that I understand allows me access to a heritage that I never knew existed. The riches are greater than I could ever have hoped for since you also gain access to the Hebrew and Greek texts as the Church understood them. Latin prayers, the EF and OF in Latin, the novenas, the various texts that have not yet been translated, gestures and cultural traditions that bind us together over the centuries, whether you are English, American, African, Asian - we have something in common and can speak a 'common' spiritual language.

Truth, beauty and holiness of life are in my opinion and experience the best of evangelists. The use of the Latin language, gregorian chants, the forgotten devotions and the primacy of putting faith to work will bring a revitalisation of the catholic church. At this point in time, it is dying a sad and slow death in the west. It has lost its power and meaning, eclipsed by current ways of thinking leading to a weak and pitiable expression of Christian Truth.

The church today looks like left-overs, half-eaten by the world. There is little to attract the average person who does not have a religious affiliation or someone who is already religious - what would make them want to be Catholic? Nothing. Let's not even talk about atheists and other shades of disbelief.

Holiness of life will attract souls, beauty will reveal who God is, love will win souls, and truth will save souls.

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