Latin is not just for encyclicals. For all Catholics, it is our living history.
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Female He Created Them,” with its aversion toward the field of gender studies, perpetuates the idea that the church has outdated views on L.G.B.T. issues.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 Many of these critics say the use of Latin is another outdated tradition, a symbol of resistance to modernity.
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.