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All power to the Pope’s new academy for Latin. The Latin I learned at school has stayed with me forever

As the Pope says, the language is crucial for theologians. So much of St Augustine is lost in translation

By on Monday, 12 November 2012

Benedict XVI waves at a meeting with the Santa Cecilia association on Saturday (Photo: AP)

Benedict XVI waves at a meeting with the Santa Cecilia association on Saturday (Photo: AP)

The Pope has set up a new Pontifical Academy for the Latin language. You can read his motu proprio here in Latin or, if you prefer, in Italian. No doubt other translations are in the pipeline.

I welcome this counter-cultural initiative. The Church ought to champion Latin, the best subject I ever studied, as well as the most rewarding, especially as it is fast disappearing from schools.

I was very lucky to have been taught Latin by a great teacher. His name was Mike McDonnell, and he believed in an enriched curriculum long before it was trendy to do so. He did not just teach for the exam. We read Petronius in the fourth form, as well as the Archpoet, and he would on occasion bring in battered copies of the Westminster Hymnal, so we could give the great Latin hymns a go. When the department was visited by the schools inspector, he was astonished to see a whole load of 14-year-olds reading Petronius. Later, as sixth formers we did Catullus and Horace – again, not on the syllabus. Mike also took us through the Virgil set pieces, and Lucretius’s De rerum Natura. Those Virgil set pieces have stayed with me forever. Whenever I feel a little like spiritual and cultural refreshment, I always turn to Virgil, which, thanks to Mike, I can read in the original. There is nothing more beautiful or more moving than the death of Turnus. Years ago, I got an Italian friend who had a car to drive me down to Turnus’s city outside Rome, even though Ardea is now a modern, ugly and unremarkable village. Just off the New Appian Way in modern Rome there is a Via Turno, named after the ancient hero. And when you go to the beach in the hot Roman summer, where else do you go but to the Lavinian shore? The Roman campagna, which is unromantic and ugly for the most part, has a patina of romance to it, thanks to Virgil’s immortal poem.

So, all power to the Pope’s new academy. As he points out in the motu proprio, Latin is very important for those who wish to engage with the sources of theology. I myself can attest to this too. When I did my doctorate, I found that much of what St Augustine says is lost in translation, and it really was important to read the Latin side by side with the English.

But what exactly is the Pope’s new academy going to do? It remains to be seen who will staff this new academy and what activities it will undertake. Will it perhaps provide bursaries for those who wish to study Latin? I do hope so. But – and this will not go down well, I fear – please let it be the Latin of the Golden Age – and not the tin or even leaden Latin of so many Vatican documents, which, one fears, are not composed in Latin, but written in prolix Italian and then translated.

As for my wonderful Latin teacher, he has, I believe, long gone down to Hades (as he himself would have liked to put it). May he find refreshment in the Elysian Fields. Or as we Catholics delight in saying – locum refrigerii, lucis et pacis.

  • http://cumlazaro.blogspot.com/ Lazarus

    The Academy should think about designing and supporting an online programme for lay people to learn Latin. Whilst there are existing online resources, they tend to be piecemeal and unstructured. There are so many benefits for Catholics in learning Latin -cultural as well as religious- and the Vatican is uniquely placed to resource and promote a revival in the language.

  • Guest

    It would be most interesting to read articles on the roots of the English language with reference to Latin. In addition to ecclesial and specialist etymologies, vernacular English plus all those place names,… the “cesters” and Trents etc.

  • scary goat

    This is good news.  As a next step could the Holy Father please insist on at least some basic Latin and an understanding of the Latin Mass to be taught in our schools.  Please…..for the sake of this generation growing up now. My own knowledge of Latin is only basic…I am not capable of teaching my children myself.  We need a generation to grow up now knowing at least the basics….for the future. Please……soon!

  • teigitur

    I am glad hear you studied latin Father. It never ceases to amaze me that the vast majority of Priests( certainly in ths Diocese) have no working knowledge of Latin. Even though we are the Latin Rite.
     This Academy is a sign of hope. Latin and the Traditional Mass must once again be taught in seminaries.

  • nahbios

     Ooh — I, for one, would love that!

  • Kevin

    If any priests are reluctant to say the TLM because they lack confidence in Latin – do not worry. We greatly appreciate the effort.

  • JByrne24

    If my memory of learning Latin from Catholic religious gentlemen (perverted lunatics, actually) serves me even slightly well, I can assure you that it involves much physical and mental pain – which lasts at least several decades.

  • scary goat

     I scraped an O level Latin Pass after adding it in as an extra subject with a minimum of lessons.  That was in a state comprehensive school (ex grammar school) and it wasn’t particularly painful…..actually I enjoyed it.  Unfortunately it was not at all Church related but I am grateful for what little I have.  At least I can take an educated guess at a Latin Mass.  Now even our Catholic schools don’t teach Latin.  What were they thinking to remove it from the syllabus?

  • Parasum

    “The Latin I learned at school has stayed with me forever”.

    ## But how readily does thinking in Latin come to you ? 

    Things may have changed, but when I was taught Latin, Tertullian was not among the authors read: not even Lactantius or St.Jerome, despite their fondness for Cicero. Latin was not the Latin of St. Thomas Aquinas, but the Latin of Cicero, Sallust, Catullus & Virgil. Cicero is great fun (when taught well) but Latin teaching in schools does not – or did not – emphasise that Latin did not die out after 200 AD or so. Ignoring its post-Classical past sets it up to be criticised as a dead language. Learning French would have been far easier if those who taught had it drawn attention to its Latin vocabulary – the meaning of “maison” makes perfect sense if one is taught that it has developed  from “mansio”. 

    If people are to read the Vulgate, Jerome, Damasus I,  Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, Gregory of Tours, Bede, Alcuin, Walafrid Strabo, Liutprand,  St. Dunstan, Gregory VII,  Peter Lombard, & too many others to mention (to say nothing of Protestant theology & scholarship), Cicero is not enough. If Latin is to survive and to flourish, Latinity unaffected by Christian thought is not enough. The Latin classics can’t be allowed to tyrannise over the Latin tradition – that would be like denying Ben Nevis is a mountain because it is not Everest. 

    The Breviary was “classicised” under Urban VIII; the hymns were re-cast, so that “caelum” became “Olympus”, and questionable vocabulary that begged to be taken in a bad sense was used: to call the BVM “dea” was idiotic stupidity. To call the God we believe in, the God Who reveals His Love & Saving Power in the Crucified & Risen Lord, by the name of “Jupiter”, given all the associations the name carries, is horrible. The kind of Latinity which does that is not something Christians need.    

    Instead of superficial Latinisations of the names of sees, why not translate the meaning of the name ? “Glasgowensis” looks uncouth & unLatinate. Since “Glasgow” = “dear green place”, why not  translate part or all of the meaning, and call it Locus Viridis in the nominative, turning this into “Loci Viridensis”  in the genitive, to produce “Archidioecesis/Archiepiscopus Loci Viridensis” – “A. of the Green Place” ? Church Latin has done very odd things to some names. St. Hyacinthus of Cracow is apparently St. Jacek – which is apparently a pet-form of the Polish for James or Jacob. “Hyacinthus” has all the wrong associations, and is semantically a complete distortion of what the man was called. How would a revived Church Latin deal with names so foreign to its linguistic tradition ? A Church Latin that has to marmalise the language in order to use it is unlikely to last. And it will seem intolerably self-conscious & hollow.

  • teigitur

    Indeed it seems to have lasted well!

  • teigitur

    I am ashamed to say we tortured our Latin teacher and she became a librarian. Though I still passed the exam.

  • JByrne24

    Well our Latin teachers, quite illegally, tortured us – and with relish.

  • Ronk

     Well “Jupiter” is after all a corruption of “Deus Pater”.

    You will be pleased to know that Australia’s diocese of Broken Bay created in 1986 is officially known as “Sinus Tortuosis”.

  • Joe Zammit

    I presume Latin of the golden age will be taught and studied. Otherwise it would be defective right from the start.

    One of the dogmatic theologians I know used to say: Videte claritatem Sancti Thomae! He used to teach dogmatic theology in Latin, and of course, St Thomas wrote his Summa Theologica in Latin.

    Translations, whether literal or free, cannot always be exactly faithful to the original Latin. Of course, today new words and concepts have been introduced among us for which there were no Latin words during the Latin golden age. So it is understandable to invent some modern Latin words and expressions.

  • teigitur

    Your mental torture.
      You clearly had a traumatic schooling, which is still resounding down the years. Though we were strapped regularly it was by lay teachers. I am in no way bitter towards them, it was of its time.

  • Papa Sisto

    I have many problems with the Church.  This is not one of them.  Good for His Holiness. 

  • JByrne24

    If I decide to sue for post traumatic stress disorder, I will keep your opinion in mind.
    We also had some lay teachers, but it was the religious who strapped, clouted, punched and kicked us – as I mentioned, with relish.
    There should be no statute of limitations as their behaviour was criminal.

  • WSquared

    Yes, please!

  • WSquared

    Yes, Fathers, keep trying and it will come.  We appreciate it.  We appreciate it when you learn it at all, and we appreciate it that it’s an ongoing learning experience for both you and us.

    Same goes for the laity:  don’t be afraid of the Latin Mass, because there is nothing to be afraid of.  English translations are always provided in any Missal, either at the church or one what one would buy for one’s own personal use.  It will take you about three weeks to get used to the rhythm of worship and the Latin responses.  Also, the people’s parts are *easy*:  memorize and/or become familiar with those, and it’ll free you up to really pray the Mass.

    If you attend the Novus Ordo and are curious about the TLM, allow the TLM to teach you how to pray the Novus Ordo.

  • Alphege

     As I recall, “Iuppiter” is actually a corruption of “Iovis Pater” – “Jove the Father”, not “God the Father”.

  • Rizzo The Bear

    Me, too!

  • Ronk

     and is not Iovis a corruption of Deus (which is a cognate of the Greek Zeus)?

  • Nat_ons

    I suspect that would be the only source from which they would get help, let all encouragement – or obedience (to what the Fathers of Vatican II actually commanded).
    “Nevertheless steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say
    or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which
    pertain to them.” Sacrosanctum Concilium, II 54.

  • Nickydespinoza

    I find this wonderful news! I have the great privilege of being Head of Classics in the largest college in the country – or thereabouts – and in the ten years I have taught Latin there – together with Greek and Classical Civilisation – I have seen it contribute to a great turnaround in the college’s perception, achievements and public regard. Our bright and able students – not to mention their keen parents – simply cannot get enough of it and placess for incoming Primary School children have to be rationed. Latin can change lives and alter educational directionsand it is quite wonderful to witness.

  • Matthew_Roth

    I agree.