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