Latin: Language of the Church, an essay by Dr. Patrick M. Owens

Aelredus RievallensisEssays  

December 16, 2019

Respected Latin educator Dr. Patrick M. Owens wrote a significant introduction to a recent book of essays In Praise of the Tridentine Mass and of Latin, Language of the Churchby Fr. Roberto Spataro.

Its cogent account of the role of Latin in the life of the Church, and its appeal for the restoration of classical Latin pedagogy, deserve to be read by all parties concerned for the future of the humanities, and more specially for the reform of Catholic education.

Some excerpts below….

At the convent of Duns Scotus College in Southfield, Michigan the sun had just begun to set as the young Franciscan novices stood in choir for Vespers. Suddenly, furtive glances and stifled chuckles interrupted the customary solemnity of the chapel as the verse “Et percussit inimicos suos in posteriora (Ps. 77:66)” was sung. The surprised novices understood the verse as “And [the Lord] struck His enemies in their backsides”.

It was 1948, and the Order of Friars Minor had recently returned to the Vulgate translation of the Psalms after an inauspicious experiment with the Bea Psalter. These twenty-three friars, who had been Franciscans for less than two years, had grown familiar with the Pian version of the same verse, “Et percussit a tergo inimicos suos” (And [the Lord] struck his enemies from their back.)

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All these novices had studied Latin for at least four years before their simple profession. In the Franciscan minor seminaries – basically their equivalent of high school – students had five hours of Latin classes and at least as many hours of liturgy in Latin each week. During novitiate there were no formal academic classes; rather, it was a time devoted to formation and discernment. As such, they were obliged to recite the entire Divine Office in choir, attend Mass daily, and listen to seminars on the Holy Rule, all of which were in Latin and accounted for at least four hours each day. Latin was not a foreign language; it was the language of the Church. The novices did not study it at a distance, they lived it. Having such familiarity with the language, it was not surprising that the novices would hear the changed words of the Psalm and immediately attribute to “posteriora” its ridiculous common meaning. They were not translating the Latin. They were understanding it.

Another example of this integration of Latin into the rhythms of religious life also occurred at a seminary. Fr. Reginald Foster, OCD, once recalled that in 1954 at the minor seminary in Peterborough, New Hampshire, the novice-master admonished a Carmelite novice to wash off his grease-laden hands. In response the novice raised his blacked hands to his superior and quipped, “Nigra sum sed formosa,” a clever reference to a Vespers antiphon from taken from the Canticle of Canticles “I am black, but beautiful (Cant.1:4).” The novice-master chuckled, and the novice was able to escape further rebuke.

The deep and instinctive familiarity with Latin illustrated by these stories resulted from a comprehension and immersive education in the language. Kenneth Baker, SJ, recounts that when he was a Jesuit seminarian in the 1950s, not only were all the seminary classes taught in Latin and from Latin textbooks, but the annual oral examinations were also conducted in Latin. All recreation time in novitiate was in Latin – meaning that for much of the day, novices were expected either to speak Latin or not to speak at all. Men who intended to enter the Order without knowing Latin were required to complete a two year Juniorate, which helped them bridge the gap. By the time of ordination, most Jesuits with such a background had read a great part of the Classics and of the Church Fathers in the original and could write and speak Latin. The Jesuit education was, in fact, a liberal arts curriculum with an emphasis on the Classics.

Nevertheless, Latin was not the exclusive province of priests and religious. Within living memory, Catholic school children in both Europe and America learned their Latin prayers and grammar. Boys as young as eight years old could recite from memory the prayers at the foot of the altar. Even children (though perhaps to a lesser extent girls) from working class families could be expected to know the Mass and to have read some Vergil and Caesar by age fourteen. Before the last century, by the age of sixteen, a diligent though unexceptional student from a well-off family would have attained a level of mastery in Latin that would surpass that of many current graduate students of the Classics.

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The Latin Class, Ludwig Passini (1869)

To be sure, Latin was larger than the schoolroom or the choir. The language that had served the Western world as a lingua franca for nearly two millennia was still the official language of the Church’s hierarchy, prayer, and diplomacy. Beyond sheer formalities, it fulfilled a genuine need in the Church even into the 20th century: Latin was the actual mode of international communication between priests and scholars. Catholics were not studying Latin merely as a scholastic exercise, but rather for the sake of acquiring their venerable tradition and laying foundations for an enduring intellectual and spiritual culture.

The Acta Apostolicae Sedis is only one typical example of the way clergy and laity alike used Latin as a genuine means of communication in the last century. As the official monthly gazette of the Catholic Church it contained all the news that Rome saw fit to print. The AAS brought news of ecclesial appointments, the contents and digest version of encyclical letters, and the decisions of Roman congregations in reply to dubia. When Catholics were uncertain about the validity of a certain sect’s sacraments, a particularly thorny annulment petition, whether they might enjoy a relaxation of fasting or abstinence on some account, or how to recognize a newly canonized saint in the recitation of the Divine Office, for these and numerous other queries, there was found in the AAS a repository of current responses and practical assistance to which the faithful could avail themselves. The laws contained in the AAS were considered promulgated as soon as they were published, leaving no time for translations into various languages.

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With rare exception, AAS was published entirely in Latin, a practice that on account of the gravity of the subject matters and the international audience was never seriously questioned. In fact, AAS was only the latest iteration (having been preceded by the Acta Sanctae Sedis and the Acta et Decreta) of expansive international publishing for the benefit and governance of hundreds of millions of faithful. In the minds of the authors, the linguistic continuity of these publications ensured that they would be accessible to Catholics of any future generation. In 1940 a Catholic with little more than a high school degree could make sense of a literary corpus ranging from this month’s edition of the Acta Apostolicae Sedis back to the Acta Martyrum Scillitanorum (the account of the Scillitan Martyrs from 180 AD). This connection with an immutable language meant that modern people were able to be in dialogue with past generations using the same literary models, technical terminology, and allusions to scripture or liturgy. From the Vatican cloister to the high schools of Brooklyn, Catholics prayed, studied, travelled, litigated, and even joked in Latin ut sint unum.

But arguably the strongest thread holding this long fiber of Latin culture together across the centuries was the Latin liturgy. By virtue of its being the central and universal prayer of the Church, the Divine Office is the first contact for both clergy and faithful with the sublime liturgical idiom of the West. Furthermore, when the faithful pray the Divine Office, the prayer of the individual joins with that of the diocese and of the universal Church, in an act that transcends temporal and spatial boundaries Though consisting principally of Psalms, the Divine Office also contains many of the Church’s most elaborate orations, petitions, and ancient homilies. The august poetry of the psalter and meticulous diction of orations and collects provide the faithful with a common voice and universal language into which the Franciscan novices of Duns Scotus College and countless previous generations around the world assimilated their prayer. Because Latin was an essential feature of this communal liturgy, experienced by all Catholics, it ensured in turn that it remained an integral part of Catholics’ cultural memory.

Arguably one of the most important reasons that Latin education must be kept alive in the Church is to retain access to this communal experience of liturgy. Why? Because this liturgy is the repository of the Catholic tradition.

It is education which conserves and transmits the experience and wisdom of the previous generations so that such a cultural memory, identity, and common parlance can be forged and strengthened. Indeed, for most of human history, this inculturation has been a primary purpose of education. Language encapsulates the culture and the history of a society. Those elements are passed to the successive generations through the language so that future generations may benefit from the sufferings and discoveries of their forebears and enjoy the comfort of participation in a transcendent community that reaches back through the ages. Rightly conceived, culture is the conscious ideal of human perfection and the habitual vision of greatness. In the case of Catholic culture, this community originates with the Apostles and Our Lord Himself. The language that provides the Divine Office with its poetic freedom and simultaneously constrains the prose to prescriptive ancient norms, carries in its rich history an immense treasure of thought and feeling from both pre-Christian and Apostolic times. For the better part of two thousand years, it has provided the Church with a language of worship, an intellectual clarity, and a mark of catholicity.

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Catholic culture – the sensus fidelium – is replete with ideas about fasting and feasting, domestic devotions, processions and pilgrimages, all expressed in one unifying idiom of Latin. But culture cannot be infused; it must be taught, absorbed, and lived. And although the accoutrements of Catholic culture are only ancillary to the Sacraments, they nonetheless provide an integral part of the identity in the Roman Church. This core identity of the Church is what is at stake in the current controversies regarding the role of Latin.


Latin was especially important for countries whose national languages were either too diverse or too different from the rest of Europe for easy communication. In Hungary, the national language remained Latin until the nineteenth century. It was the language of politics, administration, education, and the judiciary. Orations and public debates at every level were held in Latin. More than just an official language, Latin was also the language of the everyday communication of society. Of course, not every Hungarian was an eloquent speaker, and language proficiency was dependent upon one’s level of education. Nevertheless, after the elementary schools, which were conducted mostly in Hungarian, secondary school courses were taught in Latin. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Western European travelers who had visited Hungary, remarked with awe that the Latin language was in daily use by a variety of people, not only the nobility and the clergy, but oftentimes even simple folk. Latin represented for Hungarians a bond with the glorious past of the Kingdom, a direct link with classical antiquity, an intellectual connection with Western culture, and a token of national unity, which was especially critical for an empire that was comprised of Croatians, Germans, Serbs, Slovak, and Turks, all of whom had their own native languages.[1] In this way, Hungary’s use of Latin mirrored that of the Church.

The Church’s adherence to this common practice of utilizing Latin as a lingua franca should not be surprising. Languages are intrinsically bound to cultures, and Latin for nearly two-thousand years had been the language not only of Catholic culture in the West but of Western culture itself. It is for this reason that the Church took pains to keep alive the tradition of active Latin. Catholic intellectuals knew well that since Latin was the vehicle of culture, a superficial familiarity would not be sufficient. To ensure the ability to engage with past sources and contemporary intellectuals as well as to protect the transference of Catholic culture to subsequent generations, active language use is essential. Catholic leaders, therefore, took pains to master the Catholic language not only passively through extensive reading and public lectures, but also actively by developing the ability to communicate effectively and rhetorically in written and extemporaneous spoken exchanges. This tradition persisted into modern times, producing the outstanding Catholic scholars, many of them priests and bishops, who distinguished themselves during the first half of the twentieth century. This same tradition allowed for elegant orations and spirited debates at the Second Vatican Council, where the comparably small number of prelates incapable of extemporaneous Latin conversation enjoyed personal translators. If Latin’s position, even as late as the time of Vatican II, appeared so solid, what had been the hidden fault lines that led to such a seemingly abrupt fissure between past and present over the past 50 years?

Find out by ordering the book, In Praise of the Tridentine Mass and of Latin, Language of the Churchby Fr. Roberto Spataro, Secretary of the Pontifical Academy for Latin.

Excerpts published by kind permission of Angelico Press.



[1] cf. Graham, Hugh F. “Latin in Hungary.” The Classical Journal 63, no. 4 (1968): 163-65. Vámbéry, Ármin Arminius Vambéry: His Life and Adventures London, Fisher Unwin. 1884 p.5; Capek, Thomas The Slovaks of Hungary Knickerbocker Press, New York. 1906. 176-80

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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