Why Study Latin?

News: Commentary
by Raymond de Souza, KHS, KofC  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  January 26, 2022   

A papal document gives us some answers

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I recently stumbled upon a website called Unam Sanctam Catholicam. It had a very instructive article on an apostolic constitution by Pope St. John XXIII, promoting the study of Latin — a document about which I had never previously heard, titled Veterum Sapientia (1962). Interestingly, Veterum Sapientia, written by the father of Vatican II, affirms Latin studies' importance for the Church.

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Pope St. John XXIII

It is an indisputable fact that, today, the Latin Liturgy attracts many very prayerful people, especially young adults. Everyone knows that the rising generations represent the Church of the future. The pews at Latin Masses often are filled with large families, who can provide the future vocations the Church badly needs.

Pope Francis has famously spoken about the need for pastors to smell of their sheep, which is his way of emphasizing that pastors must hear the voice of the laity and provide for the laity's needs.

Many of the sheep today smell of the sacred incense of traditional Liturgy. So pastors would act wisely in adding more incense to the thurible (at least figuratively) by enhancing the beauty and reverence of the Liturgy.

Many of the sheep today smell of the sacred incense of traditional Liturgy.

Pope St. John XXIII's Veterum Sapientia provided a comprehensive rationale for why Latin should be studied. I summarize some key sections below, but nonetheless recommend that every Catholic read the document in full.

There are five central reasons for the study of Latin proffered by Veterum Sapientia:

  1. Latin is a testimony to the historic witness of the Church
  2. Latin provides "a bond of unity for the Christian peoples of Europe"
  3. Being a "dead language" means Latin is neutral and universal — it does not favor one nation or ethnicity over another
  4. Latin has an immanent precision and dignity, making it particularly suitable to the demands of theological discussion
  5. The fact that it's not a vernacular tongue gives Latin a special strength to bind the past, present and future of the Church together in one stream of continuity

Pope St. John XXIII understood the concept of a liturgical language, the Church's need for such a language, the need for it specifically to be "non-vernacular," and the eminent suitability of Latin to serve such a role in the West. 

Some might object that learning Latin is needlessly difficult and time-consuming — and thus that it is a distraction from evangelization. It would seem more prudent for a missionary overseas, for example, to learn the local tongue rather than ecclesiastical Latin.

News Report: Mass of the Ages

But the idea that learning the Church's liturgical language somehow forecloses upon learning vernacular languages is insulting to the innumerable Catholic missionary priests who went to great lengths to study local tongues for the sake of spreading the gospel, while contemporaneously celebrating Mass in Latin. Here are but a few such priests:

  • Saint Jean de Brébeuf, S.J., labored for 12 years to compile a dictionary in the Huron tongue while simultaneously celebrating Mass in Latin
  • Fr. Francisco Ignacio Alcina, S.J., worked for 37 years among the Visayans, patiently creating dictionaries of the Visayan language and translating their literature into Spanish
  • Carmelite priest Fr. John Thaddeus learned Persian and Turkic for his mission in Isfahan, Persia (modern-day Iran), a mission that was so successful he became a friend and confidant of the shah 
  • In Brazil, St. José de Anchieta, S.J., wrote the grammar of the local native Tupi language

The use of liturgical Latin has never been an obstacle to Catholic pastors learning vernacular languages. Quite the opposite: Knowing Latin may facilitate the learning of other languages. Indeed, many students of Latin find that their knowledge of Latin grammar, with all its precision and complexity, helps immensely with learning modern tongues.

Finally, the idea that priests should not study Latin because they need to devote their time to more important matters could have been totally avoided had the priests been trained in Latin in their years spent in seminary, in keeping with centuries-old tradition. That way, by the time of their ordination, priests would be ready to begin studies of whatever other languages were necessary for their vocations.

Raymond de Souza is a knight of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem, and a fourth degree Knight of Columbus. He has given in person, on radio and on television over 2,500 talks on apologetics and pro-life issues. He has also assisted religious education programs in dioceses, parishes, schools and lay organizations in 38 countries of the six continents in four languages (English, Spanish, French and Portuguese, plus some Italian and Afrikaans). He writes weekly articles for the oldest national Catholic paper, The Wanderer. He is the delegate for International Missions for Human Life International, the largest Catholic pro-life and pro-family association in the world, which has affiliates in over 100 countries.
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