Why study Latin?

Jared Staudt

Ave Maria, Gloria in excelsis, Agnus Dei, Dominus Vobiscum, Sanctus, Tantum Ergo. These are just some of the Latin phrases that Catholics may recognize. Although it’s common to speak of Latin as a “dead” language, it remains alive within the Church, her sacred language of prayer, study, and unity. Pope Benedict XVI asked Catholics to learn the basic prayers of the Mass and the rosary to be able to pray together throughout the world. This common language roots the Latin rite of the Church in a common identity and heritage. A sacred language also points to the transcendent mystery and reverence of the Mass, moving beyond the ordinary language of one’s daily routine.

Not only has Latin served as the language of the Church since the third century, it also has provided the key language of education and learning. The great Cicero translated many works of Greek philosophy into the language of the Romans and himself became the chief model of polished writing. After the fall of the Empire, Roman Christians, particularly Boethius and Cassiodorus, sought to continue the study of the Latin language, writing textbooks of grammar and forming libraries to pass on ancient literature. The monasteries became centers of Latin grammar, using the writings of Virgil to provide a literary standard to study the Bible and for the Church’s liturgy, teaching, and legal tradition. Latin became the lingua franca of the Middle Ages and the language of the universities. Even modern writers have found within the ancient tongue their training ground of elegant expression and a literary tradition to guide their own work.

The reliance on Latin suddenly ceased, not only with the introduction of the vernacular in the Church’s liturgy but also with the decline of liberal education. Recognizing this decline, even in the very year the Second Vatican Council commenced, Pope St. John XXIII pointed to the sacred role of Latin in the Church and its important role in preserving her tradition and promoting unity throughout the world. In his letter, Veterum Sapientia, “On the Promotion of the Study of Latin,” he also proclaimed Latin’s crucial role in education: “There can be no doubt as to the formative and educational value either of the language of the Romans or of great literature generally. It is a most effective training for the pliant minds of youth. It exercises, matures and perfects the principal faculties of mind and spirit. It sharpens the wits and gives keenness of judgment. It helps the young mind to grasp things accurately and develop a true sense of values. It is also a means for teaching highly intelligent thought and speech.”

Somewhat more recently, a plea for Latin’s return to education within the United States has appeared in Tracy Lee Simmons’ Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin (ISI Books, 2002). Simmons rightly notes the deep influence of classical learning on the nation’s founders and its guiding presence within our oldest universities and even one room schoolhouses. After expressing the foundational and all-important role of words in education, he notes “the inseparable link between words and thinking” (160). Not just any words, as “good language makes for good thinking,” and not just any language, for Greek and Latin “helped, through their rigor and beauty, to form intellects, to develop minds” (ibid). Engaging in the rigors of ancient grammar teaches language itself, in a much more complete way than found in modern languages. Its complexity and precision leads to discipline within the mind itself, learning the craft of words and the logical thinking needed to form them clearly and cogently.

Some educators recommend Latin for its usefulness in mastering the English language. There is truth to this claim, with a majority of English words deriving from Latin and its derivative languages. More deeply, however, with ancient language, one enters the beauty and power of the masterpieces of the past, not simply reading them quickly in translation, but sitting at their feet and laboring to learn directly from the words of the masters. “Greek and Latin carry in the wake an entire world of thought and feeling” (164). Looking at the great deeds of the past, within our own country and the entirety of our civilization, it is necessary to reconnect to the sources of life that inspired and animated their achievements. In looking to the greats, Simmons advocates, “Don’t merely read about them; read what they read – as they read it” (210).

Many of our Catholic schools offer Latin, and its study opens up for their students a breadth of tradition, thought, and beauty. The language of saints and scholars can inspire our students to read deeply, think rightly, communicate clearly, and to enter more deeply into the mystery of our faith.

COMING UP: Archbishop Aquila on ad limina visit, Pope Francis and more

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During his ad limina visit Feb. 10-15, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila was granted an audience with Pope Francis for over two hours where they discussed several topics pertinent to the Church today.

Archbishop Aquila was among a contingent of U.S. bishops representing Region XIII in the United States, which includes the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Wyoming and Utah. He along with the bishops of those states met with the Holy Father Feb. 10. With the release of Querida Amazonia scheduled just a few days later on Feb. 12, Pope Francis discussed the document produced from last year’s Amazon Synod with the bishops.

“He brought up the question of celibacy, and he said [his] primary concern is that Gospel be proclaimed in the Amazon and that all of us need to focus on Jesus Christ and the proclamation of the Gospel first,” Archbishop Aquila said in an interview with EWTN. “If they proclaim the Gospel and are faithful to the Gospel, then vocations will come forth.”

Archbishop Aquila with Pope Francis during his ad limina visit Feb. 10. (Photo: Servizio Fotografico Vaticano)

With much discussion surrounding the Amazon Synod and possible implications it would have for the universal Church, Archbishop Aquila was reassured by the Pope’s comments on synodality and the Church’s application of it.

“Even in the understanding of synodality, which we spoke about, it always has to be ‘under Peter and with Peter’ and that synods cannot be going off and creating things that they want done,” the archbishop said. “He made it very clear: that is not synodality in the Catholic understanding. That was very reassuring.”

Among the other topics the bishops discussed with the Holy Father were some of the challenges faced by the Church in the United States and how to address them.

“The Holy Father was very clear: He said transgenderism is one of the great challenges in the United States right now, and the other is abortion,” Archbishop Aquila said. “Both of them really deal with the dignity of human life and the understanding of human life and do we truly receive from God the gender that he has given to us.

Bishop Jorge H. Rodriguez with Pope Francis during his ad limina visit Feb. 10. (Photo: Servizio Fotografico Vaticano)

“There are only two genders, male and female, and so how do we open our hearts to receiving that as gift.”
Archbishop Aquila said that they Holy Father also “spoke of media, and how the far left goes after him and the far right goes after him, and neither one really presents who he is.”

In a time where Pope Francis’ comments can be rather polarizing and even mischaracterized, Archbishop Aquila was struck by the depth of the Holy Father’s faith in his audience with him.

“[The Pope] has a very, very deep faith. He is convinced of the Gospel, he is totally convinced of Jesus Christ, he is convinced that there are teachings in the Church that can never change and that we have to be faithful to the Church.”

Hannah Brockhaus of Catholic News Agency contributed to this report.

Featured image by Paul Haring/CNS