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: Transforming quarantine into retreat

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This bruising Lent, in which “fasting” has assumed unprecedented new forms, seems likely to be followed by an Eastertide of further spiritual disruption. What is God’s purpose in all this? I would be reluctant to speculate. But at the very least, the dislocations we experience – whether aggravating inconvenience, grave illness, economic and financial loss, or Eucharistic deprivation – call us to a more profound realization of our dependence on the divine life given us in Baptism: the grace that enables us to live in solidarity with others and to make sense of the seemingly senseless.

If we cooperate with that grace rather than “kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14), it can enable us to transform quarantine, lockdown, and the interruption of normal life into an extended retreat, a time to deepen our appreciation of the riches of Catholic faith. Dioceses, Catholic centers, and parishes are offering many online opportunities for prayer, thereby maintaining the public worship of the Church. Here are other resources that can help redeem the rest of Lent and the upcoming Easter season.

* Shortly before the Wuhan virus sent America and much of the world reeling, I began watching Anthony Esolen’s Catholic Courses video-lectures on the Inferno, the first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy. I’ve long admired Tony Esolen’s Dante translation and his lucid explanation of the medieval Christian worldview from which Dante wrote; and there was something fitting about watching Esolen accompany Dante and Virgil through hell during a hellish Lent. Professor Esolen’s explication of Dante’s Purgatory and Paradise (also available from Catholic Courses) are just as appropriate these days, however. For the entire Comedy is a journey of conversion that leads to the vision of God; and that is precisely the itinerary the Church invites us to travel during Lent, as the Forty days prepare us to meet the Risen Lord at Easter and experience the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

* Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was arguably the greatest papal homilist since Pope St. Gregory the Great in the sixth century. The March and April sermons in Seeking God’s Face: Meditations for the Church Year (Cluny Media), help put the trials of this Lent and Eastertide into proper Christian focus.

* I’ve often recommended the work of Anglican biblical scholar N.T. Wright. Two chapters (“The Crucified Messiah” and “Jesus and God”) in The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (InterVarsity Press) make apt Lenten reading in plague time. The fifth chapter of that small book, “The Challenge of Easter,” neatly summarizes Dr. Wright’s far longer and more complex argument in The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press) and makes a powerful case for the historical reality of the Easter events. Like Wright, Pope Emeritus Benedict’s reflections on the empty tomb and the impact of meeting the Risen One in Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week (Ignatius Press) underscore the bottom of the bottom line of Christianity: no Resurrection, no Church.

* Bishop Robert Barron’s Catholicism series is the greatest audio-visual presentation of the faith ever created. If you’ve never watched it, why not now?  If you have, this may be the time to continue with Bishop Barron’s Catholicism: The New Evangelization (an exploration of how to put Catholic faith into action) and Catholicism: The Pivotal Players (portraits of seminal figures in Catholic history who did just that – St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena, St. John Henry Newman, G.K. Chesterton, and Michelangelo).

* Pope St. John Paul II’s centenary is the Monday following the Fifth Sunday of Easter: an anniversary worth celebrating, whatever the circumstances. The first 75 years of this life of extraordinary consequence for the Church and the world are relived in the documentary film, Witness to Hope – The Life of John Paul II. Liberating a Continent, produced by the Knights of Columbus, is a stirring video evocation of John Paul’s role in the collapse of European communism – and a reminder, in this difficult moment, of the history-bending power of courage and solidarity.

* The Dominican House of Studies in Washington and its Thomistic Institute are intellectually energizing centers of the New Evangelization. The good friars are not downing tools because of a pandemic; rather, they’re ramping up. Go to thomisticinstitute.org to register for a series of online “Quarantine Lectures” and an online Holy Week retreat. At the same home page, you’ll find Aquinas 101, 52 brief videos that make one of Catholicism’s greatest thinkers accessible to everyone, free and online, through brilliant teaching and striking animation.

And may the divine assistance remain with us, always.