May 15, 2005

"A Language by its Nature Universal, Immutable, Non-vernacular"

Online Edition

– May 2005

Vol. XI, No. 3

"A Language by its Nature Universal, Immutable, Non-vernacular"

Thoughts about teaching Latin today in a theological institute

by Andrei Gotia

In his Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia from the 22nd of February 1962, Blessed Pope John XXIII wrote:

Suae enim sponte naturae lingua Latina ad provehendum apud populos quoslibet omnem humanitatis cultum est peraccommodata: cum invidiam non commoveat, singulis gentibus se aequabilem praestet, nullius partibus faveat, omnibus postremo sit grata et amica.1

But alas, how many literate Catholics today, not to mention seminarians and priests, would not freeze before these lines thinking, "This is all Greek to me"? Or, to go to a more basic level, how many would be able to pray without mistakes the Our Father in Latin? Risum teneatis, amici, or, better, fletum!2

The pope set very high standards both for those who want to study theology — nemini enim faciendus est aditus ad philosophicas vel theologicas disciplinas tractandas, nisi plane perfecteque hac lingua eruditus sit, eiusque sit usu praeditus3 – and for their teachers – Quocirca qui sive in maximis Athenaeis, sive in Seminariis has profitentur disciplinas, et Latine loqui tenentur, et libros, scholarum usui destinatos, lingua Latina scriptos adhibere.4Vae nobis ignorantibus,5 who can then approach, not to say enter, these hyperborean precincts?

And then the familiar objections, such as: Why study Latin and not rather Spanish, which is more needed pastorally in the United States? English speakers, whether native or not, should know that over 40% of the vocabulary of the language is of Latin origin, and a solid knowledge of Latin will certainly improve one’s spelling capacities. It is redundant to say that the best way to approach Romance languages is to acquire a good acquaintance with their alma mater,6 Latin, who will generously introduce any suitors of her knowledge to her many daughters.

Some lovers of Latin blame the second Vatican Council for the ancillary position to which this language, about which the Blessed Pope John XXIII said lingua Latina, quam dicere catholicam possumus,7 is reduced nowadays. That Latin as language of the Church is no longer what it used to be, is a fact. But it is important to remember Blessed John XXIII not only wrote Veterum Sapientia, but also convoked the Council. If certain decisions in the wake of Vatican II led to the marginalization of Latin, this must be seen as a most unhappy event foreign to the intentions of the Council’s initiator. Pope John Paul II, following the example of his predecessors, more than once stressed the importance of the study of Latin and Greek for theological studies and urged that they be studied seriously.

Another objection to the study of Latin is made from the side of the "scientific" spirit characteristic of this age of incredible technical progress. Is it not better to spend time with computers or studying mathematics? Blessed John XXIII, with prophetic insight, urged that Latin, which nourishes and embellishes the soul, should be studied ne miseri mortales similiter ac eae, quas fabricantur, machinae, algidi, duri et amoris expertes exsistant.8 It is interesting to notice how Blessed John XXIII and John Paul II are here akin in thought: Pope John Paul II identified in certain sectors of the scientific culture of our day a major cause of the decadence that mars our society. We can all testify to the accuracy of the insight of Papa Roncalli: people today do resemble the machines they produce, cold, rough and deprived of love. But certainly not many would think of the study of Latin as the remedy.

What should one do to quit this valley of tears? Blessed John XXIII is very categorical: vetus et numquam intermissa linguae Latinae retineatur consuetudo, et, sicubi prope exoleverit, plane redintegretur!9 This is not merely a bit of friendly advice or a well-meant suggestion. Father Reginald Foster, OCD, a world-famous lover of Latin, reminds those inclined to take lightly the strong injunctions of Veterum Sapientia that Munificentissimus Deus, the document written by Pope Pius XII, which in 1950 solemnly defined the assumption of the Blessed Virgin into heaven, was also an Apostolic Constitution!

If anyone should be in darkness as to how to start, one can suggest the very rich Wheelock’s Latin (6th edition), a textbook that can be leisurely covered in approximately a semester and a half. Various readings can be pursued further, like Wheelock’s Latin Reader, or Imitatio Christi,10 a daily reading highly recommended by Blessed John XXIII himself.

But, apart from good textbooks and dictionaries, teachers should not forget that their personal attitude, their passion and conviction, are the strongest arguments for their students to be attracted also by Latin.

Humor is reputedly helpful, especially when declensions and conjugations seem to overcloud the horizon: playing hangman with Scripture verses, reading Latin comics, fining the students for their mistakes and cashing the money in a pecunia11 jar or, every now and then, solving a Latin crossword puzzle, like the following one, as a bonus for those who will rush now to read the entire Veterum Sapientia!

And, last but not least, one should ponder the fact that the author of Veterum Sapientia has "made" it into the society of the blessed and of the saints.

Who would dare say that his love for Latin had nothing to do with it?



1 "By its very nature the Latin language is most fitted for promoting every training in civilization among any peoples: since it does not stir envy, it shows itself equable to each nation, it does not favor the particular interest of anyone, finally it is agreeable and friendly to all". The translation of the Latin is my own.

2 "Can you restrain your laughter" or better, "your tears?"

3 "Access to the study of the philosophical or theological disciplines should be granted to no one, unless he is completely and perfectly instructed in this language and can use it".

4 "Therefore those who teach these disciplines either in the universities or in seminaries are requested both to speak Latin and to use books written in Latin destined for the use of students".

5 "Woe to us, the ignorant!"

6 "Nourishing mother".

7 "The Latin language, which we can call Catholic"."

8 "Lest the wretched mortals be like the machines which they make, cold, rough and deprived of love".

9 "The ancient and never interrupted usage of the Latin language should be preserved and, wherever it almost grew out of use, it should be fully restored!"

10 "The imitation of Christ".

11 "Money".


Andrei Gotia teaches Latin and Greek at the International Theological Institute in Gaming, Austria.



Andrei Gotia