Pope John Paul II calls for greater use of Latin

Pope John Paul II calls for greater use of Latin

Denis Murphy

The almost complete disappearance of the once universal Latin from the world's Catholic churches since the Second Vatican Council was not - as some Catholics still imagine - called for by the Council. Its intention was for Latin and the vernacular to exist side by side in the Church's Liturgy.

As Denis Murphy, who teaches at St Mary's College in Dublin, points out, the Pope clearly wants a revival in the use of Latin. While written from an Irish perspective, the article - which first appeared in 'The Irish Catholic' - has a wider relevance.

In May 2003, Pope John Paul II set up a new Vatican commission to restore the use of Latin in the Church.

The Pope believes that Latin is "indispensable" and his commitment was underlined on 24 May when one of his senior Vatican prelates, Cardinal Castrillion Hoyos, Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, celebrated a Tridentine Mass in the Roman basilica of St Mary Major - the first for a generation.

The Pope's intentions are clear. Latin should be restored to the centre of the universal Church. So how can the Church - in Ireland, for example, - play its part?

As is the case everywhere else in Europe, Latin in Ireland has undergone a generation of decline, being taught at present in only 38 schools out of a total of 700.

Educationally, this makes no sense. The evidence suggests that Latin students do better in school and college. In the United States, Latin students have been shown to do better than students who have studied other languages.

And it is not only in language skills that those with Latin can excel. Sixth Grade students in Indianapolis who studied Latin for 30 minutes each day for five months advanced nine months in their maths abilities, five months in science, four months in spelling and an entire year in reading.

Formerly, all educators understood this. In 19th century English public schools, there was a strong emphasis on Latin and Greek. These schools didn't dream of trying to teach children everything they would have to know in life, but rather sought to train minds so that students could adapt to whatever situation they encountered.

In our system, 12-year-olds are taught all manner of practical skills: bookkeeping, French, German, technical drawing, maths, art and design, functional writing (i.e., letters and memorandums) and computers. By the time they reach 15, they have become competent little clerks with a range of easily measured skills.

Unfortunately, this is vocational education which means children become good at tasks they have been taught to do, but are caught short when they have to think up solutions for themselves. They learn how to ask for directions and book restaurants in other languages, but not how language itself works.

With a strong grounding in Latin they would be able to break most languages into their component parts and learn how it all fits together. Need to learn Spanish or Italian? Not easy - but you can guarantee the Latinist will have a head start on the unfortunates who spend their schooldays practising the correct pronunciation of "I wish to reserve a hotel room for one night".

Implications for Church

The absence of Latin also has implications for the Church. It is not so long ago since you could go to any country in the world and understand exactly what was happening at the Mass. That universal aspect of Catholicism was lost, as was the link with two millennia of Church tradition. And the unintentional hurt caused to people who had loved the old rite of the Mass can hardly be overstated.

In fact it is not very difficult to pick up enough Latin to follow the Liturgy and read the Gospels - even if those who went through the Irish system of mandatory Latin might shiver at the memory of translating "the men were sent by Caesar up the mountain". Modern texts, however, are more user-friendly and pose few problems to schoolchildren.

For adults, it is possible to learn enough Latin (or Greek) in eight weeks of intensive study to be able to make sense of classical texts. Uniquely in Europe, such a course is offered in University College Cork (UCC) each summer and attracts students from all over the world. For those with less time on their hands, the Royal Irish Academy offers two-week long courses in beginners and intermediate Latin and Greek.

The internet is replete with Latin resources, including a Finnish service which broadcasts the week's news in Latin

Scriptural Latin can be learned in an even shorter time, since the Latin of the Gospels is far less complex than that of Cicero and Caesar. Perhaps the Church in Ireland could offer beginners' and revision courses in Church Latin. Judging by the success of the UCC Summer School, it would not be long before Ireland became a world centre in Christian Latin studies.

The Catholic press could also play its part in implementing John Paul's wish for a Latin revival.

In the 1990s the London Daily Telegraph ran a twelve-week series on how to read Latin. Regarded at first as an eccentricity of the then editor, Catholic convert Charles Moore, the articles attracted an enormous following from both beginners and those who wanted to relearn the language.

Six years later the book of the series is in its 19th edition. Perhaps The Irish Catholic could consider a similar set of articles, but specifically tailored to the Scriptures and the Mass. It would be one way to let the world know that when the Holy Father speaks, his words are taken seriously in this country.

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