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Latin: Living Language, Ancient Rite

If we seek a restoration, it is necessary to promote a renewed appreciation of the ancient liturgy and a revival of Latin-centered education.

The "Golden psalter" open to Psalm 51(52) [Wikipedia]

Editor’s note: This review was originally posted on November 11, 2019. 

“In vino veritas,” Doc Holliday reminds an enemy in a gambling saloon in the 1993 film Tombstone, thereby insinuating that his own insulting behavior toward the outlaw is not mere drunkenness but instead reflects Holliday’s real sentiments. “Age quod agis,” retorts the other man darkly. The two continue their brief but very hostile exchange of schoolboy phrases until an anxious saloonkeeper tells them to break it up: “C’mon, boys, we don’t want any trouble here—not in any language.”

Amusing Hollywood fiction or no, the scene reminds us of a very different era, when even gunfighters such as Holliday received an intensive classical education. And just to be clear, “classical education” did not mean Great Books programs or a curriculum saturated with Greco-Roman mythology, but subjects such as trigonometry, logic, rhetoric, and of course Latin.

Along with the Tridentine Mass, which employs it, this last subject is the focus of Fr. Roberto Spataro’s new book In Praise of the Tridentine Mass and of Latin, Language of the Church. Even the very title is fraught with meaning, it seems to me, through its dual emphasis. If we seek a restoration, it is necessary to promote a renewed appreciation of the ancient liturgy and a revival of Latin-centered education.

Certainly those who look up to Cardinal Raymond Burke as a bulwark against reckless Amazonian theology should take to heart the remarks of His Excellency’s uncompromising introductory foreword:

Because of the general indifference towards the teaching of Latin, especially in the seminaries, the Church has reached a state in which many of her pastors no longer know her universal language. If it is absurd to think that seminarians may seriously study theology, the sacred liturgy, and canon law without being able to read the primary texts written in Latin, it is even more absurd that priests destined for higher studies of the sacred sciences find themselves without this capacity.

What Catholic “conservatives” might take away from this is that whenever they too exhibit “indifference toward the teaching of Latin,” they contribute to the environment which fosters the very looniness they themselves bemoan. If we shrug as a Catholic prep school drops Virgil, we really have no business complaining when our universities host The Vagina Monologues.

As a matter of fact, some Protestant schools have picked up the slack, with a case in point being Hillsdale College. Hillsdale has demonstrated its earnest commitment to reviving its once-defunct classics department by enlisting Patrick Owens, one of the world’s foremost practitioners of “living Latin” pedagog, and Owens’ introduction alone justifies the purchase price of this book, as it offers the reader a smooth, clear, and good-humored history of Latin education from someone who obviously knows his subject inside and out.

In particular Professor Owens drives home the fact that Latin is not just about men in togas nor even the medievals, but is rather part of the very foundations of modernity:

After the watershed moment for vernacular literature at the start of the fourteenth century when Dante composed his Divine Comedy, scholars and artists of every stripe like Petrarch, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Leibniz, and even Nietzsche continued to write principal works in Latin. The use of Latin was so common up through the nineteenth century as to be taken for granted throughout Europe and its colonies. Until that time, there was no interval of time when Latin was not spoken in universities and throughout the Church. For most of the modern period, a graduate student in any field would have been embarrassed to submit a dissertation that was not in Latin.

For his part, Professor Owens emphasizes that Catholics seeking an explanation for how and why we have moved so far away from this state of affairs should resist the temptation to hastily scapegoat the councilors of Vatican II, as the rise of the modern, centralized nation-state played a role by displacing Latin in favor of national languages. A vicious cycle ensued, for as fewer teachers were able to teach Latin well, fewer teachers were able to, well, teach Latin well.

In the main body of the text Fr. Spataro looks to the more distant past, to the time when Latin first set aside its limited role as the tongue of a particular people and assumed its lofty role as an international bond:

I would like to recall that, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, accompanied in the fifth century by the influx of new peoples, the Latin language became immortal, destined never again tot die. Beginning in the fifth century, civil and political communities selected Latin for their daily conversations, to be the basis of relationships, for drawing up administrative acts, for composing literary works, and for the celebration of prayers. In this way the peoples of Europe, in dialogue with one another through the use of the same language, developed a unique spirit of their own.

It seems to me that at least some of the rancorous controversies about “Western civilization” might be resolved by toning down triumphalist phrases about Western democracy or science and instead matter-of-factly defining “the West” as that cluster of cultures networked together through Latin fluency. (This would of course raise the question of how much of the West really still exists today, but such a question might indeed be well worth asking.)

In any event, the “unique spirit” to which Fr. Spataro refers was hardly confined to Europe. For instance, other scholars have already demonstrated the debt the American colonies owed to the classical inheritance, whether all the colonists themselves were willing to acknowledge said debt or not.

And, of course, there is the religious dimension. As Professor Owens plainly puts it, Latin is essential to who we are, as Catholic Christians:

Languages are intrinsically bound to cultures, and Latin for nearly two-thousand years had been the language not only of Catholic culture in the West but of Western culture itself. It is for this reason that the Church took pains to keep alive the tradition of active Latin. Catholic intellectuals knew well that since Latin was the vehicle of culture, a superficial familiarity would not be sufficient. To ensure the ability to engage with past sources and contemporary intellectuals as well as to protect the transference of Catholic culture to subsequent generations, active language use is essential.

For those seeking an authentically Christian and wholesomely cosmopolitan alternative to liberal globalism, the revival of Latin is critical. In contrast to American “Coca-Colonialism,” classical culture allows for the diversity of provincial and national cultures even as it links such cultures into a larger metaculture. Unlike Disney, Marvel, and garish pop musicians, long-dead Romans do not threaten to supplant all local identity and history, much less the Faith.

Just as the Eucharist is the heart of the Church, so the Latin Mass must be at the heart of any discussion of the role of Latin in Christian life. When Fr. Spataro calls “for a correction, a reorientation ad Deum,” he means it quite literally. The theocentric counter-revolution, he explains, began with Benedict XVII’s Motu Proprio:

We would be mistaken to consider [the Motu Proprio] merely as an act of generosity by the Supreme Pontiff to meet the spiritual needs of a minority group of priests and faithful. On the contrary, it is an invitation to the whole Church. Knowledge, diffusion, and practice of the Holy Mass and the other sacraments in the extraordinary form is a great opportunity to restore spiritual profundity to Catholicism. This is the true pastoral priority, over and above transient circumstances.

The point here is neither to stamp out the Novus Ordo nor to disparage the priests who reverently serve it or the many Catholics who faithfully attend it, but to recognize that in a world of frenzied continual change we could use some more spiritual anchors, which could well come in the form of more Latin masses.

Our Latin-educated Catholic forebears were not perfect, but we surely do have some things to learn from them, too, even from dangerous and violent men like Doc Holliday. As a postscript it is interesting to note that Holliday’s devout cousin Mattie, a Sister of Mercy, had urged him to think of his soul as he lay dying of tuberculosis; he followed her advice and was received into the Church shortly before his passing. If the past was an era when students had to sweat over “dead” languages, it was also a time when a nun might persuade a deadly gunfighter to accept the water of baptism.

In Praise of the Tridentine Mass and of Latin, Language of the Church 
By Fr. Roberto Spataro
Translated by Zachary Thomas
Foreword by Raymond Cardinal Burke
Introduction by Patrick M. Owens
Angelico Press, 2019
Paperback, 123 pages

Related at CWR: “For the Love of Latin” (Sept 2, 2019) by Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas.


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About Jerry Salyer 46 Articles
Catholic convert Jerry Salyer is a philosophy instructor and freelance writer.

17 Comments

  1. Certainly it is an extraordinary thing that Latin was able for various reasons to remain remarkably stable in these past 2000 years. English, for example, as we know it, did not even exist 1000 years ago — it would be unintelligible for us today. The Vulgate Bible,however, could be read by anyone who knew Latin ever since it was written. And even someone like Julius Caesar would have been able to read it (if he were still alive) in spite of some differences in grammar and choice of words. Latin, in other words, is an amazing link with the past that should not be undervalued.

  2. If there was an universal ecclesial language it was Greek. Latin was the language of the people in the Western part of the Roman Empire, and then the ecclesial language. Western Christians today, if they have the aptitude and time, should learn both Latin and Greek.

    • You correctly point out that it would be wrong to think that Latin was a universal language in the Church. In addition, besides Greek there was Syriac which dominated all the way to India in the East. Armenia also was the first country to wholly embrace Christianity. Then there was the Copt community of Egypt along with the Greek speakers. What is extraordinary about Latin, though, is that it has a stability which makes it possible to pick up anything written in the last 2000 years and read it — this makes it an amazing window to the wisdom of the past and Western thought in general, not to mention many of the famous Muslim philosophers who were also translated into Latin due to their influence on philosophy in Europe.

  3. It should be noted that the Latin language in the liturgy is far from being limited to the Tridentine Mass. The novus ordo is celebrated regularly in Latin; the Pope does it. The Roman Missal of 2012 is published in Latin. Likewise, the posture “ad Deum,” (ad orientem) is not limited to the Tridentine Mass. The rubrics of the missal presume the priest is facing East when they prescribe that he turn to address the people. The Mass ad orientem in Latin is celebrated at the colloquium of the Church Music Association of America in both forms. (see musicasacra.org)

  4. I’m not a person who grew up hearing Latin, I’m a convert although most of my family was Catholic. The Latin is compelling, all on it’s own, if the church is interested in converts anymore, and that’s debatable. It is mysterious and beautiful. One of the best aspects of Latin is that it’s a dead language, nobody is going to “modernize” meaning, the meaning is fixed and now un-tinker-able.

    • Hmm…. I tried learning Latin on Duolingo and gave up because of the confusion when they were using Latin to describe same-sex relationships (something Duolingo at some point just inflicted on the lessons – lots of stories and sentences in which the main characters are married or getting married and are gay). I don’t remember – because I gave up trying to learn – but I was getting sentences wrong because when I needed to say something like, ‘She is married to him’ the correct answer would be ‘he is married to him’ and… well, I don’t remember, but it seemed like it just didn’t and couldn’t work in Latin because of the gendered nouns. I protested every single time I got one of those sentences (you can report something wrong with the exercise), but in the end, gave up. Anyway, it seems that Latin is tinker-able, even if it is rendered senseless in the process.

  5. The first language of Christian liturgy was Aramaic, the common language of the first Christians, who were Palestinian Jews. While Hebrew was the language of scripture and formal worship, Christian worship occurred in the home where Aramaic was spoken. The words Abba and maranatha are Aramaic.
    Christianity quickly spread from Palestine to the rest of the world, and the Eucharist came to be celebrated in many languages, including Syriac, Coptic, and Armenian. In most of the Mediterranean world, the common language was Greek, which became the language of liturgy in that region and remained so until the early third century.
    Eucharist itself is a Greek word, meaning thanksgiving. The phrase Kyrie eleison and the words liturgy, baptism, evangelize, martyr, and catechumen, among other familiar church words, are also Greek in origin.
    From around the third century B.C., what we call “classical” Latin was the language of the Roman aristocracy and the educated classes. Around the time Jesus was born, during the reign of Augustus Caesar, the language began to change. The Roman aristocracy was destroyed by war and political infighting; when they disappeared, their language went with them. Classical Latin was replaced by a less refined version of the language.
    In the third and fourth centuries A.D. this form of Latin began to replace Greek as the common language of the Roman world and soon became the language of the liturgy.
    Exactly how this change in the liturgy came about is uncertain. In the early church the liturgy was led extemporaneously by the bishop, according to a pattern. There were written examples of Eucharistic Prayers, but they were models, not prescribed prayers. The last such document in Greek was written around the year 215. By the sixth century, the Roman Canon (which is still in use, also called Eucharistic Prayer I) appears, completely in Latin and prescribed for use exactly as written.
    What happened during those centuries? It seems that a core of the Roman Canon was developed and used first, probably even in liturgies that were partly in Greek and partly in Latin, until the final Latin version evolved. Because Christians had not used Latin for worship prior to this, words had to be adapted or imported (often from Greek) to express Christian ideas, beginning the development of an ecclesiastical form of Latin. There is also evidence that the Roman Canon was influenced by prayers from the Eastern churches.
    Even though Latin evolved into various modern languages, Latin remained the sole language of the Roman Rite until the Second Vatican Council returned to the original instinct of Christianity that people should worship in a language they understand. 

    • It’s a fact that, as a seven year old assisting at Holy Mass, I knew very well what “Hic est enim Corpus meum” meant. And this from a kid growing up on the streets of Brooklyn!

  6. The antipathy to Latin in the Church goes even deeper, I fear. How many parishes have dropped the ‘s from their names. Instead of St. Mary’s Church, it’s now St. Mary Church. The ‘s comes from Latin is apostrophated to accommodate English. The ‘s denotes possession of the church by the saint, patronage. Dropping it undercuts the Communion of Saints as well.

    • I rarely go back to the US (mostly because I attend daily Mass and the silliness and banality and the abuses just tear my heart), but I’ve noticed that in the 30 years since I left, Catholic parishes are not called parishes or churches anymore, but ‘community.’ So St Joseph’s Church became ‘the Saint Joseph community.’ Why? Meaning what? Focusing on what?

  7. Just think, if all Catholics knew Latin, they could visit any country with a Catholic population and feel at home because communicating with the natives would not be a problem.

    • Yes! I am in the weird position of being a non-Polish speaker living in Poland, who has worked for 15 years on an ENGLISH Mass in my diocese, which must exist because so many immigrants and travellers here cannot speak or understand Polish, but do know English for work or studies. So English is the new Latin, sort of. if we all knew the Latin Mass, then there would be no need of this diocese (and major cities in other dioceses in the country) having Masses in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Ukrainian, Russian…
      On the other hand, because of the growing universality of English, now we can instruct the same foreigners to complete their sacraments, get married (thank you Augustine Institute and the Beloved series), and convert to the Catholic Church. But of course, I could do all that instruction in English even if the Mass were universally still in Latin. People are moving around the globe in ways we could never have imagined when I was born.

      When my father was visiting (born 1917; I was born about 45 years later), and attending Mass in Polish, I tried to help him follow along by pointing out where were were in my English-language Missal. But then some of the prayers in the liturgy of the Eucharist were in Latin, and suddenly my father went from being kind of just dumbly present to full participation, praying with gusto that I had never seen in my life (I had never heard him say the responses in Latin; didn’t even think about the fact that he must have grown up with it and been familiar with it until shortly after I was born). Suddenly, he was no longer a confused, alienated person, unable to participate fully in the Mass. He knew right where he was – in the Mass, in the church, as a participant, and he came alive to the Mass.
      Took me about a year to get to the point of just knowing where I was in the Polish Mass. And now I work with people who are coming to Poland, can’t speak the language, and need to go to Mass in English – often for the first time in their lives – and learn the Mass in English because at least in English, they have a some ability to understand what is going on. But they need to learn all the prayers, all the vocabulary of homilies and church-related things, a whole body of hymns in English, the liturgical year, the sacraments for themselves or their children (getting married or having their children baptized in English instead of their native-language). It’s a HUGE amount of work catering to the needs of people who don’t speak Polish, do speak English, speak English ranging from minimal understanding to native-speaker… So many variables to consider with every Mass to make sure that everything is understood at the level of English the particular people involved are able to bring to the situation and everyone has at least some ability to participate. It would be so much easier if we all knew the Latin Mass and we just had to do things like homilies, confession, and instruction in English, especially because we have priests in a religious order, who are moved around every couple of years, usually: one priest breaks out in a sweat just trying to make small-talk in English; another is very fluent; another is so nervous about English he doesn’t want to talk to anyone; another doesn’t want to have to minister in English and avoids as much as possible contact with the people; another believes he speaks great English but is unintelligible… Every time the priest changes, I have to start over again working with a new priest who has a different grasp of English and different comfort level in the language – which sometimes inhibits the priests ability or willingness to do more than simply recite the Mass in English without fainting from anxiety and stress. I’m very well-prepared for all that work because of my background in English language and literature, EFL and so on. Still… I can’t help thinking that it would be a LOT easier on all of us if the Mass, at least, was in the same language world-wide.

  8. This article which romanticizes the Latin language and the old pre-Vatican II mass reminds me of Karl Rahner who has fittingly outlined in broad strokes the historical eras of the church into three. I would say this book review article resists the movement of history today and highly sentimentalize Latin. In Rahner’s mapping of church hstory, the first period is the growth after the church’s birth and it was concentrated around the Mediterranean with its classical Greek culture and language dominating the church’s life and outlook. The second period is the Church’s growth into the rest of Europe and the taking up of Latin, a European language, as its language and outlook. The third period was ushered in by Vatican II when the Church truly became global and with the liturgy now celebrated in the people’s languages around the world.

  9. What I can say in all truth is that as a young adult the Gospel and epistle were read in Latin and the Word of God was hidden to us. Thanks to the Vernacular we heard for the first time the Word of God in our own language and could understand it and start living it.

    Jesus spoke to the people in their own language – God bless those who love the Latin Mass which they enjoy only because. thanks to vernacular. everybody began to understand what the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is all about, and Listening to the Word of God was a great experience, and also explained by a homily and the congregation dialogue with the celebrant as used to happen during the first centuries of Christianity.

    Good luck to those who prefer the TLM – they have a right to have it celebrated and the possibility to attend to i. I have nothing against it; but please, dear Latin Mass Goers (not all of course) stop your arrogance towards the New Order by saying its not a valid Mass. Stop feeling better Catholics than Catholics who prefer the New order as was in the first centuries of the Church until the Latin Mass form was promulgated by Pope Pius V.

    People who were born after the 60s cannot appreciate that for a long time we did not have an idea of what the Mass was all about and we used to pray the Holy Rosary during the Mass, kneel when we hear the bell ringing and understood that something extraordinary was happening at that time until the bell stopped ringing by the altar boys and we carried on with our Rosary or prayer book.

    It is about time for Latin hot heads extremists to understand that they appreciate the Latin Mass because first, they understood what the Mass is thanks to the New Order of the Mass which (which also brought to Catholicism many anti-Catholics converts because they heard the words being prayed in line with the Holy Scriptures throughout the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass which now many want to be discarded – this “Cold War” against the New Order of the Mass lovers looking down on the New Order goers as 2nd Class Catholics if not heretics as well. Please STOP persecute New Order goers by claiming that it is invalid, that it started the decline of the Catholic Church and sustains such decline and such misconceptions, as for example, that we do not believe in the Real Presence, etc. All this is only lacerating the Mystical Body of Christ which is the Catholic Church: Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever – He’s neither Traditionalist nor Modernist. The basis of our faith is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and all our strength and to love our neighbour as Jesus has loved us – This is the heart of our FAITH and should be manifested in all we do if we want to be true Catholics. All those who feel they are called to praise God and love their neighbour in Latin are free to do so; I have nothing against the Latin Mass from being celebrated for those who prefer it but please HANDS OFF the New Order as I like to participate and understand all that is happening during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which, by the way, offers the same Sacrifice Jesus Christ who is offered to Our Father, as happens in the Latin Mass as well. Both are Valid and one has to have the option to attend which one he/she prefers. BUT THEY HAVE NO RIGHT TO DECLARE FALSE AND INVALID THE NEW order OF THE MASS – That is nothing less than bullying which we had to endure for a long time by Trads as it were and is a cold war. It might be this schism that urged Pope Francis to write His Motu Proprio in the manner He did and which I am not competent enough to talk about. I know that not all Trads are so and I thank them for respecting the New Order of the Mass. Stop playing with our emotions and consciences and do not lead us into scrupulosity as this can be suicidal.

    May one day we may all be one thus fulfilling Jesus’s wish and prayer on the night that he was betrayed do what Jesus prayed and wished us to do – THAT ALL MAY BE ONE SO THAT THE WORLD CAN BELIEVE THAT JESUS WAS SENT BY GOD. The longer the litigations the longer it will take for the World to believe that Jesus Christ was sent by God. You can find all this in the Holy Bible. Thank you God Bless us all Latin Lover and not. As st. Paul put it “for with or without Circumcision what matters is that we are A “NEW CREATION.”

    It has been over 60 years that the Vatican Council II has happened under the guidance of the Holy Spirit who was present where all the Bishops of the World met in Jesus’s Name, to bring some Fresh air within the Catholic Church and we are still resisting the Holy Spirit to promote our own thinking. Shame on us all.

    • “People who were born after the 60s cannot appreciate that for a long time we did not have an idea of what the Mass was all about and we used to pray the Holy Rosary during the Mass, kneel when we hear the bell ringing and understood that something extraordinary was happening at that time until the bell stopped ringing by the altar boys and we carried on with our Rosary or prayer book.”

      I swear that these same attacks on the Latin Mass are just copied and pasted from somewhere else, because I hear them over and over again from people who cannot possible know that was the case. Meanwhile, everyone I know who grew up with the Latin Mass new EXACTLY what was going on and what was meant. You had missals in the pews with the translations in the missal: English on one side, Latin on the other. I have my mother’s missal with all the prayers like that, and all the readings IN ENGLISH. There is NO WAY my mother didn’t know what was going on! Likewise my father. We are American. All my life growing up, all I remember is Mass in English. But my father was born in 1917; he knew the Latin Mass. Once in Krakow, we went to Mass in Polish and even though I was showing my father line by line where we were in my English missal, and he read the readings in English, he was just kind of dumbly, vaguely ‘present’ until for some reason in the liturgy of the Eucharist, the priest started saying some of the prayers in Latin. Suddenly my father came alive, began responding and praying in a way that I had never heard him respond or pray in English (basically all my life attending Mass with him) and felt like he was finally really involved in the Mass because he knew what was happening and what to do and what to say without any prompting from me.

      It’s just pure nonsense and a lie to say that ‘we did not have any idea what the Mass was all about’ because it was in Latin. If you didn’t know, it’s because you didn’t pick up your missal available in the pew or buy your own and just read it and follow along, paying attention.

      I have a brother who is 65 who repeats that same nonsense on the grounds that he was an altar-boy (until he was NINE) and ‘didn’t understand the Mass because it was in Latin.’ Rubbish. Maybe he didn’t understand the Mass because he was NINE YEARS OLD and not paying a whole lot of attention, and not interested, either. But if I was born in 1962 and have no memory of the Latin Mass, my brother born in 1956 can’t have a very strong or mature or adult understanding of the Latin Mass based on his memory.

      If you were an adult or a well-formed teenager who went to Catholic school and were taught your faith, or you were an adult and ‘didn’t understand the Mass’ it’s not because it was in Latin, but because you were simply ignorant. There is NO WAY that people were not taught what was going on and didn’t have access to missals with translations and the ability to read the readings in the vernacular. All the elders I know who attended Latin Mass say that they knew what was going on. It’s the ones who were children – or who never attended Latin Mass and just repeat the copy-and-paste arguments against it – who keep saying that people just prayed the rosary or didn’t understand. People were catechized to know what was going on. If they didn’t learn or pay attention, well, not the fault of the Latin Mass, but their own fault. If they come from a culture where devotion to Mary was POPULARLY more important than devotion to Christ in the Eucharist, that’s the fault of the popular piety, not the Latin Mass.

      Just too many holes in those old, tired complaints that ‘nobody understood; everyone prayed the rosary’ for me to believe them.

      • Nel, I attended Latin Mass as a gradeschooler. Still have a two column missal. Honestly don’t remember the readings being in Latin. Of course they were printed in the missal in English. Now, my grandma’s German missal knocked me for a loop! And I’m sure I never prayed a rosary during Mass. Our Benedictine nuns would’ve never tolerated such inattentiveness.

  10. This is a great article. St. Pope John XXlll started Vatican ll on Pentecost May 17, 1959. His Council after much labor was completed. The Bishops of the world were called to Rome in October 1962 so that the Bishops could sign the 70 Decrees of Vatican ll. In October of 1962, the Modernists plotted and succeeded in voting out the Real Council of St. Pope John XXlll. From the Council of St. Pope John XXlll we got an Apostolic Constitution on Latin called “Veterum Sapientia.” officially signed on the Altar of St. Peters Basilica. In it, the Pope bemoans that Priests and Bishops could not read, write and speak Latin fluently. The Document orders that this deficiency is fixed. The Council that the Modernists took over ignored this important document. That is the factual reason why Latin has been dying away in the Church. We can and should bypass the Modernist heretics on this.

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