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NASHVILLE, Tennessee (LifeSiteNews) — In his homily this Epiphany, Pope Francis raised the possibility of our liturgies and our words becoming a “dead language.” While discussing the life of faith as a journey, he said, “We do well to ask: … Do our words and our liturgies ignite in people’s hearts a desire to move towards God, or are they a ‘dead language’ that speaks only of itself and to itself?” As President of the Veterum Sapientia Institute, a non-profit institution promoting Latin and Greek within the Church, I wish to offer some thoughts on the metaphor of a “dead language.”  

Not all “dead” languages are created equal. Some have disappeared from the earth without trace. Others have left behind writings, from a few indecipherable fragments to whole bodies of literature. A handful have transitioned from use by a community to use primarily by scholars. They might be called more accurately “learned” languages.  

According to the earlier Magisterium, the fact that Latin is no longer spoken by an ordinary community offers distinct advantages. In 1962 Pope John XXIII recapitulated and expanded on remarks by Leo XIII, Pius XI, and Pius XII in his Apostolic Constitution, Veterum Sapientia, which inspired our institute.  Four qualities of Latin make it an invaluable and permanent patrimony of the Latin Church.

Precisely because it is a learned language and not a “living” one, in the usual sense of that term, Latin is universal rather than belonging to a particular people. The current situation, in which the Vatican actually functions in Italian and the official final version of documents is a translation from Italian into Latin made months later, is an anomaly that gives Italians a remarkable and unfair advantage in the internal processes of the Church.

Second, all “living” languages are subject to slow changes, in which new expressions appear, old ones disappear, words alter their meanings, and grammatical usages shift. Latin, in contrast, has a fixed vocabulary and grammar; it is immutable and therefore it can be precise and reliable in a way that “living” languages cannot, making it particularly appropriate for the theological reflection of the Church.

In addition, that fixed quality makes Latin a bridge across centuries as well. The Latin Church produced the vast majority of its theology, prayers, devotion, regulations, correspondence, etc., in that language from the 3rd to the 20th century. The Latin language is thus the key to a storehouse of treasures of ever-present and living value. This immutable quality also makes it ideal for communications intended to speak to future generations as well as our own.  

In addition to these general advantages of learned languages, the Magisterium has also discussed the particular qualities of the Latin language, asserting that it combines in a remarkable way elegance, majesty and concision, and so is particularly appropriate for the Church of Rome. I would like to add the personal observation that Latin’s inflected grammar allows a greater flexibility of word order than is common in modern languages, and this flexibility allows for artistic effects and beauties which cannot be replicated in translation.  

The Pope warns against emotional stasis in devotional life. His metaphor suggests that “dead” languages are also “dead” emotionally. As a Latin teacher, I regret to admit that the traditional pedagogy of Latin may well have contributed to this impression. For the last two hundred years Latin has been taught via memorization of morphological tables and syntactic rules, followed by translation exercises. There is something rigid, stiff, and dead about this method, and the pupils subjected to it often come to hate the language itself.  

However, there is no necessary connection between the use of a learned language and a “dead” devotional life. The Veterum Sapientia Institute is part of a recent movement to teach ancient languages via active oral production, so reviving the pedagogical approach that existed from antiquity through the 18th century. Students focus on hearing and speaking the languages, rather than just on reading and writing them. This approach fits with modern research on second-language acquisition and with Benedict XVI’s instructions in founding the Pontifical Academy for Latin. It is enjoyable and effective for both students and teachers. If a student who has learned Latin in our lively way chooses to worship in Latin as well, there is no risk of a “dead” emotional experience.  

The Church Fathers taught that Providence shaped the Roman Empire in preparation for the Gospel. John XXIII applied this argument to the linguistic situation chosen by God for His Incarnation. The languages which were nailed to the Cross with Jesus are as “dead” as He!  

Eric Hewett is the president of Veterum Sapientia Institute, Inc.