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Latin Makes a Comeback

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Thomas L. McDonald - published on 05/18/16

The Church may have mothballed much of its Latin, but in the secular world it’s become the third most studied language

“Which body parts are on your caput? A) manus, B) oculi, C) pedes, D) pectora

So you haven’t had a day of Latin instruction in your life, and you may be thinking this sample question from the National Latin Exam is impossible. In fact, you already know the answer.

Caput? That’s easy. Think of English. What happens in decapitation? You lose your head, literally. Ergo (Latin: therefore), caput is head.

What about the rest? Have you ever done something manually (manus)? Used a pair of binoculars (oculi)? Been a pedestrian (pedes)? Worked on your pecs (pectora)? Then you know four more words in Latin: hands, eyes, feet, chest.

And you’re on your way.

“Studying Latin benefits all students differently,” observes Kristie Joyce, a high-school Latin teacher in New Jersey. “As a Latin student (now teacher) myself, I saw improvement in, not only my vocabulary, but in my understanding of the English language as well. Learning all the grammatical rules (and there are many!) of Latin helped me to better understand the grammar and structure of English, which then made me a better writer and speaker. It also makes it much easier to ‘pick up’ other languages.”

The Church may have mothballed much of its Latin, but in the secular world — according to the American Classical League — it’s making a roaring comeback and is now, after Spanish and French, the third most studied language in America. The biggest problem it’s facing isn’t disinterest in a “dead” language or the mystifying ablative absolute, but finding enough Latin teachers for all the students who want to study it.

A Language of Faith

Latin and Catholicism go together like wine and cheese. Christianity sprang from Jewish roots but took hold in Roman soil, and those tensions are part of its richness. As the faith spread, Latin provided a unifying language of worship and discourse, and after it faded from common use, it provided a sacred idiom. It was a kind of sacramental. These were words set apart for holy use.

But it could also be a barrier to deeper understanding for many. The goal of the Vatican II Sacrosanctum Concilium was to liberalize the vernacular in order to improve comprehension for the faithful, not to banish the Latin entirely. Indeed, it explicitly states “The use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites,” as well as in the daily office. When the dust had settled from Council, however, you were about as likely to hear Klingon at Mass as you were to hear Latin. Thus our patrimony was lost, and only now is it fitfully being recaptured.

At the Priory of Our Lady of Ephesus in Missouri, the joyful Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles live lives steeped in Latin. Famous for their best-selling recordings of Latin chant, the sisters attend mass in the Extraordinary Form, say their office in Latin, and rumor has it that the Prioress, Mother Cecelia, evens keeps her schedule in Latin.

“Personally, I had discovered and begun to attend Mass in the Extraordinary Form a few years before joining,” says Mother Cecelia, “so the little I knew, I picked up from the liturgy. In fact, I can say that it was at the first Mass I attended in this ancient liturgy that I fell in love with the language. It was particularly striking to me within the context of the chant and sacred polyphony I was hearing for the first time at Mass.

“Though I didn’t understand what the choir was singing, nor what the priest was intoning, there was no doubt in my mind that God certainly knew. It hit me at that Mass that that was the most important thing! The entire orientation and reverence of the old liturgy taught me that as well, without textbooks or teachers. As I continued attending this liturgy, the mysteriousness of the Latin language attracted me more and more, and I was drawn to begin some informal self study. I remember setting out to memorize the Our Father and Hail Mary in Latin not long after that first, truly life-changing experience.”

Novices come to the Priory with a wide range of experience in Latin. Some know almost none, while others can teach at advanced levels. Although the ability to learn varies from sister to sister, their immersion in the language means they start to pick it up quickly. Praying eight times a day, plus mass, adds up to about five hours of Latin per day. The sisters also tutor one another and study independently. As Mother observes, “Anyone is bound to pick it up rather quickly through sheer duration of exposure.”

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