Why the Devil Hates Latin

Josse Lieferinxe, "St. Michael Killing the Dragon" (c. 1500)
Josse Lieferinxe, "St. Michael Killing the Dragon" (c. 1500) (photo: Screenshot)

At Mass recently the priest joking said during the homily: “Can you believe that a parishioner told me that the devil hates Latin?!” This was followed by much laughter by the congregation. But I’m not so sure it’s a laughing matter. Indeed I recalled a piece on “The Devil Hates Sacred Music”.

And on a personal level I was reminded of coming out of a radiation treatment for cancer some years ago. Seated on a bench and waiting for my wife to pick me up, I pulled out my breviary and began to say the Liturgy of the Hours. In English.

Now, this is either the worst kind of prayer or the best kind. It’s the best in that one is giving an example of “praying in public” unabashedly and unapologetically. It also allows for people to ask, “Is that a Bible? What are you praying? Are you Catholic?” and thus open a gateway for others, by good example, to follow.

On the other hand, it is the worst form of prayer in that it calls attention to oneself, perhaps unduly, and is maybe the worst form of doing something “good”: so that others may see you doing good and admire you. Regardless, my ride was late, and it was time for nones (midafternoon prayer) so I prayed.

All that said, an older Jewish man—a fellow cancer-radiation patient—sat down next to me on that bench. He produced his prayer book and began his prayers, slightly louder than mine and with the concomitant rocking back-and-forth which is unique to “Our Elder Brethren In The Faith” as St. John Paul II called the Jewish people.

Problem was, I was a bit nauseated from the radiation and the rocking back-and-forth on the part of the Jewish man was making the nausea worse. I turned my head to say something to him but when I did I looked at his prayer book: it was entirely in Hebrew.

I’m not sure why this surprised me as much as it did: all of my doctors from Sloan-Kettering were Jewish and one was a Hasidic Jew whose seven children assiduously studied the Talmud from a young age in the original language.

I felt like a bit of a fraud that day. Any idiot can pray in their native tongue. And given the panoply of televangelists, it seems like many idiots do. Moreover: our Church HAS an official language: Latin—hence the term, “The Latin Church.” True, in the Vatican itself the daily language is Italian, but all the official documents are in Latin. All of the official prayer-books, too, are published first in Latin, as are the Catechism, The Code of Canon Law, and of course, the Vulgate version of the Bible.

Soon after that day I bought The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary in a bi-lingual edition (Latin and English), conveniently side-by-side. However, the only version of this is the 1962 pre-Vatican II edition, so it’s not the same as the revised Little Office. But that’s no great matter. And when I’d get stuck on some multi-syllable Latin word, I’d switch back to English.

But I have no gift for learning languages. Though I’m married to a Spaniard, I know absolutely no Spanish after 13 years. I have seven years of Italian, five of French and a semester of Irish: all to absolutely no effect. I simply do not have the “chip” needed to learn foreign languages.

However, once I got the feel of The Little of the Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary down in Latin, a bit of serendipity occurred: Benedict XVI issued his motu proprio reifying the Latin Mass and the Latin Divine Office. I promptly purchased the two volume Breviarium Romanum and tried to keep up with the Latin liturgical hours—without the assistance of English (the volumes are published in Germany).

“Well, so what?” a reader might well ask. Well, for one thing: it takes effort to pray the Office in Latin. The pre-Vatican II Liturgical Hours are all longer than the post-Vatican II vernacular version (and there are more of them), so more time is spent in prayer.

Plus, I think God appreciates effort. While the Liturgy of The Hours is indeed “The Prayer of the Church”, after many years of praying from The Breviary it it’s impossible NOT to have learned many of the passages—the “psalm-prayers”, the Office of Readings, the Hymns—by heart. This can lead to little more than rote recitation.

And I think God is always calling us out of our “comfort zone”—whether that zone may be sitting on the couch watching the ball game instead of spending time at a soup kitchen or even just going for a walk with our family—or praying in the official tongue of our Catholic Church.

Maybe the best summation of this comes from the very same priest who laughed when he said “The devil hates when we pray in Latin?!” I emailed him about it and expressed my view. His response is worth repeating and I share it with you:

“The Gospel of Matthew 5: 41 says, ‘If someone pressing you into walking a mile with them, go an extra mile as well’, and, Matthew 5: 46 says, ‘For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same?’ The Gospel always challenges us to go further, be better and strive for perfection. If our way of showing an extra effort, an act of devotion or love is to pray the office in Latin, then so be it! In so many ways, I personally feel that, the Traditional Liturgy, which I am deeply rooted in since childhood, provides me the opportunity to offer that X+ to God as it requires greater active intellectual energy, precisely because it is in Latin and also requires a great deal of memorization, as well as the fact that it is so precise and sober in its every gesture matched with precise words to be said at that same moment. When celebrated properly, the Traditional Liturgy is like a graceful dance or carefully choreographed ballet in match-step to the polyphonic harmonies of the choir and organ. The melismatic passages of chant provide us a sense of line in motion-evoking a fortified energy compelling inner-spiritual refinement externalized in the dignified movement of word and work.”

I am no more conversant in Latin today than I was the first day I picked up the Latin-English Little Office. However, I am convinced that the Devil, whom we are constantly being told does not exist, must truly hate anyone who, with a sincere heart and extra effort, prays in the official language of the Church—a language which traces itself back to the great Fathers of The Church and their inestimable writings. For that matter, I’m pretty confident that the Devil hates prayer in language of any sort, but I like to think Latin drives him absolutely crazy—and keeps him away.

To pray “to keep the devil away” rather than to keep God close—and keep oneself close to God—is to ring the bell backwards. “Draw close to God and He will draw close to you. Resist the devil and he will take flight.” (James 4: 7)