Latin Makes a Comeback
From language immersion classes to interest in the origins of the new Mass translation, a ‘dead language’ reveals new strength.
While Patrick Owens, a Latin instructor at Wyoming Catholic College, climbed to the summit of East Temple Peak last fall with a group of his students, not a word of English was spoken. The hike was sponsored as part of the college’s Latin-immersion program.
Standing near the summit, Owens recalled, “It suddenly hit me that we were surveying the grandeur of God and speaking Latin.”
This emphasis on Latin at the six-year-old Wyoming Catholic, where students read and discuss classical and Christian authors entirely in Latin, appears to be one indication of an emerging trend: an upswing of interest in Latin among Catholics. But it is far from being the only sign.
For the first time an audio recording of the New Testament read entirely in Latin is available from a nonprofit called Faith Comes By Hearing. It was recorded by Father Peter Stravinskas, president of the St. Gregory Foundation for Latin Liturgy.
“Everywhere, elements of Latin are introduced into the standard vernacular Mass — the Gloria, the Sanctus or the Paternoster — there is a groundswell of interest in Latin, especially among younger Catholics,” Father Stravinskas said.
J. G. Halisky, secretary of a group called Familia Sancti Hieronymi — a society named after St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, creating the Vulgate — notices an uptick in interest. The organization is dedicated to spreading the use of Latin among the laity. It holds retreats that are conducted completely in Latin.
Today, instruction in spoken Latin departs from the dry course of studies followed by previous generations that had too many sullen Latin students reciting the ditty about how Latin “killed the ancient Romans, and now it’s killing me.”
Nancy Llewellyn, the architect of the program at Wyoming Catholic College, designed a course that employs techniques similar to those used in modern language classes. Students start speaking only in Latin on the first day.
“When we treat Latin as a dead language to be dissected,” Owens said, “we make a mockery of our linguistic patrimony as Catholics.”
Owens speaks Latin at home with his wife and children.
Crucial for Catholics
While the revival of Latin may be welcome on purely academic terms, the language has special meaning for Catholics. “Latin per se didn’t attract me, but it was Latin as the language of the Church that drew me,” said Halisky, a lawyer, who speaks Latin fluently.
Llewellyn is convinced that the renewal of Latin is crucial for Catholics. “It’s essential for the strength of Catholic identity to get our Latin heritage back,” said Llewellyn.
“We are attempting a revival of Latin,” Owens said, “not a revival with cobwebs, but a revival of our language, the Church’s language, as a living language. How better can we show that we love the Church than to learn her language?”
Llewellyn and Owens both studied spoken Latin in Rome. As a college student, Owens spent his summers studying in Rome with Father Reginald Foster, a Discalced Carmelite and now retired from serving many years as papal Latinist. Father Foster was once responsible for the Latin in documents coming from the Vatican. He was also a staunch advocate of spoken Latin. “I am part of an unbroken chain,” Owens likes to say.
Llewellyn, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College who holds a doctorate in classics from UCLA, has a Licenza in Christian and Classical Letters from the Pontifical Salesian University in Rome.
When Wyoming Catholic College was being established, those involved got in touch with Llewellyn.
“The main reason I took this job was that I learned to my joy and astonishment that they wanted an active Latin approach. I knew this was the place for me because we were on the same page,” she said.
All Wyoming Catholic College students take at least two years of Latin, but advanced courses — conducted only in Latin — are also available. Students are invited to defend their senior thesis in Latin. Those in the more advanced classes are accustomed to writing papers on the works of such Catholic theologians as Thomas Aquinas or the patristic writers entirely in Latin.
Reading a work in the original Latin rather than in translation can have a powerful effect, Owens said. “Our students sometimes end up falling in love with authors they thought they hated and hating authors they thought they loved,” Owens said with a chuckle. The college teaches the works of both classical and Christian writers.
Letter From Cardinal Burke
One of the most popular exercises for his sophomores, Owens said, is writing letters in Latin to bishops. “Cardinal [Raymond] Burke, along with several other bishops, recently responded to letters, which individual sophomores wrote in Latin,” Owens said. “Cardinal Burke replied in his own hand with beautiful Latin.”
To promote spoken Latin, there is always a Latin table in the cafeteria. Owens said it fills rapidly. Each semester features a Latin-immersion weekend, when students leave their dorms and sleep in the church basement, where they play games and participate in other activities entirely in Latin.
“It’s amazing how many people say Vatican II got rid of Latin and that is not true. It is still the official language of the Church and is used in pontifical documents of many kinds,” Llewellyn noted.
She added that in the early days of the Second Vatican Council, which authorized the Mass in the vernacular, Pope John XXIII issued Veterum Sapientia, a ringing endorsement of the use of Latin in the Catholic Church.
Llewellyn is founder of Salvi, which promotes spoken Latin. Salvi sponsors Rusticatio, a week of workshops at Claymont Mansion, a historic house in Charles Town, W. Va. No English is spoken during the week.
When Father Stravinskas originally approached Faith Comes By Hearing about doing a New Testament in Latin, he received an email saying that the organization only produced recordings of the Bible in living languages.
The priest shot back with his own email: “I said Latin is a living language for 2.2 billion Catholics,” he recalled.
Father Stravinskas used the Neo-Vulgate, the Church’s official Latin version, and enlisted a team of 15 Latin speakers to help. The recording was done much like the Holy Week readings of the Passion. Wherever canticles appear in the New Testament, they are chanted and there is monastic music between books of the Bible.
The priest said there is anecdotal evidence that interest in Latin is not restricted to college campuses. Father Stravinskas recently visited a Catholic elementary school. “I coincidentally walked into a second grade Latin class,” he said. “I said to this little fellow, ‘Quid agis?’ And he replied immediately, ‘Bene.’” A second child answered, “Optime,” but a third, who apparently was having a bad day, replied “Pessime.”
Ironically, the introduction of the new Roman Missal in English may end up contributing to a revival of interest in Latin, said Father Nicholas Grigoris, editor of the Catholic Response magazine and another advocate of Latin.
“It’s evident from this new translation,” said Father Nicholas Grigoris, “that the Church regards Latin as normative. The new English translation is going to help people realize how important Latin is. If Latin is not important, why would we go back to the Latin to retranslate it?”
Register correspondent Charlotte Hays writes from Washington.