Latin is back in the headlines! This ancient mode of communication has had an amazing and long life. Not bad for a supposedly dead language!
In the current impeachment debate, the phrase ‘quid pro quo’ rather succinctly expresses the ‘this for that’ nature of the offense that is being tried. The English words don’t quite communicate the full meaning nor its obvious menace as a legal term.
The specter of Latin was further advanced by the example of Nancy Pelosi breaking down the word “exculpate” in suggesting that the President testify in his own defense.
The legal world is filled with examples of the use of Latin, which bespeaks its dependence historically on the jurisprudence forged during the Roman Empire.
The dependence of Western thought and civilization itself on Latin as a common language is underlined by its dominance in the affairs and liturgy of the Catholic Church. I remember that, after the Second Vatican Council, many people decried the use of Latin by inaccurately saying that we should keep Latin because that is the language Jesus used at the Last Supper! Of course, Jesus spoke Aramaic which is a variant of Hebrew. But Latin over hundreds of years became the dominant classical language uniting the countries of Europe and even spawning some of the most beautiful languages of the earth: Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian.
Allied with this bulwark of unity and beauty was the development of a style of music that even today haunts us with its beauty and majesty: Gregorian Chant.
One of the tragedies of the misuse of liturgy right after the Council was the disappearance of Latin in the liturgy and especially in the Church’s music. This was never the intent of the Council, where it states clearly in the Council documents that some use of Latin was to be preserved. Instead, it was thrown out! There is a welcome movement now to reestablish a place in our Church for this great linguistic and musical heritage.
This does not mean that we go back in time to the Pre-Vatican II era and slavishly try to recreate the past as a kind of religious antiquarianism. To go backwards is not possible and has within it the seeds of a lack of faith in God’s providential guidance. We are here at this time of the Church’s life by God’s grace. While the liturgy can always respond to valid corrections, it cannot be totally wrong, since we are led by none other than the Spirit of God.
While there are elements in the Church who use Latin as a flag or rallying cry for a whole host of complaints about the Church, one can be totally faithful to the path the Church has taken after Vatican II and still love the use of Latin in the liturgy, provided it is reintroduced with pastoral care and education.
Latin is part of our heritage as the Catholic Church. Traditionally, people in the Western Church have been called ‘Latins’ since we adhere to the Latin language.
For me, to pray the Our Father in Latin or the Hail Mary (so beautifully set to music by Schubert as the ‘Ave Maria’) puts me in connection with the many saints that prayed those exact words. I could imagine St. Augustine and St. Teresa, St. Benedict and St. Clare (to name a few) around me joining me in those same words as part of the historical pageant of praise!
This does not mean that we turn our backs on the Vernacular. Latin used to be the language of the common people. When the Pope ordered St. Jerome to translate the Old Testament from Hebrew to Latin and the New Testament from Greek to Latin, he was speaking as the Fathers of Vatican II spoke. He wanted all people to understand the readings. Latin was the English of that day.
So, carefully, thoughtfully and pastorally, we here at Immac will try to re-introduce the Latin language in a limited sense: not to supplant the use of English, Spanish, Italian and Tagalog, but to enhance our worship with the beauty of the music of Gregorian Chant and to help us concentrate on the words that we say so thoughtlessly in our own languages.
How wonderful it will be to join the hosts of saints who in our history made those same words the core of their prayer! Latin means going forward and not backward!