Saturday, January 27, 2007

Reggie, the Pope's Latinist, Announces the Death of the Language

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I'm not a huge fan of going to the Mass when it is said in Latin. But when it is accompanied by members of the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra and sung by members at the Twin Cities Catholic Chorale, that certainly piques my interest and you can count on me being in attendance at St Agnes in St Paul a few times a year; or more. I was there a couple of weeks ago on the celebration of their patronal Feast Day of the virgin and martyr, St Agnes, where the music was the Mass of St Cecilia by Gonoud. It was a wonderful musical and spiritual experience. All Souls' Day is also a special occasion when Mozart's Requiem is the music.

I am blessed in that I did study the language for two years in high school, was an altar boy for three or four years and am the proud possessor of a paperback copy of a Latin-English Dictionary for which I shelled out five bucks maybe fifteen years ago (to use in translating church genealogical records, if you must know). So I can understand what is going on far more than most who have not been exposed to the "dead language."

But I'm beginning to change my mind on the importance of the Latin language to the Church and to its members.

Since I have begun to blog on church matters last March, I have become somewhat aware of the difficulty that it has been getting a decent translation of the Mass into English. Our planet is blessed/cursed with thousands of languages. The Church, probably through inaction, has retained Latin as its official language. Probably the only other "official" use of Latin is a TV news program in Finland, believe it or not.

But because of the lack of competent translators, getting excellent translations of Church documents (like the Bible, the Mass, Encyclicals, etc.) into the various vernacular languages is a very lengthy process. The excellent Jerusalem Bible, which I use, was a translation from the French as no good English translation was available in 1966. Subsequently, adequate translations have been prepared from the Latin, but none seem to be universally popular. The U.S. Church subscribes to the New American Bible translation. This is the NAB expression used when translating the angel's greeting to the Blessed Virgin:
"Hail, favored one."

I'm sorry, but you will never get me to drop,
"Hail, full of grace!" Accuracy is extremely important when translating the Bible. And so is beauty.

It is absolutely critical that the Church have an official language for its documents. And rather than suffering with inadequate and miserable translations, maybe it would be easier to teach the Catholics a bit about Latin.

A second reason why the Church should use Latin in its liturgies is to minimize the abuses that have come about because of the use of the vernacular languages since the second Vatican Council. We all know what I'm talking about, so I won't bother to provide examples.

I used to believe that it wouldn't make any difference if the Church reverted to the use of Latin for the Mass because the celebrants would continue to abuse the prescribed language. I no longer think that.

In my opinion, the reason why priests modify the words of the Mass when saying it in English is that they want to impress their congregation with how progressive and cool and maybe rebellious they are. It's got nothing to do with theology or diversity. And extremely high percentage of our priests are "performers", not celebrants.

If the Mass were said in Latin, there wouldn't be much of an advantage for a priest to deliberately change the wording to impress the congregation because very few of the congregation would truly understand the Latin anyway. A strong instructional program and good Latin - English missals in the pews replacing the ones that we have now would provide excellent translations for the use of the congregation.

And if a few decided to say the Rosary instead of following along in their Missal, well, that's between them and God.

Unfortunately, as with many things, I'm a day late and a dollar short. The Pope's official Latinist, acknowledged most knowledgeable about our "dead language" has declared that it's last breath will be taken soon. [Sigh!]

Here's what Reggie had to say about Latin.


For years it was derided by unwilling schoolboys for being "as dead as dead could be". Now, despite the Vatican's best efforts, the Pope's top adviser on Latin has reluctantly joined them by saying the language of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas is almost extinct.

"It is dying in the Church. I'm not optimistic about Latin. The young priests and bishops are not studying it," said Fr Reginald Foster, 68, a Carmelite friar who was appointed the Papal Latinist 38 years ago by Pope Paul VI.

He said priests were no longer compelled to study Latin at seminaries, and now found it impossible to read vital theological tracts.

"You cannot understand St Augustine in English. He thought in Latin. It is like listening to Mozart through a jukebox," he told The Sunday Telegraph. "We still speak Latin in the elevators and around the house in my monastery at San Pancrazio, just like 45 years ago. But nowadays the students don't get it, and I don't blame them – it's not their fault."

Yet even though Fr Foster, who has translated speeches and letters for four popes, says he can see no future for the language, he has just launched a new Latin Academy in Rome, near the Pantheon, in his final effort to prevent it from dying out. He hopes to attract 130 students a year, though he will not say how the new school is being funded.

Originally from Milwaukee, Fr Foster is widely regarded as one of the world's foremost Latin scholars and until recently taught a hugely popular course at Rome's Jesuit-run Gregorian University.

He spends his mornings at the Vatican, in an office just along the corridor from Pope Benedict. Outside his door, he has reprogrammed a Vatican cash machine to display instructions in Latin: "Inserito scidulam quaeso ut faciundum cognoscas rationem" - which, translated loosely, means: "Insert your card so that the account may be recognised."

He said: "I'm not the boss, but I'm the oldest. I translated Deus Caritas Est, the last encyclical. We do bishops' appointments, which are still written on papyrus in Latin, and letters of congratulations from the Pope."

Although Pope Benedict grew up with Latin, and is fluent in the language, Fr Foster said he did not "have time" to compose and translate the hundreds of documents that the Vatican issues. Paul VI insisted on greater use of Latin within the Vatican, but Fr Foster said more junior members of the Catholic hierarchy were less enthusiastic now.

"I'm worried that if one Cardinal makes one or two decisions it could all go," he said. "Already, we are sending congratulation letters to some Cardinals and they say can we please provide a translation. They want to read them out in the church and so on. Of course, I won't provide translations. We might as well be writing in Mandarin."

He said reports that Pope Benedict will reintroduce the Tridentine Mass, which dates from 1570 and is largely conducted in Latin, were wrong – not least because of the Pope's desire to avoid more controversies. A speech last year offended Muslims and more recently he gave initial support to a Polish archbishop who was eventually forced to resign, after admitting that he had collaborated with the communist-era secret police.

"He is not going to do it," Fr Foster said. "He had trouble with Regensberg, and then trouble in Warsaw, and if he does this, all hell will break loose." In any case, he added: "It is a useless mass and the whole mentality is stupid. The idea of it is that things were better in the old days. It makes the Vatican look medieval."

He condemned the loss of Latin teaching in schools across most of Europe, and said that as a result students were missing out on important elements of history. "Like classical music, Latin will always be there. If we cannot understand it, it is we who are losing out."

Italy is, however, different: all schoolchildren, except those who attend technical colleges, must be taught Latin for at least four hours a week until they are 18. But Fr Foster said the techniques used to teach Latin were outdated. "You need to present the language as a living thing," he said. "You do not need to be mentally excellent to know Latin. Prostitutes, beggars and pimps in Rome spoke Latin, so there must be some hope for us."

Last year Fr Foster was fired from the Gregorian University for allowing too many students to study without charging them.

"I was not going to play the policeman," he said. "I was happy to teach anyone who wanted to learn. Many of my students studied for three, four, five years -without -paying a single cent."

He argued that the only solution to the decline of Latin was for the Pope to lead by example. "Instead of a siesta, he should announce that from 2pm to 4pm every day he will read Latin at the Vatican."

He added with a twinkle: "People who come will get assignments. You will be picked on to answer questions, and if you mess up, the Pope will make you disappear. He can do that, you know." Sunday Telegraph (UK)


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