Saturday, 4 August 2007

On Latin

I was reading today on Damian Thompson's excellent smoke-filled blog an article about the forthcoming Merton College meeting for young priests wanting to learn to celebrate the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Rite. I saw there a comment from one Peter de Rosa. Only towards the end of the comment does one realise that he is a priest, (though actually one who has left the ministry). You might be more familiar with him under his nom-de-plume, Neil Boyd, under which flag he wrote a series of amusing stories about priestly life in the early 1950s, Bless me, Father was one. If my memory serves me correctly, he left the priesthood over some row concerning the less-than-orthodox and rather short-lived Corpus Christi college in the diocese of Westminster. I think he went into writing for the TV after that, and he wrote a rather lively account of the 1916 Easter rising (which I have never seen on sale in the UK) called Rebels.
Anyway, to the point. This is one comment he makes:
When I studied in Rome, all our lectures and exams were in Latin. I even lectured to seminarians in Latin. Not till the day I die will I forget the anxious and bemused look on their faces. Celibacy was bad enough but Latin! But how many priests - or bishops - today know enough Latin to say a Tridentine Mass without taking lessons?
Now, he has a point. Latin is certainly the most severe obstacle for anyone wanting to celebrate according to the Extraordinary form. But I want to blog about his suggestion that Latin is an unsuitable language to teach in.

These days, lectures at the Gregorian University in Rome are conducted in Italian, not Latin. In other words, in a modern language, the language of the country, not a dead language. Good, you might think. But the point is that the lecturer is still going to see anxious and bemused faces in front of him, on all those who do not have Italian fluently, in fact, which will be almost all of the first-year class. Probably a similar proportion, in fact, to those who had not studied Latin seriously in the past. This gives the added problem that the Italians have a significant advantage over the other students, who are reduced to cribbing notes from each other in order to make any sense at all of the course. This would have been less the case when all were at an equal disadvantage.

The second problem was highlighted for me by a chance acquaintance with a Thai bishop some ten years ago. He told me that he no longer sends his students to Rome to study, because for the Thais, learning Italian is a complete waste of time. Latin, Greek; these are useful languages for study, for theology, for—dare we say it?—the liturgy (and the good bishop brandished his own breviary, in Latin). But Italian? For him, the consequence was that he now sends his cleverer students to English-speaking universities to study—at least English is useful, he said, in the modern world.

Some are also disillusioned with the extent to which the Italianization of the Church's administration is creating a sort of Italian hegemony in Rome (which to be fair, was always the case; it's only recently that we've had non-Italian popes), and an increased sense that the Church was the Italian Catholic Church rather than the Roman Catholic Church.

I wonder how the Cardinals communicated in the recent conclave? Did they use Latin, or Italian, or English, or a sort of babel-like combination of them all.


Fr Ray Blake said...

Cardinal Arinze spoke about the difficulties created when Bishops are unable to communicate with one another, and therefore the need for priests to know Latin, which he described as a "neutral language".
Here in the centre of Brighton, one of the biggest obstacles to the many non-English speakers attending Mass is the language. So many people from abroad don't come because they don't understand and by the time they have learnt enough, they have also learnt to lapse.

Ma Beck said...

I don't know if it's an anecdote, but I once heard that a bishop from Africa remarked that the great thing about the Vatican was that he could sit beside a bishop from Germany and a bishop from France and converse with them both, in Latin.
Of course, this was a few years back.
I quite agree that Latin is a good language in which to learn; in fact, I'm sure this was the principle language of learning at the world's finest universities until two or three hundred years ago.
Were people smarter back then? That's debatable, though there's little doubt they had more common sense and I don't think they curled up in a ball and whined "I caaaaan't" when the institutions of higher learning insisted that they be educated in Latin.
For me personally, if I were a priest, I don't know that Latin would be the biggest obstacle to offering the old Mass, being as how there are probably only (I'm being veeery generous here) three hundred different Latin words in the old Mass.
No one is asking Father to preach the homily or say the announcements in Latin.
I think the biggest obstacle is overcoming the attitude that mastering a few words of Latin is akin to rocket science. Practically, I would think that the biggest obstacle is learning all the rubrics, military-like in precision.
(Of course, everyone learns differently, so maybe it's just me who finds learning the Latin easier than remembering when to put your palms flat on the altar, touch the altar with fingertips, etc. Yikes, I'd hate to have to remember all that. I'd need a cheat sheet for years.)

gemoftheocean said...

A-hem. Not to mention the part of the Church that is certainly not "Roman." [i.e. your Byzantine Rites, etc. do not like being cut off as if they're not really part of the Church.]

Your point is very valid. I've often wondered about all the Latin texts sitting around in the Vatican and elsewhere that don't have good translations. People seem to assume that everything is available in all the major modern languages, and that isn't always the case.

If you are going to do the Latin, the problem is that youngsters do not take it in the secondary schools to the extent that they would get a good foundation to carry on. My priest had 4 years of Latin and Greek in secondary school in the minor seminary. Another friend was put through the same, sans Greek (in secondary school). After that, Latin was kept up all the way through a 4 year degree and then in Theology. One friend of mine who was in the seminary in the early to mid 60s (when Latin study was still in force) said that one of his profs. had urged the class to make sure to study such and such encyclical(s) in the original Latin, and not rely on the translation. He caught out the lazy by printing sections of the encyclical in the original Latin, leaving a blank for key words the student was supposed to fill in. :-D My friend had taken the suggestion to study seriously, but not a few of his buddies had been caught out, and were floundering.

My own priest had to defend his studies at the Angelicum in a lengthy oral exam -- in Latin. I once asked him (not long after I got out of university myself (this would have been late 70s) how much Latin the seminarians were taking and he said "they put them through a year - it's more mickey mouse than when I was in high school -- if they get a few paragraphs for fairly simple Latin, it's like you're persecuting them - they'd have never been able to have been able to keep up with the work load we had when I was in the major seminary."

In the past, a lot of good men got tossed out of the seminary, because they weren't good at Latin - then you may have missed out on a good priest or two. If you had to argue for any modern language being the lingua franca -- surely today it would have to be English, simply because it is widely studied.

Karen H. -- San Diego, Ca.

White Stone Name Seeker said...

Peter de Rosa! I was given books by him when I was studying. They are full of 'don't say 'sin'in case you hurt someone's feelings' and the fluffy-therapy-Jesus. Awful.
When I first had to work with another language it was an anxious time-but total emersion works well.
I would love the opportunity to be emersed in Latin so that I could actually speak and read it fluently.

God bless

Fr Nicholas said...

In the 1950s almost all seminarians would have started attending Greg lectures with a basic knowledge of Latin. In fact, they would have had years of Latin lessons behind them, though that wouldn't necessarily have made them fluent.

Today almost all non-Italian students start at the Greg with only some hurriedly learned Italian. I attended my first philosophy lecture with just three weeks of Italian lessons behind me. I could order a pizza but I couldn't understand any Plato!

Henry said...

As far as the British are concerned, the school system would require a complete shake-up because, apparently, not even English grammar is taught.

I have notice this at a language course I am attending, where the young Brits, who need to learn the language, are struggling because they don't know what grammar is.

I am struggling because of old age but that is something else.

If you really want to make the case for Latin could could do worse than visit a Scandinavian country where it seems as if half the congregation, and sometimes the priest as well, is struggling with the vernacular.