The Catholic Thing
Lingua Franca Print E-mail
By Ralph McInerny   
Sunday, 26 April 2009

After I was discharged from the Marine Corps at Great Lakes Naval Air Station near Chicago, I hitchhiked home to Minneapolis and was given a lift by an apostle of Esperanto, who was on his way to Madison to proselytize at the University of Wisconsin. My intellectual curiosity had been, if not stifled, at least curtailed by my time in the Marine Corps, and I was fascinated by this fellow’s zeal. A common invented language would tear down the barriers between peoples, lead to world peace, and what not. He gave me texts written in Esperanto to prove how easy it was to read. It was. It might have been an anticipation of the jargon of text messages.

Ever since the Tower of Babel, the desirability of a common language has been obvious. There were more or less serious attempts to recover the lost language. The alternative was to invent it. Esperanto was in its way a candidate to replace the language of Adam. I haven’t followed the career of this artificial language since that long ago first encounter with it at eighteen. The zealot who introduced me to it was hopeful that the United Nations would adopt it. That doesn’t seem to have happened.

For quite some time, the lingua franca was French, the language of diplomacy and culture. All the aristocrats in Tolstoy are more comfortable in French than they are in Russian. For Vladimir Nabokov, born and raised in pre-Revolutionary Russia, Russian was a second language. His first? English. That makes his facility in it less impressive than Conrad’s, who is in any case a greater writer. Conrad moved from his native Polish into the language of which he became one of the great masters.

Anything approaching a common language has historically been a function of empire. The Romans spread their language wherever they went, Latin became the language of their empire, and many of the greatest Latin authors were born in the provinces. That same empire provided the primary field for the dissemination of Christianity and unsurprisingly Latin was part of the package, so much for the Greek koine. Long after the empire crumbled and fell, Latin continued to exercise its hegemony through the Roman Catholic Church.

Developments since Vatican II are suggestive of the situation after Babel. The use of the vernacular was never a priority item prior to the council. Indeed, Pope John XXIII issued a motu proprio decreeing that Latin was to be retained as the language of instruction in seminaries and pontifical universities. The suggestion that it disappear from the liturgy would have struck him as insane. The loss of Latin in the liturgy since 1965 has balkanized the Church, robbing her of what for centuries was the mother tongue of believers. In recent decades, priests have been ordained who were bereft of Latin.

Before and after my non-hazardous stint in the Marine Corps – the invasion of Santa Ana, the battle of Los Angeles, the non-bombardment of San Juan Capistrano, reading through the El Toro library – I spent a total of six-and-a-half years in the seminary, first Nazareth Hall, the preparatory seminary of the Archdiocese of St. Paul, then two years in the major seminary there. In such an atmosphere the learning of Latin, and later of Greek, was just one of the things we did. I still have my Latin texts of that era and of those I used later at the University of Minnesota. Love of the classics was not the objective of seminary training of course, however irresistible; the main purpose in the training of priests was to ground them in the language of the Church.

How did we lose that common language? By fiat, as one might still say. How swiftly it was done. The Novus Ordo in Latin was not revolutionary – the Roman canon had pride of place. But as it was translated and mistranslated into the vernacular, and the priest, despite the rubrics, faced the congregation and became a chummy emcee, reverence was lost. The linguistic iconoclasts had a field day and the faithful writhed in the pews. I still recall the first time Amazing Grace was sung and, incredibly, Martin Luther’s A Mighty Fortress is Our God. Those reforming the liturgy apparently felt kinship with the Reformers.

The tide is turning now, thank God, though there is resistance by some prelates. Some years ago I wrote a little book, Let’s Read Latin: An Introduction to the Language of the Church. It is a favorite of home schoolers. I am told that at Wyoming Catholic College Latin is taught in Latin. One finds Mass being said in the Tridentine Rite in almost every diocese. The noon Mass at St. Martha’s in Sarasota is always in that rite. A personified Latin might murmur with Horace, non omnis moriar. “I shall not entirely die.” Not if Benedict XVI has anything to say about it. It is not with nostalgia alone that one forms those lovely words on the tongue at the beginning of Mass: Introibo ad altare Dei.

Ralph McInerny is a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who has taught at Notre Dame since 1955.

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Comments (19)Add Comment
Spanish professor
written by Kevin in Texas, April 27, 2009
A beautiful column, Dr. McInerny, and it couldn't come at a more opportune time for me, as I find myself delving ever more deeply into both the Novus Ordo and Extraordinary Forms of the Latin Mass, something I never grew up with as a post-conciliar Catholic baby. Moreover, rediscovering the Latin hymns used both in the Mass as part of chant, as well as those used in devotions like Benediction has brought me great joy and a sense of the universality of our Catholic faith and Holy Mother Church!
Hijacking Vatican II
written by William Dennis, April 27, 2009
It must have been sad for a previous generation used to the Tridentine Mass to suddenly see theiir altars turned around, altar rails removed,no more Latin and then to be entertained by songs like "We Gather Together" and "Lord When You Come to the Seashore."  Did you have to study the classics to know what "Hoc est enim corpus meum" meant?  Yes. The solemnity is gone. Benedict XVI is well aware of this. The sacrifice of the mass is now just a eucharistic gathering.  Something went wrong.  What?
written by James the Least, April 27, 2009
The use of Latin alone does not an authentic Latin Mass make. The old saying about lipstick on a pig applies here. Stop fooling yourselves and return to the pre-1962 form.
written by Lepanto, April 27, 2009
Latin was never the lingua franca for the entire Roman Empire. Koine Greek was the common language in all of the Eastern provinces. Only the Roman military and administration were in Latin (although even the latter was sometimes in Greek in the East). Of course Latin was dominant in Italy, Gaul, Ilyria, Spain, Africa and Britain (even if it left no mark there). Latin has become the Church's lingua franca because it later was the common language of Catholics and it should remain so today.
Not so fast
written by Mark, April 27, 2009
As a language nerd, I enjoy when we sing the Agnus Dei. However, if I did not already know what it means in English, so much would be lost on me. Having a sense of reverence doesn't go very far when you have no idea what's actually being said. You get caught up in a vague sense of importance rather than being able to dive into the meaning of the liturgy. As a 20-something Catholic, I say "pump the brakes" before you throw my generation into a world we've never known and therefore do not miss.
written by Roger, April 27, 2009
I believe Waugh wrote a short story in which a time traveller goes far into the future and is completely disoriented, until he stumbles into a hut and hears--the Latin mass. Does anyone remember the name of it?
written by Bill Chapman, April 27, 2009
Esperanto is alive and well, and being used for all kinds of people for all sorts of purposes.

I have used it on my travels in a dozen countries.

Take a look at
written by Lacey, April 27, 2009
I agree with Mark as another 20-something Catholic. I would love to have access to a Latin mass at my parish. However without education in Latin, all it will be is foreign words...which is an artificial way to increase reverence. Sure I and others like myself in the U.S. and other developed countries could easily educate ourselves or take classes in Latin, but as I have said on here before, what about our brothers and sisters who hardly have access to education at all let along Latin?
written by Lacey, April 27, 2009
...cont....I agree thought that we need to a return of respect during the mass, and certainly we need more Catholics and especially priests with knowledge of the language of the Church
written by upstate, April 27, 2009
As Father Walter Ong argued years ago, even during the adolescence of the Church, you had to STUDY Latin to have it. That is, you went to books, or a teacher. By and large, one did not learn Latin by hearing it exchanged by parents or pals.Thus the Latin of the Church never approached -- could not approach -- the richness of vernacular languages. It was indeed a common system of communication, more subtle than Morse Code, but far short of the nuances of your own vernacular.
All Languages Needed
written by debby, April 27, 2009
Growing up protestant i met boat loads of Catholics who knew some latin but no Scripture. Not one single time was"why do you do that/what does this mean?" answered.Even their parents had no "real" answers. This is not to trash beautiful Latin or the Baltimore Cat. But when hearts are on fire w/love for Him, longing increases in the soul for more of Him. The Truths in Vat2 need to be implemented & this wound in His Body healed. Better Faith Formation leads to deeper worship for all.
written by Kathy, April 27, 2009
I love the latin Mass and enjoy hearing about retaining latin usuage. I am out of work and looking for a way to make a difference in the world. I have a Master's degree from Ave Maria University in Theology. Do you know of any theology or faith related work I could do? I appreciate your assistance.
God love you as Archbishop Sheen used to say.
written by Michjo, April 28, 2009
Esperanto is much easier than other languages, even English, and can facilitate communication between people of different languages. However, few Esperantists think it will tear down all barriers, let alone usher in world peace. Communication is a necessary first step, but much more is required. Even so, about 2,000,000 mostly down-to-earth people use Esperanto today. Curious? Check out for info, or to learn it for free,
written by Pam, April 28, 2009
For Lacy and Mark--the Missal always had the English translation by the Latin in the old rite, so if you could read, you knew what you were saying or what was being said when the Latin was recited. I am what is gently known as an "inactive" Catholic. I hope that access to a Latin Mass might be the path of my return to "active" status.
written by Bill, April 28, 2009
Dr. McInerny is absolutely right Reverence is gone, along with the Latin---and silence.It's impossible to talk to God when others are loitering in the aisles between Masses and engaging in noisy conversations with friends and neighbors. Then there are those who haul in a bottle of water to quench their thirsts during Mass. That never happened before Vatican II.
written by Eileen Kovatch, April 28, 2009
Is it solemnity or relationship with God and the people of God that is important? I love some of the Latin hymns and liturgical rites but I also love being able to fully participate in the celebration of Mass. Maybe sign language is the answer to universality.
written by Brian Barker, April 28, 2009
I think you underrate Esperanto's potential.

It's also unfortunate that only a few people know that Esperanto has become a living language.

During a short period of 121 years Esperanto is now in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide, according to the CIA World factbook. It is the 17th most used language in Wikipedia, and in use by Skype, Firefox and Facebook.
I speak English
written by Catholic Joe Six Pack, April 28, 2009
At the first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit transcended the lack of a lingua franca among believers. And Jesus conducted his ministry in the vernacular (ie, Aramaic). So while Latin has a central place in the church's history and liturgy, let's not put God in a Latin box. As for me, I am a card-carrying, Novus Ordo, vernacular worshipping, orthodox Catholic who prefers the priest to face the community. Has anyone seen my guitar and tambourine?
Not Latin leads to heresy
written by Fr. Orlowski, May 07, 2009
The church is undergoing incredibile damage because theology especially does not have a common language. An English priest was defending his thesis written in say Italian. But the board was comprised of a german and indian priest. It was determined that they all new French so they conducted the defense in French. Persummably, many of the quotes were from latin theologians, and the greek Fathers. I can imagine that many theological errors could have been made without any one noticing.

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