Latin Rising

The New York Times and U.S. News & World Report each recently reported on what has become a recurring story: enrollment in middle and secondary school Latin classes has been steadily increasing over the last two decades, as has the number of students taking the National Latin Exam and Advanced Placement exams.

In recent decades interest in Latin has also been growing within the Catholic Church, especially among the younger generations. A significant number of young Catholics are enthusiastic about reading, hearing, singing and worshiping in Latin. They are often today’s seminarians, younger priests and religious, and laity alike. Some have organized into groups such as the Juventutem society dedicated to the traditional Latin Mass, others hold leadership roles in organizations such as the Church Music Association of America, while countless others read Catholic blogs, participate in Gregorian chant workshops, or enroll in Latin grammar classes. While Latin is merely the linguistic servant to these diverse activities, many of today’s young Catholics have discovered it as a precious pearl worthy of respect and re-cultivation in its own right.

Four decades ago Latin experienced a sharp decline in the Church in reaction to Pope John XXIII’s 1962 apostolic constitution Veterum Sapientia, which actually called for a renewed vigor in teaching Latin in seminaries, and decreed that books and lectures be in Latin as well. Instead, Latin theology texts were discarded and classroom instruction proceeded in the vernacular. The next year, the Second Vatican Council opened the door to the vernacular in the liturgy. These two factors, combined with the iconoclastic “spirit” of Vatican II, sounded Latin’s death knell. By the early 1970s, Latin had all but disappeared from the liturgy, seminaries, Catholic universities, and secondary schools – and seemed destined to survive only among backward-looking diehards.

But the generations since the council have moved beyond the fads of the 1970s. Like G.K. Chesterton, some of the young people of this generation realized that the true faith is not something to be invented, but something to be discovered, or even recovered. In seeking the heart of the Catholic faith, a serious segment of Catholic young people has turned towards the Catholic tradition and found Eucharistic adoration, fasting, and Gregorian chant. And with this recovery of tradition has come an attraction to Latin as the language of the Church and a path towards the full splendor of the Catholic faith.

Today many young Catholics, conscious of the Church’s catholicity and two thousand year history, perceive Latin as the means to reconnect the universal Church with her past, a past that is nearly inaccessible without it. The Fathers of the Western Church, the Middle Ages, and the Magisterium down to this very day communicated, taught, and worshiped in Latin. The traditional Latin Mass enables Catholics to worship in the same manner and in the same language as their ancestors had for many centuries. But Latin also provides linguistic unity in the present for a Church that spans all continents and includes all peoples. No one understands this better than the young, who, having witnessed firsthand the Church’s universality at the World Youth Day celebrations, long for a shared articulation of the one faith that they all profess.

Why is interest in Latin among young Catholics important, and what does it mean for the future of the Church? Latin study sessions are not likely to replace Bible studies, nor will Catholic university students stage protests demanding Latin in the curriculum. But many Catholics attracted to Latin understand that the universal Church and her tradition are bigger and wiser than they are, and therefore they are more likely to adhere to the Church’s teachings on matters theological, moral, and social. Contrary to the prevailing individualistic view that the Church should adapt herself to the whims of the modern world, these young people freely conform themselves to fit the Church since they recognize her as the pillar of truth and wisdom. For them the Church is mater et magistra together.

An inclination towards Latin may well result in more Latin in the new liturgy, more frequent celebrations of the old liturgy, the Tantum Ergo for benediction, renewed study of the Church Fathers and medieval doctors, and even a revival of the early twentieth century ressourcement derailed after the council. All of these are welcome and significant in their own right. But in addition to enabling greater continuity between past and present, Latin may be more important for the future simply because attraction to it coincides with fidelity to the Church.

With its sacral character and an immutability appropriate for expressing perennial truth, Latin is more than a mere curiosity for the devout. While the vernacular certainly has its place, Latin still has much to offer the Church today by way of worship, culture, and history. In the case of the Church, the end, of course, is eternal life. If it is properly fostered Latin may again contribute to leading Catholics, young and old, to that ultimate end.

David G Bonagura, Jr.

David G. Bonagura Jr. teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God's Plan of Salvation.