Lingua Franca

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 (1929-2010) was a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who taught at Notre Dame from 1955 until his death in 2010. He was among the founding contributors to The Catholic Thing.