Preserving roots

By 
  • November 15, 2012

Once civilization’s most important language, Latin has been on life-support for decades. That it retains even a faint pulse is due to the persistence of academia but primarily due to the Church.

To reverse the decline, Pope Benedict XVI has established a Vatican-based academy to encourage Latin studies and the promotion of Latin culture. He hopes not only to restore the prominence of Latin as a common language within the Church but to encourage all of society to honour Latin’s important place in human history.

That’s a tall order. Latin is not anyone’s first language and is seldom even a second or third choice in a shrinking world in which Mandarin classes are filling up. But the Pope should be commended for applying CPR to an ancestral language of the Church at a time when a rapidly modernizing, techno-crazy world seems increasingly less mindful of the past.

“The Latin language has always been held in high regard by the Catholic Church and Roman pontiffs,” the Pope wrote. “After the fall of the western Roman empire the Church of Rome not only continued to use Latin, but in a certain sense also became its custodian and promoter in the theological and liturgical fields, as well as in education and the transmission of knowledge.”

Latin became a central language of the Church during Roman times and remains the Church’s universal language today. But since Vatican II it has been in decline, in the liturgy, of course, but also in the seminary and Catholic education in general. Yet no serious study of Church theology, history or canon law can occur without fluency in Latin because Latin is the language of most source documents in Vatican archives and other museums and universities.

Through the Middle Ages Latin was also the common language of scholars, diplomats, poets, traders and nobility. From Latin evolved the romance languages of French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. More than half the English vocabulary has Latin roots, and Latin words and phrases remain prominent in medicine, law and science. It’s part of our cultural DNA.

“There is therefore an apparent pressing need to encourage commitment to a greater knowledge and more competent use of Latin in the ecclesial environment as well as in the world of culture at large,” the Pope said.

The Pope’s Latin initiative, however, is bound to cause some grumbling among those who believe connecting more intimately with the past means losing touch with the modern world. But promoting Latin is a forward-looking strategy. Society is poorer when it cuts off its roots. Building new bridges to the past ensures that the Church’s rich teachings, history and traditions can be carried into the future.That’s a noble objective, no matter how you say it.

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