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The Death of a "Dead" Language

February 3, 2007

Britain’s Telegraph reports that Fr. Reginald Foster, the Papal Latinst for almost 40 years, has expressed fear that the Latin language, which is practically only spoken at the Vatican, is nearing extinction:

“It is dying in the Church. I’m not optimistic about Latin. The young priests and bishops are not studying it,” said Fr Reginald Foster, 68, a Carmelite friar who was appointed the Papal Latinist 38 years ago by Pope Paul VI.

He said priests were no longer compelled to study Latin at seminaries, and now found it impossible to read vital theological tracts.

“You cannot understand St Augustine in English. He thought in Latin. It is like listening to Mozart through a jukebox,” he told The Sunday Telegraph. “We still speak Latin in the elevators and around the house in my monastery at San Pancrazio, just like 45 years ago. But nowadays the students don’t get it, and I don’t blame them – it’s not their fault.”

He said: “I’m not the boss, but I’m the oldest. I translated Deus Caritas Est, the last encyclical. We do bishops’ appointments, which are still written on papyrus in Latin, and letters of congratulations from the Pope.”

Although Pope Benedict grew up with Latin, and is fluent in the language, Fr Foster said he did not “have time” to compose and translate the hundreds of documents that the Vatican issues. Paul VI insisted on greater use of Latin within the Vatican, but Fr Foster said more junior members of the Catholic hierarchy were less enthusiastic now.

“I’m worried that if one Cardinal makes one or two decisions it could all go,” he said. “Already, we are sending congratulation letters to some Cardinals and they say can we please provide a translation. They want to read them out in the church and so on. Of course, I won’t provide translations. We might as well be writing in Mandarin.”

He said reports that Pope Benedict will reintroduce the Tridentine Mass, which dates from 1570 and is largely conducted in Latin, were wrong – not least because of the Pope’s desire to avoid more controversies. A speech last year offended Muslims and more recently he gave initial support to a Polish archbishop who was eventually forced to resign, after admitting that he had collaborated with the communist-era secret police.

“He is not going to do it,” Fr Foster said. “He had trouble with Regensberg, and then trouble in Warsaw, and if he does this, all hell will break loose.” In any case, he added: “It is a useless mass and the whole mentality is stupid. The idea of it is that things were better in the old days. It makes the Vatican look medieval.”

He condemned the loss of Latin teaching in schools across most of Europe, and said that as a result students were missing out on important elements of history. “Like classical music, Latin will always be there. If we cannot understand it, it is we who are losing out.”

Italy is, however, different: all schoolchildren, except those who attend technical colleges, must be taught Latin for at least four hours a week until they are 18. But Fr Foster said the techniques used to teach Latin were outdated. “You need to present the language as a living thing,” he said. “You do not need to be mentally excellent to know Latin. Prostitutes, beggars and pimps in Rome spoke Latin, so there must be some hope for us.”

Last year Fr Foster was fired from the Gregorian University for allowing too many students to study without charging them.

“I was not going to play the policeman,” he said. “I was happy to teach anyone who wanted to learn. Many of my students studied for three, four, five years -without -paying a single cent.”

He argued that the only solution to the decline of Latin was for the Pope to lead by example. “Instead of a siesta, he should announce that from 2pm to 4pm every day he will read Latin at the Vatican.”

He added with a twinkle: “People who come will get assignments. You will be picked on to answer questions, and if you mess up, the Pope will make you disappear. He can do that, you know.”

As a Latin teacher, I am frequently asked by my students which purpose the study of Latin serves. I always answer that the ability to read, write and perhaps speak an ancient language is not the primary reason one should study Latin unless they are specialized scholars or they are interested in reading primary sources in the original Latin. Nevertheless, I admit that Fr. Foster is correct; there is nothing like reading a Church Father in his original language. In fact, in my recent studies of Descartes, who wrote as recently as the 17th century, returning to the original Latin of the Meditations was an invaluable exercise in trying to understand key terms and meanings within the greater body of the work: One of the English translators translated the key Cartesian word repraesentatio as “image” while another translated both repraesentatio and imago as “image”, thereby masking the distinction between the two words.

However, most of my students will not become historians, philosophers or theologians, nor will they likely become desirous of reading Cicero, Augustine or Erasmus in Latin. Don’t get me wrong, the study of Latin can inculcate a great reverence and passion for history and tradition, and it can also serve as a liturgical unifier among diverse cross-sections of Catholics. But from where I stand as a teacher of Latin, there is another more practical purpose in the study of the language. Through my own learning and teaching of Latin, I have come to realize that the mind uses a similar style of thinking and application in Latin as it does in mathematics. I am certain that learning Latin will improve one’s math abilities, honing the mind to think analytically. Also, come SAT or GRE time, a working knowledge of Latin vocabulary does wonders for one’s performance on the verbal sections. That’s not a bad pay-off!

So what’ my view? I think everyone should take a few Latin courses in high school or college. And for those more audacious souls, attempting to teach oneself Latin out of textbooks is an option, as well. I may sound a bit demented, but I find learning and reading Latin to be exhilarating, gratifying and rewarding. Thus, I share Fr. Foster’s concern.

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