O TEMPORA, o mores! The rolling thunder that is the Latin language is in such trouble, even in its last redoubt, the heirarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, that cardinals and bishops have begged Pope Benedict XVI to put it on a life support machine.
The Princes of the Church appear to have the same problem that bedevilled generations of baffled English schoolboys battling their way across the three divided parts of Gaul with Julius Caesar — they don’t speak it, read it or understand it. And while the grandly dressed and highly respected congregation at the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops may not have to write out 100 times Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres as a punishment for their ignorance, they appear now to be at least as embarrassed as any ink-stained duffer who confuses the vocative with the nominative.
When Cardinal Angelo Scola, the Patriarch of Venice, opened the synod, he gave his address entirely in Latin, sending many of the 241 participants rushing for headsets to hear a translation. Nothing could have better illustrated the Church’s fading proficiency in its own language.
To help bishops to follow the written text in front of them, Scola gave his audience useful pointers, such as, “paginam decimam quartam”. For many, this was of little help. It was clear that some kind of extra tuition was needed. So yesterday, after the three-week gathering had helped to demonstrate how serious was the need for a simple means of communication across the language barriers amidst the Church’s international flock, the synod called on the Pope to help to stop Latin falling entirely into disuse.
One of the synod’s 50 “propositions” to the Pope is that the language should feature prominently in Masses at major international events, where Catholics speaking many different languages are present.
It is expected to appeal to the Pope, who in June invited Catholics to pray in Latin whenever possible, emphasising its universal dimension. “Latin makes it easier for Christians from different countries to pray together, especially when they meet for special occasions,” he said .
Although ever fewer people outside the Vatican understand Latin, the language is used for papal encyclicals and other important Church documents.
There are few, even in the Church, who can speak it fluently. The tradition at Vatican synods of having at least one discussion group work in Latin was abandoned this year.
According to reports, only one synod participant spoke Latin every time he took the microphone: Latvian Cardinal Janis Pujats, the Archbishop of Riga. He did the same at the previous synod in 2001, when a disconsolate Pope John Paul II commented: “Paupera lingua latina, ultimum refugium habet in Riga” (Poor Latin, it has its last refuge in Riga).
The next time a Pope makes a joke in Latin, perhaps more of his cardinals and bishops will understand him.
FWIW, I took my Roman Missal to Mass yesterday (I won it on eBay ... 1936 parallel Latin-English text!) ... I didn't realize how much the mass had changed even beyond the language ....