Tuesday, February 22, 2022

The 60th Anniversary of Veterum Sapientia

Several years ago, the actor Bill Murray, who is a practicing Catholic, gave an interview to the British newspaper The Guardian, in which he spoke thus of the Church’s move away from the use of Latin after the Second Vatican Council.

“One new saint he does approve of is Pope John XXIII (who died in 1963). ‘I’ll buy that one, he’s my guy; an extraordinary joyous Florentine who changed the order. I’m not sure all those changes were right. … I think we lost something by losing the Latin. … ’ ”

Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons
St John XXIII was actually from a small village in Lombardy called “Under-the-Mountain (Sotto il Monte)”, near Bergamo. But far more importantly, and contrary to the popular impression evinced by Mr Murray’s words, it was never his intention that the use of Latin should diminish in the Church. Quite the contrary: it was he who issued the Church’s most definitive pronouncement on the importance of Latin, the Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia. This was promulgated by the Pope 60 years ago today, with the greatest possible solemnity, signed on the high altar of St Peter’s Basilica, on the feast of St Peter’s Chair, as his way of communicating its extraordinary importance.
The Constitution begins by outlining the many reasons why the Church has always encouraged the study and use of Latin, as one of the sacred languages which “bear constant witness to the living voice of antiquity.” Latin was “the means for the spreading of Christianity throughout the West. And since in God’s special Providence this language united so many nations together under the authority of the Roman Empire… it also became the rightful language of the Apostolic See.” Latin is also a bond of unity among Christians, a language which “(o)f its very nature …. is most suitable for promoting every form of culture among peoples. It gives rise to no jealousies. It does not favor any one nation, but presents itself with equal impartiality to all and is equally acceptable to all.”
He goes on to cite an apostolic letter of Pope Pius XI, that the “ ‘knowledge and use of this language … is important not so much on cultural or literary grounds, as for religious reasons. … For the Church, precisely because it embraces all nations and is destined to endure to the end of time … of its very nature requires a language which is universal, immutable, and non-vernacular.’ ”
Latin is a universal language, “the instrument of mutual communication … between the Apostolic See and the Churches which use the same Latin rite,” and it serves this purpose admirably because it is immutable, unlike the vernacular languages, and “has long since ceased to be affected by those alterations in the meaning of words which are the normal result of daily, popular use.” The Latin language “ ‘can be called truly catholic’ ” because it has been consecrated through constant use by the Apostolic See, the mother and teacher of all Churches, and must be esteemed ‘a treasure … of incomparable worth.’ It is a general passport to the proper understanding of the Christian writers of antiquity and the documents of the Church’s teaching. It is also a most effective bond, binding the Church of today with that of the past and of the future in wonderful continuity.”
St John has often been misunderstood as one who wanted to uncritically open the Church up to the modern world, as if nothing but good could come from doing so. What he says about Latin in the Constitution, however, reveals this for the misrepresentation it is. It would be better to say that while he did want the Church to take what was best from the world, he was much more concerned that the world should benefit from what was best in the Church. This would, of course, include all that the Church had done for so many centuries to preserve and promote the use of Latin as the vehicle by which its spiritual patrimony was conveyed to and shared among all Her children.
After speaking therefore, of the educational value of Latin, he declares his intention and resolve to “restore this language to its position of honor, and to do all We can to promote its study and use.” And since “(t)he employment of Latin has recently been contested in many quarters … (W)e have therefore decided to issue the timely directives contained in this document, so as to ensure that (its) ancient and uninterrupted use … be maintained and, where necessary, restored.”
The Pope goes on to repeat his own words delivered three years previously to a congress of Latin scholars.
“It is a matter of regret that so many people, unaccountably dazzled by the marvelous progress of science, are taking it upon themselves to oust or restrict the study of Latin and other kindred subjects. … … Our own view is that the very contrary policy should be followed. The greatest impression is made on the mind by those things which correspond more closely to man’s nature and dignity. And therefore the greatest zeal should be shown in the acquisition of whatever educates and ennobles the mind. Otherwise poor mortal creatures may well become like the machines they build — cold, hard, and devoid of love.”
His Holiness deems this a matter of such importance that he goes on not only to command religious superiors of all kinds to promote Latin in accordance with the Holy See’s directives, but also to forbid anyone to write “against the use of Latin in the teaching of the higher sacred studies or in the liturgy”, or to misrepresent “the Holy See’s will in this regard.”
It will certainly not escape the reader’s notice that these are not the words of a man too enamored with the modern world to embrace the ancient world.
The final part of Veterum Sapientia gives some practical considerations s to how Latin is to be promoted in the Church. The Pope cites the provision of the 1917 Code of Canon Law (can. 1364), that students in minor seminaries must learn both Latin and their native language well as part of their course of studies. (In those days, it was more the norm than the exception for seminarians to attend a minor seminary first, especially in Catholic countries like Italy.) Here we may note in passing that the 1983 Code of Canon Law is no less explicit on this same point, although without reference to minor seminaries. “The program of priestly formation is to provide that students not only are carefully taught their native language but also understand Latin well and have a suitable understanding of those foreign languages which seem necessary or useful for their formation or for the exercise of pastoral ministry.” (Can. 249) Pope John emphasizes that “(n)o one is to be admitted to the study of philosophy or theology except he be thoroughly grounded in (Latin) and capable of using it.”
He goes on to order that where Latin has been eclipsed in favor of other subjects in imitation of secular curricula, that it should be restored, and the subjects which had replaced it curtailed, or the course of studies otherwise adjusted as necessary to make sure that sufficient room is given to Latin. He also specifies that theology is to be taught in Latin and from Latin textbooks, as the best means “to safeguard the integrity of the Catholic faith,” and “to prune away useless verbiage.” This was regarded as a matter of such importance that he also orders professors who cannot teach in Latin should be replaced by others who can.
Although he had previous emphasized the suitability of Latin as a language for the teaching of theology, since its vocabulary is not subject to the vicissitudes of change that affect vernacular languages, at the same time, he had also emphasized its role as a bond of unity between Catholics of many different nations. In order that Latin may continue to serve as the “the Church’s living language”, the Pope also orders the creation of a Latin Academy, which would be similar in its function as the Academie Française, providing a universal reference point for the Latin expression of new concepts and things. To this day, in fact, the Vatican publishes a Lexicon Recentis Latinitatis for that very purpose.
John XXIII celebrating the Byzantine Divine Liturgy in the Sistine Chapel, for the episcopal consecration of Gabriel Coussa, who was soon after appointed pro-secretary of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches.
A paragraph is also given to the study of Greek, the language of the New Testament and so many of the most important of the Church Fathers, which in turn were among the most important sources for the scholastic theologians of the Latin-speaking Middle Ages.
Finally, the Pope commands the Sacred Congregation of Seminaries and Universities “to prepare a syllabus for the teaching of Latin which all shall faithfully observe… designed to give those who follow it an adequate understanding of the language and its use.” This syllabus, known as the Ordinationes, was issued just under two months after Veterum Sapientia, and gives detailed instructions not only concerning the specific texts to be read, but the requisites of how Latin was to be taught and by whom. The first-ever English translation of them was done by Dr Nancy Llewellyn, Vice-President of the Veterum Sapientia Institute, and can be read at the following link: https://veterumsapientia.org/resources/ordinationes-eng/

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