Wednesday, July 10, 2024

The Father of the Romans and Joseph Ratzinger, His German Son

Virgil’s Aeneid is one of the modern world’s many illustrious victims. The gradual abandonment of Latin has turned this epic masterpiece, one of the literary cornerstones of Western Civilization, into something that only a minuscule group of inveterate Latinists can truly enjoy in the original language. I’m sad to say that I’m not in that group—Virgil’s Latin is so rich and dense, so intricate and elegant, that reading quickly becomes laborious to the point of exhaustion, and the translations on my bookshelf appear as an oasis in the desert of my own incompetence. I take comfort in the fact that John Dryden, a Latinist of the old stripe and one of the Aeneid’s most famous English-language translators, also strained under the weight of Virgil’s genius:

Virgil called upon me in every line for some new word, and I paid so long, that I was almost bankrupt, so that the latter end must needs be more burdensome than the beginning or the middle; and, consequently, the Twelfth Aeneid cost me double the time of the First and Second. What had become of me, if Virgil had taxed me with another book?

Aeneas builds a fleet after escaping Troy. Sixteenth century, painted enamel on copper.

Written in the first century BC, the Aeneid recounts the journey of Aeneas out of defeated Troy, around Greece, over to eastern Italy, down to Sicily, across the sea to Carthage, back to Sicily, and finally up to western Italy, where he founded Lavinium, a port city in Latium and an ancestor of Roman civilization. Saint Augustine knew the story well and adopted it as an allegorical framework for his own spiritual journey from pagan Rome to Christian Rome:

I was obliged to learn the wanderings of Aeneas, and yet I was forgetful of my own wanderings. I learned to weep for the death of Dido, because she killed herself for love, while in the midst of these things I was miserable and dying, separated from Thee, my God and my Life, and I shed no tears for myself. (Confessions I, 13)

The Aeneid is the story of the founding of Rome, but the poem is more about the people than the city. A central question at stake is the Roman character—what does it mean to be Roman? Virgil’s very long poem offers a very short answer: to be a Roman is to be a child, culturally speaking, of Aeneas. And what was Aeneas? He was, above all, pius.

Aeneas is Virgil’s epic hero, and his fundamental virtue—his renowned pietas—is an epic headache for translators. The classical Latin word pius doesn’t mean “pious,” and pietas doesn’t mean “piety.” In fact, these words have no adequate English equivalent. In his 2016 translation, the eminent classicist Barry Powell gave up and included the Latin terms in square brackets whenever they appeared, so that readers could form a better idea of what Virgil was actually saying. Powell’s attempt to convey the semantic field of classical pietas requires quite the bevy of English words: “sense of duty,” “religious behavior,” “loyalty,” “devotion,” “filial piety.” From Lewis and Short’s Latin–English dictionary we can add “affection,” “gratitude,” “love” (for one’s parents, benefactors, or homeland).

Dido weeps as Aeneas departs from Carthage.

Perhaps Virgil’s pius Aeneas is more easily understood through example than through explanation. Perhaps the best way for modern Catholics to really grasp the meaning of Roman pietas is to consider how the Roman Church treated (note the past tense) its liturgical tradition. We can reflect on the days when priests and prelates felt a sense of duty toward this tradition—the duty to preserve and reverentially enrich it as a sacred inheritance from the saints, scholars, sages, and heroes that preceded them in the great and perilous odyssey of human life. We can think of the devotion and loyalty of the faithful, who built the temples of Christendom with their labors and filled them with their prayers; who practiced and defended the Faith while humbly accepting that a layman is a layman and not a priest; who taught their children to savor the mysteries and silences and candlelit symbols of a ceremony whose object is the worship of the Triune God, not the exaltation of two-faced man with his long history of betraying himself, his friends, and his heavenly Father.

We can imagine a time when the liturgical rites of our fathers were received with gratitude and love, because they bring pleasure and beauty and divinity into the gritty, messy struggle to live as good Christians in this vale of tears. I dare say that we have our fill of utilitarian efficiency, experimental aesthetics, and prosaic banality from our earthly lives—and thus Catholics once cherished and honored a liturgy that gave them, if only for an hour or two, a vision and a foretaste of heaven.

Seventeen years ago, Joseph Ratzinger wrote that “what earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too.” Resolved to liberate western Christendom’s ancient Mass from humiliating shackles that it did nothing to deserve, he insisted that “the Church’s Latin liturgy in its various forms has inspired countless saints in their spiritual life, confirmed many peoples in the virtue of religion, and enriched their devotion.” Though a German by birth, this priest sat on a Roman throne, and he proved himself a man of pietas—a faithful son of Aeneas.

The funeral of Joseph Ratzinger. Photo courtesy of

In Book II of the Aeneid, Troy is conquered and burning, and Aeneas rescues his elderly father in a manner that gave Western culture one of its most enduring and emblematic scenes of filial piety:

“Come then, dear father! On my shoulders I
Will bear thee, nor will think the task severe.
Whatever lot awaits us, there shall be
One danger and one safety for us both.”

Pope Benedict XVI has, Deo volente, gone to his reward, and his successor has chosen a different path. We must be patient, then, until a new hero comes to carry our paternal liturgy out of the flames.

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