The Next Page: Latin, the 'mother tongue of the church'

When the Vatican has something important to say, whether a matter of church doctrine or the resignation of a pope, it delivers the message first in Latin.

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At the conclusion of a gathering Monday at which he approved three canonizations, Pope Benedict XVI broke into Latin and made an announcement so grave, so unexpected, that it rocked the Catholic Church.

Rocked the church, that is, after the address had been translated into English and sundry other languages actually used by the church's more than 1 billion members.

Latin may be dead to most of the world, and the Vatican's everyday language may be Italian. But in a nod, perhaps, at the gravity of his announcement, Benedict invoked the traditional language of the Western church.

"Fratres carissimi" (Dear Brothers), he began, plunging the room into bewilderment.

Nicholas Cafardi, a canon lawyer, professor and dean emeritus at Duquesne University School of Law and a prospective nominee for the post of U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, said he read that even some clergy in the room didn't know what Benedict was saying at first.

The Rev. Chrysostom Schlimm, a Benedectine who is special collections librarian at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, said the pope's use of Latin made perfect sense.

"Anything official that is brought out in the church is first expressed in Latin," he said. "Latin is the mother tongue of the church."

Father Schlimm, who taught Latin and other subjects at the college and Saint Vincent Seminary, said papal and liturgical documents are issued first in Latin and then translated into other languages. Mr. Cafardi said Vatican courts use Latin.

"For 1,900 years, it was the language of our liturgy," Mr. Cafardi said. In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council opened the door to use of other languages at Mass.

Father Schlimm said a long line of popes has reinforced the need to retain Latin and to familiarize clergy with the language. As the universal language of a far-flung church, he said, Latin is a vehicle for ensuring clarity and orthodoxy to theological issues over long periods of time.

Mr. Cafardi said Benedict, who began his priesthood well before Vatican II, is well versed in Latin.

As pope, Benedict has taken various steps to promote the use of Latin -- and even posted messages on Twitter in it.

The church's Latin is not classical Latin, the language of ancient Rome, said Rosemarie Deist, professor of classics at the University of San Francisco. Rather, she said, "theological Latin" grew out of the medieval period and evolved to meet the needs of a growing church.

"They made it suitable for the church," Ms. Deist said, saying the church's Latin retains characteristics of the classical language but is more verbose.

Ms. Deist said classical Latin is known for its "sheer beauty" and great complexity, a combination that found a notable outlet in the intellectually challenging debates of the Roman Senate. The use of Latin declined, she said, "because Rome herself was changing."

Today, Ms. Deist said, Latin is part of antiquity's allure, even if Latin's practical application is nil. "You know, our Latin classes are always full," she said.

Acquiring the language is thrilling, Ms. Deist said, but students very quickly lose their skills once classes are over. Latin requires regular class attendance, she said, lest students quickly fall so far behind that they are lost forever.

She said those who stick with it -- often for three semesters -- "are always the most reliable students."

Pope Benedidct's resignation address in and Latin and English, as provided by the Vatican:

Fratres carissimi

Non solum propter tres canonizationes ad hoc Consistorium vos convocavi, sed etiam ut vobis decisionem magni momenti pro Ecclesiae vita communicem. Conscientia mea iterum atque iterum coram Deo explorata ad cognitionem certam perveni vires meas ingravescente aetate non iam aptas esse ad munus Petrinum aeque administrandum.

Bene conscius sum hoc munus secundum suam essentiam spiritualem non solum agendo et loquendo exsequi debere, sed non minus patiendo et orando. Attamen in mundo nostri temporis rapidis mutationibus subiecto et quaestionibus magni ponderis pro vita fidei perturbato ad navem Sancti Petri gubernandam et ad annuntiandum Evangelium etiam vigor quidam corporis et animae necessarius est, qui ultimis mensibus in me modo tali minuitur, ut incapacitatem meam ad ministerium mihi commissum bene administrandum agnoscere debeam. Quapropter bene conscius ponderis huius actus plena libertate declaro me ministerio Episcopi Romae, Successoris Sancti Petri, mihi per manus Cardinalium die 19 aprilis MMV commissum renuntiare ita ut a die 28 februarii MMXIII, hora 20, sedes Romae, sedes Sancti Petri vacet et Conclave ad eligendum novum Summum Pontificem ab his quibus competit convocandum esse.

Fratres carissimi, ex toto corde gratias ago vobis pro omni amore et labore, quo mecum pondus ministerii mei portastis et veniam peto pro omnibus defectibus meis. Nunc autem Sanctam Dei Ecclesiam curae Summi eius Pastoris, Domini nostri Iesu Christi confidimus sanctamque eius Matrem Mariam imploramus, ut patribus Cardinalibus in eligendo novo Summo Pontifice materna sua bonitate assistat. Quod ad me attinet etiam in futuro vita orationi dedicata Sanctae Ecclesiae Dei toto ex corde servire velim.

Ex Aedibus Vaticanis, die 10 mensis februarii MMXIII

Dear Brothers,

I have convoked you to this Consistory, not only for the three canonizations, but also to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the Church. After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today's world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.

Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects. And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff. With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.

From the Vatican, 10 February 2013

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The Next Page is different every week: Joe Smydo,, 412-263-1548


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