The importance of recovering a rich heritage
should study Latin
Below are excerpts from one of the talks given at the conference
dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the Apostolic Constitution “Veterum
sapientia”. The conference was organized by the Pontifical Institute of Higher
Latin Studies of the Pontifical Salesian University.
The second half of the 20th century is marked — and not only on an ecclesial level — by a divide in the history of the use of Latin. Having faded centuries ago as an instrument of erudite communication, the language has survived as a subject on curricula of secondary schools and, in general, as the language of the Liturgy in the Catholic Church, and through the transmission of the content of the faith and of the great literary patrimony “De consolatione philosophiae” by Severino Boezio (14th-century manuscript) which ranges from theo-philosophical speculation to law, from mystique and hagiography to the art of writing treatises, from music even to the exact sciences, including the natural sciences.
With time, however, at least in terms of propaganda, Latin largely became the prerogative of clerical formation in the Catholic Church to the point of causing a spontaneous, perhaps inappropriate, identification of the Roman Church with Latin, which in this critical phase received apparent strength.
“Apparent”, because, if in hindsight we review those circumstances, everything would seem to point to Blessed John XXIII’s address on 7 September 1959, to a meeting of Latin scholars.
His words not only went unheeded but the issue of the use and even the teaching of Latin, also in an ecclesial context, probably took a path of radical re-evaluation. “Unfortunately there are many who, excessively attracted by the extraordinary progress of science, have presumed to reject or restrict the study of Latin and other such subjects”.
However, in the face of difficulties, priests today are convinced that the goal of studying Latin is to approach a civilization and estimate its values, interests and meanings, by assessing its teachings and theoretical foundations to gain a critical understanding of the present. It is a decisively encouraging signal for the world and the Church today, ready to look at the lesson and study of the past not as a superfluous or retrograde exercise, needlessly focused on recuperating something which has faded, but as the recovery, direct and without intermediation, of an extraordinarily rich doctrinal, cultural and pedagogical message, an intellectual heritage too vast, fertile and deep-rooted to think of pruning its roots.
In the current situation it seems improbable that one could make a priest appreciate, especially at the beginning of his formation, the value of Latin as a language endowed with nobility of structure and words, able to foster a concise, rich, harmonious style, full of majesty and dignity, which allows for clarity and gravity, able to advance every form of culture, the humanitatis cultus, among peoples.
It is through this recovery of one’s own cultural identity, through this profound revival of the reasons for the Church’s presence in society that the importance of Latin on the scholastic curriculum of those aspiring to the priesthood takes shape, saving it from any doubt concerning its practical function — both incorrect and reductive — and re-establishing its important role in formation.
It was in this perspective that Paul VI, at the beginning of the Motu Proprio Studia latinitatis — with which he established the then Salesian University the Pontifical Institute of Higher Latin Studies — firmly asserted in the introduction to the text the close tie between the study of Latin and priestly formation, reaffirming the need for a non exigua scientia of Latin.