Latin Rising

The New York Times and U.S. News & World Report each recently reported on what has become a recurring story: enrollment in middle and secondary school Latin classes has been steadily increasing over the last two decades, as has the number of students taking the National Latin Exam and Advanced Placement exams.

In recent decades interest in Latin has also been growing within the Catholic Church, especially among the younger generations. A significant number of young Catholics are enthusiastic about reading, hearing, singing and worshiping in Latin. They are often today’s seminarians, younger priests and religious, and laity alike. Some have organized into groups such as the Juventutem society dedicated to the traditional Latin Mass, others hold leadership roles in organizations such as the Church Music Association of America, while countless others read Catholic blogs, participate in Gregorian chant workshops, or enroll in Latin grammar classes. While Latin is merely the linguistic servant to these diverse activities, many of today’s young Catholics have discovered it as a precious pearl worthy of respect and re-cultivation in its own right.

Four decades ago Latin experienced a sharp decline in the Church in reaction to Pope John XXIII’s 1962 apostolic constitution Veterum Sapientia, which actually called for a renewed vigor in teaching Latin in seminaries, and decreed that books and lectures be in Latin as well. Instead, Latin theology texts were discarded and classroom instruction proceeded in the vernacular. The next year, the Second Vatican Council opened the door to the vernacular in the liturgy. These two factors, combined with the iconoclastic “spirit” of Vatican II, sounded Latin’s death knell. By the early 1970s, Latin had all but disappeared from the liturgy, seminaries, Catholic universities, and secondary schools – and seemed destined to survive only among backward-looking diehards.

But the generations since the council have moved beyond the fads of the 1970s. Like G.K. Chesterton, some of the young people of this generation realized that the true faith is not something to be invented, but something to be discovered, or even recovered. In seeking the heart of the Catholic faith, a serious segment of Catholic young people has turned towards the Catholic tradition and found Eucharistic adoration, fasting, and Gregorian chant. And with this recovery of tradition has come an attraction to Latin as the language of the Church and a path towards the full splendor of the Catholic faith.

Today many young Catholics, conscious of the Church’s catholicity and two thousand year history, perceive Latin as the means to reconnect the universal Church with her past, a past that is nearly inaccessible without it. The Fathers of the Western Church, the Middle Ages, and the Magisterium down to this very day communicated, taught, and worshiped in Latin. The traditional Latin Mass enables Catholics to worship in the same manner and in the same language as their ancestors had for many centuries. But Latin also provides linguistic unity in the present for a Church that spans all continents and includes all peoples. No one understands this better than the young, who, having witnessed firsthand the Church’s universality at the World Youth Day celebrations, long for a shared articulation of the one faith that they all profess.

Why is interest in Latin among young Catholics important, and what does it mean for the future of the Church? Latin study sessions are not likely to replace Bible studies, nor will Catholic university students stage protests demanding Latin in the curriculum. But many Catholics attracted to Latin understand that the universal Church and her tradition are bigger and wiser than they are, and therefore they are more likely to adhere to the Church’s teachings on matters theological, moral, and social. Contrary to the prevailing individualistic view that the Church should adapt herself to the whims of the modern world, these young people freely conform themselves to fit the Church since they recognize her as the pillar of truth and wisdom. For them the Church is mater et magistra together.

An inclination towards Latin may well result in more Latin in the new liturgy, more frequent celebrations of the old liturgy, the Tantum Ergo for benediction, renewed study of the Church Fathers and medieval doctors, and even a revival of the early twentieth century ressourcement derailed after the council. All of these are welcome and significant in their own right. But in addition to enabling greater continuity between past and present, Latin may be more important for the future simply because attraction to it coincides with fidelity to the Church.

With its sacral character and an immutability appropriate for expressing perennial truth, Latin is more than a mere curiosity for the devout. While the vernacular certainly has its place, Latin still has much to offer the Church today by way of worship, culture, and history. In the case of the Church, the end, of course, is eternal life. If it is properly fostered Latin may again contribute to leading Catholics, young and old, to that ultimate end.

David Bonagura, Jr., a new contributor to The Catholic Thing, is an associate editor of The University Bookman.

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The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

  • Michael

    Mirabile dictu!

  • William Dennis

    Where are Liberal Arts
    Three cheers for the renewed interest in Latin. For the last forty years we were led to believe Latin was banned from the Church. This was anything but the truth. Even today I find most parish priests recoil in fright at the very mention of Latin. Even the slightest interjection of Latin in the liturgy is frowned upon. Latin is the language of Western history and Christendom. I believe it should be a part of everyone’s education. Fully educated always meant knowledge of Latin and Greek.


    Thank you for this. Our new pastor is bringing back Latin into our worship services and I can’t be happier.

  • Mark

    The Age Gap
    As a recent college grad who was fortunate to have an orthodox Newman center, it was always funny when a parents’ weekend rolled around, because kids my age would know the Latin mass parts while our parents stood there confused.

  • William H. Phelan

    Benedicamus Domino! My adult children, my wife and I have been attending a Traditional chapel for the last ten years, and when we bring Catholic(?) guests, they are shocked by the sizes of the families. My wife and I (we have seven children) explain that this Mass, with modifications, goes back 1,500 YEARS, they get a sense of what they have been missing. Some, who can accept Catholicism for Adults, have joined the chapel which is in full accord with Rome.

  • Father G

    Of course, I always thought so…

  • James the Least

    This is all just another way of saying that the long, agonizing crawl of the faithful back to the authentic liturgy and worship of the Church continues. Not even Popes or whole Councils of Bishops have the power to permanently destroy the One, True, Eternal Faith. One day, should the world last that long, the Mass of All Time will be restored to its former, dignified place and the roots of the tree that has borne the rotten fruit will be cast back into the fires of hell from whence they came.

  • Pam

    I remember when Latin was banished and my non-Catholic mother remarking that the Church had done it all backwards. That is to say, when relatively few people travelled far from home, those who did could go anywhere and hear Mass in Latin. When all sorts of people were travelling to all points of the globe, Catholics assisted at a Mass they really couldn’t very well participate in. I have been estranged for years because of the drastic changes and pray that Latin returns and maybe I can, too

  • Andrew

    I work at a (small) public school where Latin is required in the lower grades–and, when given a choice after the requirement is satisfied, close to 30% of the student body elects to go on and do levels III and IV. I know for certain that a goodly number of those kids are mainstream “Novus Ordo” Catholics.

    I myself am an adult convert, and the fact that I had Latin in high school opened a few doors the Spirit flung wide years later. Latin: good for Catholics, good for future Catholics.

  • Margaret

    I am very excited about the ‘return’ of the Latin mass and attended my 1st recently. Personally, I studied Ancient Greek and hope to turn my attention to Latin soon. However I am grateful our less fortunate brothers and sisters who do not have access to much education at all, let alone education in Latin, can go to mass in their own language. And I am very happy that outsiders can visit and not feel excluded. Just the opinion of a convert, I am still learning about the liturgy and its history.

  • Liz

    After 40 years of summer camp liturgy this is refreshing to read. I have also noticed many, many young families at the Traditional Latin Mass I attend with well behaved children as well as adults worshipping with respect and reverence.

  • David Bonagura, Jr.

    The comments thus far show concrete signs of Latin’s revival around the country, particularly with regard to the liturgy. Andrew (comment #9) makes an interesting observation about high school students not electing to continue their Latin studies. I believe this has more to do with the typical nature of students: they would discontinue math and science too if given the option. But this points to something deeper: interest in the Catholic faith has renewed interest in Latin; not the reverse.

  • Ygnacia

    Latin is the language of Holy Mother Church. To those of us that have been raised in the watered-down, Catholic lite of the past 40 years, Latin is sweet music to our ears.

  • Brian

    This article refers to the very essence of the need for an international and intertemporal language both within and without the Church. It is strange: when I attend a Latin Mass, I feel that I am with innumerable others — predecessors whose essence is in the stones of the building, and those who are live across the globe and across the centuries.

  • Carol

    Interesting in light of the fact that Jesus spoke in His own language.

  • debby

    Above all else, love each other deeply. 1 John
    What i find so troubling whenever this topic comes up is the hurtful jabs at others. Reread these comments & the egocentric spirit of “my Mass is better than your Mass” can be heard. What happened to worshipping in Spirit & in Truth & not insisting on “this mountain or that?” If the Holy See allows it, celebrate God’s mercy toward all, then go LOVE GOD in Latin, Japanese,etc. Just go BE w/Him! Let’s stop construction on the Tower of Babel!

  • Andrew J.

    It is very safe to say that anyone who has read primary sources in their original language (provided they can comprehend that language adequately) knows how much is left out through translation into English or other languages. Translation transfers the expression of concepts, but NOT the aesthetical aspects that can only be found in the language of the author, that is utterly lost in translation. The same goes for spoken word. (This is more a post in favor of latin in general than in the Mass.)

  • Iosephus

    I am very curious about your evidence/support for this claim – “Four decades ago Latin experienced a sharp decline in the Church in reaction to Pope John XXIII’s 1962 apostolic constitution.”

  • David Bonagura Jr.

    Information about the negative response to Veterum Sapientia is readily available online. Priests who were seminarians at that time will also have their own personal anecdotes. The reaction is easily judged by the effect: one cannot see any evidence of Pope John’s decree in the Church. Veterum Sapientia, it is noted, is an Apostolic Constitution, as are the decrees promulgating the Marian dogmas of the last two centuries. The last two have been carried out, and the fruits are obvious.

  • Martin

    Carol, of course Jesus spoke in His own language. I would like to point out to you a comment made on another article (Facing East, by Brad Miner), “[A]t the Last Supper, Christ our Lord prayed, not in Aramaic, the spoken language of his day, but in Hebrew, the liturgical language of the Jews. Hebrew in 1st century Palestine was as dead a language as Latin is today – which shows that praying in a language not understood by the people conforms to the practice of our Saviour…”

  • Mitchell NY

    Priests who refuse to honor the Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia should bow their heads in shame. Not only are they selfish and misguided they are depriving millions of their right to attend worship in a sacred language that a Pope has declared mandatory. The hurt they have caused is not worth the few newcomers who are comfortable with disobeying, and picking and choosing amongst which things to obey from Rome….In order to make room for “more” they went so far as to throw the old out.