Vatican Corner 03-10-2019

When the world’s bishops get together for meetings now-adays, they no longer communicate with each other using just one common language – Latin, as they once did. Back in the early 1960s Latin was the primary language they knew and used together. However, even in those days when the use of the vernacular – (the dialect spoken by ordinary people) was being debated at the Second Vatican Council, there were problems with the leaders communicating with each other in Latin. Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston argued that he and others were being le& out of the Latin proceedings. He said it was “all Greek to me” and at his request, a simultaneous translation system was put in place. Since that time the use of Latin has steadily declined and is now very rarely used in ordinary life. Its two remaining purposes for use seem to be for definitive grammar and for ceremonial importance. Today Italian is the main Vatican language with Spanish and English the next most popular. Bishops are required every five years to visit the Vatican and attend planning and prayer meetings with the Pope where they get to experience Italian. Almost every Cardinal has spent a couple of years studying at the Vatican and has come to understand Italian and most can speak it as well. But when the world’s bishops gather at the Vatican for a synod, it is not at all like the United Nations where there are a multitude of translators in little booths translating what is being said. Instead bishops are divided into language groups for work and discussion. As a result the bishops are never effectively able to communicate with bishops of different cultures, experiences and insights outside their own language group because they no longer have Latin as a common language. And hearing a translation of a translation of other bishop’s views is hardly a meeting of minds and is a terrible way to form a consensus or draft a theologically precise document. So bishops have in a way become strangers to each other. Latin has been the Church’s language of administration, law, and teaching for fifteen centuries and it is impossible to seriously study historic Catholic thought and culture without knowing Latin. But even the few people who know Latin rarely speak it since it is considered a language of solemnity, plus there are different “accepted pronunciations”, classical Latin and Church Latin, and each speaker drives the other crazy. The Curia – the Vatican government have experts responsible for translating or rendering Curial documents, and they do in fact speak Latin in the office in order to keep their linguistic habits strong. There is also still a school in Rome, the Vivarium Novum, in which students speak nothing but Latin and live on campus. But, Italian has become the principal language of the Vatican. To be continued…