On September 12, Pope Francis met with the Jesuits of Slovakia in Bratislava. The Holy Father staged an impromptu question and answer session. The text of the session was reported by Antonio Spadaro on La Civilta Cattolica on September 21 (“Freedom Scares Us”: Pope Francis’ Conversation with Slovak Jesuits).Unam Sanctam Catholicam: Pope Francis’ Tragic Misunderstanding of Latin
During the session, one of the Jesuits observed that Francis was perceived as heterodox by many Catholics within Slovakia, while others idolized him. He then asked the pope how he deals with people who look at him with suspicion. Even though the question did not such on the Traditional Latin Mass or traditionalism, Pope Francis took the opportunity to offer the following reflections about Traditionis Custodes:Now I hope that with the decision to stop the automatism of the ancient rite we can return to the true intentions of Benedict XVI and John Paul II. My decision is the result of a consultation with all the bishops of the world made last year. From now on those who want to celebrate with the vetus ordo must ask permission from as is done with biritualism. But there are young people who after a month of ordination go to the bishop to ask for it. This is a phenomenon that indicates that we are going backward.
A cardinal told me that two newly ordained priests came to him asking him for permission to study Latin so as to celebrate well. With a sense of humor he replied: “But there are many Hispanics in the diocese! Study Spanish to be able to preach. Then, when you have studied Spanish, come back to me and I’ll tell you how many Vietnamese there are in the diocese, and I’ll ask you to study Vietnamese. Then, when you have learned Vietnamese, I will give you permission to study Latin.” So he made them “land,” he made them return to earth. I go ahead, not because I want to start a revolution. I do what I feel I must do. It takes a lot of patience, prayer and a lot of charity.
How we “return to the true intentions of Benedict XVI” by overturning his signature legislation is a piece of Jesuitical-Peronist sophistry that is beyond me, but I want to focus on the second paragraph, where Francis tells the story of the cardinal dissuading his priests from learning Latin, because these statements are indicative of the pope’s thinking on the matter of Latin. I offer the following observations:
I. The anecdote about “There are many Hispanics in the diocese! Study Spanish to be able to preach, etc.” reveals that Pope Francis does not even understand the concept of a liturgical language at all. He sees liturgical language in a utilitarian way, wholly functional and devoid of any value that is not homiletical. Without reference to tradition, without reference to history, without reference to liturgical integrity. Mere functionalism.
II. The concept of a priest needing permission from his ordinary to study Latin is manifestly contrary to the Code of Canon Law. Code of Canon Law 249 says, “The program of priestly formation is to provide that students not only are carefully taught their native language but also understand Latin well and have a suitable understanding of those foreign languages which seem necessary or useful for their formation or for the exercise of pastoral ministry.” We can see that the Code insists on study of Latin in addition to whatever foreign language is necessary for ministry. The liturgical language of the Church is in a different category than those languages which may be needful for ministry. The Church’s liturgical language is essential to her, while other languages are incidental and relate to time, place, and circumstance. Also, given the directive to study Latin is enshrined in the Church’s universal legislation, no priest needs “permission” to study it. By relating this story in the manner he does, Pope Francis is essentially winking at bishops depriving priest’s of their canonical rights.
III. His line of thought nurtures an inherent hypocrisy because we know that the pope would never say these things to Christians of other rites. Can you imagine the pontiff dissuading Eastern Catholics from learning Old Slavonic? Or telling Chaldeans to go learn Farsi and Kurdish before they are allowed to study Aramaic, or making fun of an Egyptian Christian for wanting to study Coptic? Of course not. And since such an attitude would never be promoted amongst other rites, we may conclude it is merely another expression of anti-Latin rite prejudice.
IV. Pope Francis’s comments reveal an ignorance of all the reasons why the Church has, even unto recent times, stressed the importance of preserving Latin. We need look no further than Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Veterum Sapientia (1962) on the promotion of Latin studies. Here, the father of the Second Vatican Council offered a comprehensive rationale for why Latin should be studied. Every traditional Catholic should review this encyclical, but I will offer a summary of Pope John’s rationale for studying Latin with relevant quotes:
Latin is a testimony to the historic witness of the Church: “By their use in sacred liturgies and in versions of Holy Scripture, they have remained in force in certain regions even to the present day, bearing constant witness to the living voice of antiquity.”
Latin unifies Christians: it provides “a bond of unity for the Christian peoples of Europe.”
It is neutral, its universality favoring no one ethnicity of nation: “Of its very nature Latin is most suitable for promoting every form of culture among peoples. It gives rise to no jealousies. It does not favor any one nation, but presents itself with equal impartiality to all and is equally acceptable to all”
Latin is uniquely suitable for precision and dignity required by theological expression: “the characteristic nobility of Latin formal structure. Its concise, varied and harmonious style, full of majesty and dignity makes for singular clarity and impressiveness of expression.”
It’s “non-vernacularity” gives Latin a special strength to bind the past, present, and future of the Church together in “wonderful continuity”, making the treasures of the past accessible: “the Catholic Church has a dignity far surpassing that of every merely human society, for it was founded by Christ the Lord. It is altogether fitting, therefore, that the language it uses should be noble, majestic, and non-vernacular…the Latin language can be called truly catholic. It has been consecrated through constant use by the Apostolic See, the mother and teacher of all Churches, and must be esteemed a treasure of incomparable worth. It is a general passport to the proper understanding of the Christian writers of antiquity and the documents of the Church’s teaching. It is also a most effective bond, binding the Church of today with that of the past and of the future in wonderful continuity.”
After enunciating these reasons, John XXIII concludes with the following:For these reasons the Apostolic See has always been at pains to preserve Latin, deeming it worthy of being used in the exercise of her teaching authority “as the splendid vesture of her heavenly doctrine and sacred laws.” She further requires her sacred ministers to use it…Thus the “knowledge and use of this language,” so intimately bound up with the Church’s life, “is important not so much on cultural or literary grounds, as for religious reasons.” These are the words of Our Predecessor Pius XI, who conducted a scientific inquiry into this whole subject, and indicated three qualities of the Latin language which harmonize to a remarkable degree with the Church’s nature. “For the Church, precisely because it embraces all nations and is destined to endure to the end of time … of its very nature requires a language which is universal, immutable, and non-vernacular.”
The reader will notice that none of the reasons listed by Pope John XXIII concerned themselves with homiletics. Whatever else one may say about “Good Pope John”, the man understood the concept of a liturgical language, the Church’s need for such a language, the “non-vernacularity” of this language, and the eminent suitability of Latin to be said language in the west. The fact that Pope Francis understands none of these concepts is disappointing, frightening, and evidence that the Holy Father is, once again, speaking about things he knows precious little about.
V. The idea that the Church’s liturgical language is somehow in rivalry with learning other vernacular languages is insulting to all the great Catholic missionaries who did both. When I read these comments by Francis, I think of St. Jean de Brebeuf, S.J. (d. 1649), who labored for twelve years to compile a dictionary in the Huron tongue while simultaneously celebrating Mass in Latin. I am reminded of Spanish missionaries to the Philippines, like Fr. Francisco Ignacio Alcina, S.J. (d. 1674), who worked for 37 years among the Visayans patiently creating dictionaries of Visayan language and translating their literature into Spanish whilst also celebrating the Mass in Latin. Or the Carmelite priest, Fr. John Thaddeus (d. 1633) who said Mass in Latin while also learning Persian and Turkic for his mission in Ishfahan, Persia (Iran), a mission that was so successful he became a friend and confidant of the Shah. In other words, the use of liturgical Latin has never been an obstacle to Catholic pastors learning vernacular languages. For Pope Francis to suggest the two are in competition is disparaging to the witness of these heroic missionaries who demonstrated the marvelous complementarity of being well versed in Latin as well as learning local dialects for homiletical reasons.
VI. Finally, the dilemma the cardinal in the story brings up about not wanting his priests to study Latin because they need to devote their time to other vernacular languages could have been totally avoided had the priests been trained in Latin in seminary, as they were supposed to be. That way, by the time of their ordination they would be ready to begin studies of whatever other languages were necessary, already having a solid grounding in Latin. By not promoting the study of Latin in the seminary, this cardinal has created the very problem he complains about.
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It is a sad testimony to our current state that the head of the Latin Rite is so uneducated about the Latin language. If this is how Francis thinks about Latin, we are justified in asking: What does “Latin rite” mean to Francis? In what sense is the Latin rite Latin at all?