“lingua latina bene calleant”

Many are the times that I have lamented the nearly complete disobedience to the Code of Canon Law and the expressed will of modern Roman Pontiffs about the Latin language.  For example, the 1983 Code of Canon Law, can. 249, requires – it doesn’t suggest or recommend or propose – that seminarians be very well trained in Latin:  “lingua latina bene calleant“. Not just calleant, says can. 249, but bene calleantCalleo is “to be practised, to be wise by experience, to be skilful, versed in” or “to know by experience or practice, to know, have the knowledge of, understand”. We get the word “callused” from this verb. We develop calluses when we do something repeatedly. So, bene calleant is “let them be very well versed”.  Review also Sacrosanctum Concilium 36 and Optatam totius 13, just to point to documents of Vatican II.

Latin is necessary.  Its benefits are so numerous that they shouldn’t have to be enumerated.  And yet we are faced today with a clergy – and educated class – who are nearly totally ignorant of Latin.

The great Fr. John Hunwicke has a good entry at his blog about Latin and the ignorance of clergy and clerisy.

Here is a taste with my usual treatment (NB: he has black and red in his original):

Roman Pontiffs do not commonly sign their Magisterial documents on the High Altar of S Peter’s in the presence of the body of Cardinals. But S John XXIII thus promulgated his Apostolic Constitution Veterum sapientia, 1962, in which he insisted that the Latin language must remain central to the culture of Western Christianity. What more could the good old gentleman have done?

That Letter was praised by B Paul VI (Studia Latinitatis, 1964, ” … principem obtinere locum dicenda sane est”), who was anxious that seminarians “magna cum cura et diligentia ad antiquas et humanas litteras informentur”; and S John Paul II (Sapientia Christiana) emphasised the requirement for knowlege of Latin “for the faculties of the Sacred Sciences, so that students can understand and use the sources and documents of the Church”. More recently Benedict XVI (Latina lingua, 2012), praised Veterum sapientia as having been issued iure meritoque: it is to be taken seriously both because of its legal force and because of the intrinsic merit of its arguments; and in his Encyclical Sacramentum Caritatis wrote specifically about the need for seminarians to be taught Latin. We have, in other words, a coherent expectation in the teaching of popes S John XXIII, B Paul VI, S John Paul II, and Benedict XVI that all seminarians should become proficient in Latin, the language of the Church. And the attitude of the popes to the promotion of Latin studies in even broader contexts than that of the formation of the clergy is demonstrated in the establishment by B Paul VI of a Latin Academy; a foundation re-established and strengthened by Benedict XVI.

This papal teaching by no means relates solely to the language of worship; it desires Latin to remain a living vernacular for the clergy and not least for their formation; and it is explicitly based upon the belief that, by being latinate, a clerisy will have access to a continuity of culture. My post would have to be very long indeed if it quoted fully all the words of all four popes to this effect. Coming as I do from the Anglican Patrimony, I will instead share the witness of C S Lewis’s Devil Screwtape, who confessed, “Since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another”. And in his Pilgrim’s Regress, Lewis suggests that the growing disuse of Classical languages is a Diabolical trick to isolate the educated classes from the wisdom of the Past. Both in secular culture and within the Church, there is a risk that the educated class will be cut off and imprisoned in the narrow confines of a particular culture – victims of its particular Zeitgeist. [This is clearly what has already happened, and we are suffering the consequences ] A literate clerisy is one that reads what other ages wrote, which means that it will at least be able to read Latin; and the sign of such a clerisy, in practical terms, will be that it can with ease read its Divine Office in Latin.

It is in this context that we must see the requirement of Vatican II (Sacrosanctum Concilium 101): “In accordance with the centuries-old tradition (saecularis traditio) of the Latin rite, the Latin language is to be retained by clerics in reciting the Divine Office“. And it is highly significant that it goes on to make any use of the vernacular an (apparently very rare) exception which bishops can grant “only on an individual basis“.


The loss of Latin in our sacred worship has been devastating for our identity as Catholics and, therefore, our influence in the world.  The loss of Latin amongst our clergy has been devastating for our Catholic identity, for our clergy promotes knock on effects through the entire people of God.

At the end of his entry, Fr. H also raises a question that I have also raised.  When men are ordained, someone involved in formation stands up to testify that the men are properly formed and trained, that they are idonei for Orders.  However, most of them now have no Latin and cannot even begin to say half of their Rite, the Extraordinary Form.  Are they properly formed?

We can’t afford to say, “It’s too haaard!” or “There’s no tiiiiime!”   Perhaps other things ought to be sacrificed for the sake of Latin.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, Cri de Coeur, Hard-Identity Catholicism, Mail from priests, New Evangelization, Our Catholic Identity, Priests and Priesthood, Seminarians and Seminaries, Si vis pacem para bellum!, SUMMORUM PONTIFICUM, The Drill, The future and our choices, Universae Ecclesiae, Vatican II and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. RomeontheRange says:

    Belmont Abbey College in Charlotte NC has hosted a summer intensive Latin week for priests and religious these two years running. The program is called “Veterum Sapientia” and has featured Fr. Daniel Gallagher of the Vatican Latin office. Interested parties should contact Fr. Jason Barone of the Charlotte diocese.

  2. Iacobus M says:

    When I was studying for a masters degree in English at a secular university I discovered that, whenever we were reading anything written more than a century ago, there was an dimension of the work that was lost to anyone present who hadn’t studied Latin (normally everyone except me, often the professor, and maybe one or two other students). Everyone writing in English prior to the early 20th century had been steeped in classical languages and literature. How much larger the loss in the Church, where Latin was the living language of the Tradition for almost two millennia, up until a few short decades ago?

  3. TuAutem says:

    To anyone whom this post speaks to, may I heartily recommend a lovely, touching, and informative article “On Mediaeval Latin” by Martin Budd, in the Classical Journal, from 1929 (it’s available on jstor).

    “For Latin, even in that rough and ready sense in which it may be said to be dead at all, did not die at the fall of Rome; it died of humanistic purism at the Renaissance. (…)
    For Latin in the hands of these men of the Middle Ages was a living thing, not a mere school exercise imitating, however skilfully, the aureate style of Augustan Rome. That sort of thing, no matter how brilliant, or how perfect the illusion, is just that–an illusion.”

    The author touches on many of the same topics (from a 1920s point of view), and illustrates the points I quoted above with some wonderful examples (so you get the 1100s point of view as well!). It’s a good read.

  4. TuAutem says:

    Sorry, the author of the article “On Mediaeval Latin” I mentioned above is Martin Ruud.

  5. Joseph-Mary says:

    The learning and use of Latin is was probably too heavy a cross…

  6. Geoffrey says:

    This is something that hopes to help the Latin cause: http://kck.st/12ji78R

  7. Supertradmum says:

    Some seminaries in the United States let the seminarians choose between Latin and Spanish.

    That I know for a fact.

  8. STM: Which reminds me of the Hispanics who filed into an advertised TLM already in progress, conspicuously occupying a pew up front, then just as conspicuously got up and filed out just moments later. Turns out that they’d assumed a “traditional Latin Mass” meant one offered in the language of Latin Americans, and perhaps in a somewhat different tradition than that of the usus antiquor.

  9. MrsMacD says:

    A few years ago my little son, a lover of the ancient form and a new altar boy, unbeknownced to me, asked the priest, where we attended Mass one Summer weekday, “Would you say the old Mass in Latin?” His answer? “I don’t think I could. I had trouble learning.”

  10. jacobi says:


    I am old enough to remember travelling abroad when Latin was still the universal language of the Church. I could then attend any Mass and I was effectively at home following a standard recognisable form which I could understand. Alright, I probably dosed off for the sermon, but that was it.

    The One True Catholic Church both because of the now near infinite variation in liturgical practise, but most importantly because of the collapse into local languages and even dialects, is descending into a variety of local tribal sects.

    I don’t think the impact has as yet begun to be grasped in Rome.

    And yet this is at a times when international travel is so widespread, when the need for a universal language has never been greater!

  11. Gerard Plourde says:

    Given that Latin is the official language of the Church, I agree that a good knowledge of Latin is indispensable for our clergy (meaning at minimum the ability to read the documents in their original Latin and be able to, with the aid of a dictionary, translate them with understanding of the nuances that Latin, like every language, possesses). Such a knowledge would also allow the priest, if called upon to do so by members of a community, to celebrate the Mass of Paul VI in Latin as well as the Mass according to the 1962 Missal. This differs from the ability to be able to hold a conversation in the language, which requires different skills and which I think, though laudable, to be of lesser importance.

  12. Spade says:

    If you speak Latin well, and I’ve got a feeling some reading here do, then check out Duolingo. It’s a fun (and free!) program and phone application for learning languages. They started out with standard ones (Spanish to English and vice versa, Italian, French, etc.) but are also looking for people to work on other course. For example, wife and I are currently learning Irish. It was done by 5 or so native Irish speakers who simply wanted to share it with others. It teaches you to speak, read, and write.

    There have been rumors of a Latin course, but nothing has shown up in the Incubator. So if you know it and want to help others learn, consider volunteering for a Latin course.


    On the money side, the program is free because the company has contracts with websites like Buzzfeed to do document translation. They crowd source them as part of the course. It’s a neat way to keep it free for the users.

  13. papaefidelis says:

    When I was a seminarian (1988-1992), those of us who studied Latin were either watched with a very careful eye or out-and-out persecuted and dismissed. Having gone the latter route and having gone on to obtain advanced degrees in classical languages, I pray that the Lord sees fit to make it possible for me to be a priest in His time.

  14. iPadre says:

    I was cheated by my seminary training. Ordained in 1992 and did not have any Latin during my theology years. I only had one year during philosophy. A token to say they gave us Latin.

    There need to be total immersion classes every summer for my generation.

  15. YoungLatinMassGuy says:

    I freely admit that I’m something of an oddball.

    I graduated with a degree in Classical Latin and Greek.

    Last night I read some of “Rerum Rusticarum” by M. Terenti Varronis before going to sleep, and realized how far agriculture has come in the last 2000+ years.

    I have a copy of the 1962 Missal by my bed. And I think that they could save a lot of paper and space by doing away with the English translation in that book.

    I’m probably the only guy under 30 who owns a copy of the actual Vulgate and has read large portions of it.

    I’m probably the only guy under 30 who has read good chunks of the Septuagint, and actually knows what the word “septuagint” means, and the legend behind that word…

    I’m probably also the only guy I know who owns a copy of the New Testament in Greek and Latin, has read it, not to mention is probably the only guy who actually knows what a “critical apparatus” is, and is able to understand it in that book, and finally, thanks to all that, I am sorta stuck with several questions about St. Jerome’s choice of translation in a couple places from the Greek to the Latin, but unfortunately no one around me has the same level of knowledge in both Greek and Latin to answer my questions, or even care for that matter, leaving me to hoping I can schedule a meeting with St. Jerome in heaven sometime in the future to ask the Saint himself…

    So yes, I think it’s safe to say that I, a layman, probably know more Latin (and Greek) than the bulk of priests who have been ordained in the last 20-30 years.

  16. Gail F says:

    When I started a lay program at a seminary 12+ years ago, there were no Latin classes at all. I remember asking one of the priest/professors, who was not a “traditionalist” but not a “liberal” either, why the seminarians were not required to learn Latin, as that way they would be able to understand almost all the Christian writings ever written. (He told me he didn’t know, though I’m sure he did.) Toward the end of my time there, someone was offering it to seminarians as in independent study. The seminary is very different now and though I have not checked, I would be extremely surprised if at least some Latin was not required. But really — !!! No priest, no matter how much he is interested in other things, should be completely unable to read the works of great saints and popes. No scholar priest, certainly. To rely only on current writers and translations, the way most of us laypeople do, cuts off a great deal. Someone above mentioned how older texts were difficult for people who have not studied Latin. I remember, as a high school student, wondering about why so many older writers (I read a lot) used to quote things in a variety of other languages without translating them. It was a surprise to me that educated people used to be assumed to understand other languages — Latin being one. Of course, all educated people used to learn Latin, and a great many of them Greek as well. It can’t be THAT hard.

  17. Suburbanbanshee says:

    YoungLatinMassGuy – I think most people who do serious theological Bible study understand the critical apparatus, and the Septuagint is getting more and more popular with academics (including Jewish ones). I think the Vulgate is making a comeback,too. But yes, it’d be sad if we left all these treasures to academics and non-Catholics. Priests don’t have to be Latin experts, but Latin should be part of their standard equipment for the job.

    The thing with St. Jerome is that you not only have to take Greek, Latin, and Hebrew into consideration, and the manuscripts and linguistic information available to him from his Hebrew teachers, but also the concerns of a well-read scholar who was classically trained in rhetoric. When I read the Vulgate, I’m not particularly worried about why the saint chose an oddball case, but to an educated Latinist of his day, it would have stuck out like a mile and told them something. I believe there are books out there which go into the whys and wherefores of Vulgate translation, often in connection with explaining breviary readings to nuns or the like… but unfortunately I don’t know what those books are, or I’d be reading them!

    You might want to look at the massive Bible commentaries of Fr. Cornelius a Lapide (1600’s Jesuit), because he comments on all sorts of things. Only a few (mostly NT) have been translated into English, but obviously you know Latin so that’s not a problem! Google Books has good scans available.

  18. For some years I’ve recited the full Liturgy of the Hours in Latin. However, not having enjoyed formal school training in Latin, I’ve always kept an English translation (often on a Kindle) beside the Latin text, as a crib to understand the Latin, and have come to actually relish the comparisons of meaning between the original Latin and the English translation.

    In the process, it’s become apparent to me that no English translation can fully capture the nuances and allusions of classical Latin, nor particularly the vital ethos and flavor of the classical Latin hymns or the patristic fathers in the Office of Readings.

    So I’ve come to doubt that a priest lacking any knowledge of Latin can ever fully appreciate and steep himself in the riches of the Liturgy of the Hours, however assiduous he is in reciting it, if he is restricted to use of the currently available English translations. Such a priest, it seems to me, is simply (and sadly) cut off from too much of the heart and soul of Catholic thought and belief that has developed over the centuries.

  19. JABV says:

    Dear Father Z or any other priests: any idea if topics have been substituted for Latin? If such a significant study has been subtracted, what stands in its place in recent decades?

  20. de_cupertino says:

    JABV – the seminary near me brought back Latin recently after not even offering it for several decades. Now the men in formation can choose either Greek or Latin. Spanish is, of course, mandatory…

  21. Giuseppe says:

    I agree with the Roman Catholic Church that knowledge of Latin, the official language of the church, is essential to priestly formation. I don’t think a priest should be held to the standard of being able to translate documents, but one should know what each word in the Mass means.

    While I admire fluency in other languages, and while this makes a priest more marketable for work with specific populations, I’d rather have American priests be fluent in English and have a basic knowledge of Latin.

    The way you solve the problem of masses in many languages is to have a Latin mass at each church each Sunday and obligation day.

  22. donadrian says:

    I am pleased that there are still some people like YoungLatinMassGuy about. Those of us who enjoyed a good English preparatory school education were privileged to experience, not only regular beatings and unheated dormitories, but also an encounter with Latin by the age of nine and Greek by eleven.

    There is no doubt that a seminary training without a thorough grounding in Latin is deficient, but I seriously wonder what value there is in any course of New Testament study that does not familiarise the student with the Greek text. I do not know how often the average parish priest needs to consult official Church documents, but he has to prepare a homily on the Mass readings every week and engage reasonably regularly in Lectio Divina. The difference between reading the original and even a good translation is immense. And ‘koine’ Greek is really quite easy.
    But then – one of my Theology lecturers at Oxford forty years ago deplored the fact they had made Hebrew optional …

  23. servulus indignus Christi says:

    My own personal perspective as a Catholic Latin teacher is repeated frustration that despite all the time, effort and sacrifice to learn Latin well in order to serve the Church, the Church as manifested in the neglect of the episcopate, cares not a lick for Latin, nay rather finds the idea repugnant. This leaves me scrambling for jobs and having to look at public sector or small little independent schools that have no money all while trying to provide for a family. In a word, the bishops have failed tremendously and it has universal consequences as well as very real consequences in the lives of little people like myself. The Church should be cultivating sound Latinists but instead we are treated as a plague.

    Perhaps the great Bishop Cordileone in his move to ensure Catholic identity in his diocesan schools will consider that the rightful place of an in depth and committed Latin program is absolutely necessary to ensure the curriculum is truly Catholic.

  24. Matt Robare says:

    I had all of two semesters of Latin in college. It is not the most difficult language to become proficient enough in to read.

    Additionally, the more I learn the history the more it has become apparent to me that Latin did not die of old age and disuse as some have maintained, rather it was deliberately assassinated, sometime between the 17th and 19th centuries.

    When Brown University opened in Providence, RI, for the first couple decades all the lessons and lectures were given in Latin and students’ questions had to be in it. I recall reading somewhere that to be admitted to Boston University in the mid-19th century students were expected to know a modern European language in addition to Latin and Attic Greek.

  25. Woody79 says:

    For what it’s worth, the last three of my children study Latin in school. They have a choice between Spanish and Latin and I chose Latin for them. They get to read the classics as a result. I wish my oldest two could have taken Latin in school but it was not offered then. But then, again, my second oldest has found the 1962 Mass and she attends now on a weekly basis. She also is participating in the Ember days fast and abstention for the first time. Thank you, God!

  26. msc says:

    Young Latin Mass Guy: Be assured there are others like you out there. I know some personally. I was one not so long ago….
    I would also say that Greek is equally important: it is the language of the N.T., and of a greater number of Church Fathers than Latin (or at least in volume–John Chrysostom puts even Jerome to shame). A well educated priest should know it, too, even if he is a simple parish priest.

  27. PCali says:

    In at least one diocesan college seminary in these USA it is mandatory for young men entering out of high-school, without previous language credits, to take 2 years of Latin, 2 years of Spanish, and a year of Greek as a part of their degree. The option of taking a third year of Latin via an elective is available on a rotating basis as well.
    These things are returning. Slowly, yes, but they are returning. Though, as I understand it, this particular seminary is more of an exception to the rule than a common trend in seminaries as time progresses. And no, I’m not referring to the FSSP seminary; I believe they take a bit more Latin than that.

  28. The whole point of ditching Latin was to divorce Catholics from their patrimony. It has worked.

  29. Imrahil says:

    What Gerard Plourde said.

    And of course, one of the benefits of starting with the classics and not stopping before Tacitus is that afterwards, Church and Mediaeval Latin will seem so much natural to you… at least as far as reading slowly, and maybe occasionally using a dictionary, goes.

    Meum est propositum in taberna mori,
    ubi vina proxima morientis ori;
    tunc cantabunt laetius angelorum chori:
    “Deus sit propitius huic potatori!”

    (Yes, that was by heart. But I realized just now that “potatori” is a pun on “peccatori”, here.)

    For another thing, the pious custom to quote Bible verses and other religious stuff is telling enough. In educated circles, I guess it is more probable to here “beati pauperes spiritu” than its vernacular equivalent.

  30. MrsMacD says:

    I read somewhere, in the story of some saint, the mother teaching her little boy to speak latin as a wee guy, 5 or 6. That’s the way to learn it! Wish I had enough Latin to be able to do that! All I can do is encourage them to do well in their classes, and help them memorise. It alerts me to the fact that it’s important for the girls to learn latin too.

    YoungLatin Mass Guy my husband has a missal that’s all in Latin. Not certain where he got it.

  31. JonPatrick says:

    I am also in favor of returning Latin to its rightful place as the official language of the Church and having it taught to all seminarians. Unlike many on this thread I am not particularly proficient in Latin, in spite of attending a very good prep day school where I had 4 years of it. We all can’t be good at everything and I think in my case I found the sciences much more appealing and jumped at the chance to take Biology instead of Greek in 10th grade. I would assume that some priests would similarly not necessarily have an aptitude for languages and would have to struggle through it (I believe St. John Vianney was such a case) . I intend myself to dig out my Collins primer of Eclessial Latin at some point and have another go at it, as it is worth doing even if difficult for some.

  32. Mike says:

    Anita Moore OPL says: The whole point of ditching Latin was to divorce Catholics from their patrimony. It has worked.

    Mission accomplished, indeed. What makes it so bad is that my generation was stripped not only of its liturgical tradition, but of its Catholic intellectual heritage as well.

    It had dawned on me as early as the 1980s that parroting the soi-disant great thinkers of the age — largely fed, then as now, on the pap of the mainstream media — was not the best use of reason. But the more I explore Catholic thought and scholarship from the early Fathers on through Sheed and Sheen, the more horrified I am at how much we’ve been kept in the dark (and, but for a small but doughty resistance, would remain there).

    May God shower blessings on all who would bear His light to the faithful of His Church from the bushel under which it has been held hostage by modern Arianism and Gnosticism — and may He, through the intercession of the Blessed Mother, continue to pour forth the graces of humble docility upon us who so badly need it.

  33. texsain says:

    Mike: “But the more I explore Catholic thought and scholarship from the early Fathers on through Sheed and Sheen, the more horrified I am at how much we’ve been kept in the dark ”

    Our age lives in the darkness and believes it to be the light.

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  35. FrAnt says:

    I attended public school K-12 and it was the year after I graduated (1982) that Latin was reintroduced. I missed out then, and I did not study Latin in the seminary either. I only recently purchased a number of books to begin self-study. I am praying that something will stick as I did not have luck with French, Italian, or Spanish.
    I also believe that our Catholic Elementary and secondary schools have become mirror images of public schools in many ways. I ask often, Why should parents send their children to Catholic School when there is no difference in the quality of the education? Latin and a Latin Curriculum, I believe, would make our schools strong and faithful once again. At least that is my prayer.

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