Of getting Latin wrong, corrections, and of priests and their Latin or lack thereof

I have notes from people asking about something that my friend Ann Barnhardt wrote about the Latin text of the address Benedict XVI gave when he announced that he was going to abdicate.  Ann contended that the Latin, as written and pronounced, indicated that Benedict did not truly resign.  She took a subjunctive vacet to to be potential and to mean that the See of Peter “might/could” be vacant, not that it “will/shall” be vacant.  What she didn’t know to account for was a pesky ut indicated the result of the action of resigning and, hence, the subjunctive was needed, vacet. In English, it has to sound future.  Blah blah.  She got out too far over her Latin skiis with this one but, to her credit, she posted an update HERE.

In her original post, she made some comments about priests not knowing Latin.

Yes, friends, this is a problem.  I think that Latin Rite priests – in their copious free time – would do well to work on Latin, the language of their Rite.  Makes sense, no?  Would it be hard?  Damn straight.  I am, however, encouraged by the story of the converted Ignatius of Loyola, sitting with children in Latin class, catching up.  And I am not unsympathetic.  I work on languages for the interest and to keep my mind active.  I suspect that for most priests Latin is to them what Japanese is to me: hard.

There are all sorts of funny stories out there about clerics and their lack of Latin.  My favorite is about the simple country priest who walked down the road to meet the bishop who was riding out on the appointed day for a parish visitation.  As the parish priest drew close to the bishop and the rest of his retinue, to the astonishment of all, Father, after greeting the bishop bowed low to the bishop’s horse.   “Why, Father,” quoth the bishop, are you bowing to my horse?”  The priest, momentarily flummoxed, responded “Your Grace, do we not say every day during Holy Mass, ‘equum et salutare‘?”


Yes, folks, be sure to tip your waitresses.  I’m at HaHa’s in Manhattan next week.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Greg Hlatky says:

    “In nomine Patris et Filiae et Spiritus Sancti…”

  2. Unwilling says:

    There is the old story (via St Boniface d.754) of a priest conferring the Sacrament of Baptism using the words “Baptizo te in nomine patria et filia et spiritu sancta.” It was this sort of thing that led to the Carolingian Renaissance, the revival of letters, the glory of the High Middle Ages, and the effulgence of Classical learning through the subsequent renaissances. Am I absurd to hope that there is a point in Providence when Latin gets so terribly bad that there will be another rebirth of Catholic learning? Shades of Leibowitz…

  3. adriennep says:

    Priests should know Latin because we all came from a classical culture where a true education meant knowing Latin and Greek, along with the study of philosophy, theology, and history integrated into all other areas of learning. Priest formation used to set the standard. But we should all return to the study of classics for the fun of it, for our soul and the restoration of culture—as John Senior promoted. Our Church and clergy will only benefit from that support.

  4. Pius Admirabilis says:

    I wish all Latin Rite priests would use the more Vaticano pronunciation. It just hurts my ears and my soul whenever I hear a priest say “Gloria in exzelsis” or “Ag-nus Dei”. The rules for the Italian pronunciation aren’t that hard to learn.

    I remember a story also about St. Bonifacius meeting the Pope. Both knew Latin very well, but the Pope was a true Roman with Latin as his native tongue, and Boniface was not a Roman, and his pronunciation was very different. He Saint had a audience with the Pope, but both couldn’t understand eachother. Their solution was to write down what they wanted to say, and thus they could communicate.

  5. Reflector says:

    And one has to greet the horse in particular in spring – “vere”.
    There are two stories of an Austrian Bishop who used to speak Latin with his Master of Ceremonies in pontifical masses even in the 1970ies. The first one: Asking to help him with some liturgical action, he said “tu adiuva me”. The MoC thought this was a psalm to be sung and hissed to the choir “tu adiuva me”. The second one is only understandable for people with a good command of German. Trying to tell the MoC to extinguish a candle, the bishop said “exstinguas”. He got the answer: “Excellency, I d’ont smell anything.”

  6. SanSan says:

    Believe it or not, I went to public school in Southern California (back in the day when CA schools were #1 in the World), and I was required to take Latin I & II during my junior and senior years. Just so happens that the Mass was still in Latin too. I don’t have a command of the language, but I did get excellent grades in English Lit and during my medical studies. My point, wouldn’t it be wonderful if all children had that type of “classical education” today? I love the TLM mass.

  7. Sawyer says:

    I realized Ann’s error right away after reading her post. She’s so fixated on Francis being an antipope that she’s willing to jump on anything that seems to support her case without doing due diligence. Almost as bad as liberal journalists who desperately seek any flimsy, unverified reason to bash President Trump. She used to be interesting, but now I think she’s annoying with a one-track mind and not worthy of attention anymore.

  8. HvonBlumenthal says:

    I was always at the top of my elementary japanese class because the Japanese use of particles placed after the nouns they govern seemed to me not dissimilar to case endings.


    Nominate watashi-wa
    Gentive watashi-no
    Ablative watashi-ni


  9. WGS says:

    Years ago, I came across the expression “a mumpsimus priest”. For a bit of a laugh, look it up.

  10. adriennep says:

    Yes, even in public schools in the 1960s, Latin was still taught and required for the really smart students, because it was the standard for true education. Even in 1969 Berkeley High.

    There is a huge classical education movement out there, including for Catholics, and the homeschooling groups led the way. A group called Institute for Catholic Liberal Education is out there with seminars for schools to learn from.

  11. TonyO says:

    I took Latin I in high school. Unfortunately, due to schedule conflicts, I could not take Latin II, and ended up with Italian I and Spanish I. So I am illiterate in 3 languages.

    But I still remember these 2 irregular verbs:
    Rodeo, rodere, cowboi, ridum; and

    doggo, doggere, puppi, bitum. :-)

  12. L. says:

    Unfortunately, I think that the first requirement-often unfulfilled- for Priests in English-speaking Latin Rite Catholic Churches is command of the English Language.

  13. youngcatholicgirl says:

    I heard one from a seminarian about a bishop who, in trying to say, “Sit Nomen Domini Benedictum”, said, “Sit Nomen Domini Benedictus”. The MC whispered, “No,no, tum, tum!” After which the bishop said solemnly, “Tum, tum.”

  14. SAHMmy says:

    Sawyer’s comment notwithstanding, I love hearing you call Ann Barnhardt your friend.

  15. monstrance says:

    Fr Z,
    Just mapped Ha Ha’s. – says it’s in Brooklyn.
    Is there a Manhattan locale ?

  16. JonPatrick says:

    Since the school I went to was called a Latin School I naturally had to endure 4 years of Latin which at the time I couldn’t wait to get over with so I could get to the cool stuff like Math and Biology. Yes I was one of those obnoxious people that actually liked trigonometry :) Now that I attend the Vetus Ordo periodically I find what I did learn in spite of myself very helpful.

  17. Fr. Reader says:

    “we all”?

  18. CasaSanBruno says:

    A friend would call a certain encyclical “Mortis Laetitia” when around his bishop – who would kindly correct him, unaware that the priest knew Latin quite well.

    Great meme, by the way!

  19. TonyO says:

    A friend would call a certain encyclical “Mortis Laetitia”

    I thought it was “Amoral Laetitia”.

    Am I the only one whose nerves are grated when Raymond Arroyo on “The World Over” mis-pronounces the second word?

    [You are NOT the only one. And that’s NOT the only word!]

  20. Dear Pius Admirabilis,

    I believe the pope in that story about St. Boniface was Pope Gregory III. His father was Syrian, a Greek-speaker as I remember, and so Latin was not Gregory’s first language.

  21. tzabiega says:

    I was recently talking to a group of Guadalajara diocesan seminarians while in Mexico. They have 11 years of seminary before they can be ordained, mostly divided between philosophy and theology. But the first year is learning classical Latin and Greek and nothing else, while the second year they call “in the wilderness,” something like a novitiate year of retreat. Maybe one year is not enough for Latin, but it is better than nothing at all, and it should be at the start as the seminarian can hopefully be motivated to build on it the other 10 years.

  22. Hidden One says:

    L., you are correct. Canon 249 is too often broken in more than one way.

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