Priests and Latin. Wherein Fr. Z rants.

Since I posted on the issue of the Latin text of Benedict’s resignation and brought up, again, the issue of poor to zero Latin preparation of seminarians and priests, I have to make a few observations.

Fathers.  If you belong to the Latin Church, if you are priests of the Latin Rite, there is no excuse for you not to know – and to able to pronounce properly – at least sacramental forms in Latin, together with some other basics that belong in our priestly toolbox.  Some of you might say, “But we were never taught!”

Fine.  The burden is now on you.

Today I had a note from someone who observed that, during a baptism in Latin the priest mispronounced the Latin to the point that the writer didn’t know if the form was valid or not.   As it turns out, if I understood correctly, it wasn’t so bad that it invalidated the sacrament.

However, there should never be a question in people’s minds about the validly of sacraments!   This is not rocket science, friends.  Sacraments have matter and form.  It is necessary that the priest be sure that both are in order.  The last thing there should ever be is a doubt about whether or not a sacrament was administered.

If we were to look into the basics of other professions and found that their practitioners didn’t know or couldn’t even pronounce the fundamental terms of formulae of their field, we would hold them in contempt.

Imagine someone teaching French lit who couldn’t even pronounce French names or terms.   How about a pharmacist who has no idea how drugs interact (or who can’t pronounce their names)?

Let’s get serious.

Our Catholic identity has undergone a series of devastating blows from the 60’s onward.  One of them was the systematic and purposeful elimination of Latin from curricula and its denial to seminarians and priests.   With the elimination of Latin, priestly identity was horribly affected.  That, in turn, had its own knock on effect among the people of God. The same goes for the systematic destruction of Latin liturgy, with the subsequent slamming and locking of the treasury of the Church’s music, so important in worship.


There is something seriously wrong in the identity of the Church if its priests have no idea of the language of their Rite.

And consider that the Code of Canon Law requires that seminarians be “very well trained” in Latin before ordination.   At ordinations, some official has to stand up and attest before the Church and God that the ordinands were properly formed.  But if they were not given Latin, were they?!?  Deacons and priests of the Latin Church who can’t even pronounce three words together without making a hash of it?

Look.  Some people have better language acquisition aptitudes than others.  And we know that with age, language learning abilities don’t usually improve.  But, I still hold that that those are not adequate excuses not to try, to try really hard, if necessary.

Fathers, for the love of God, learn at least how to pronounce Latin.

You can do it.  Get those ears and pathways open.

I’ll do what I can to help.  I had already started, long ago, on series of podcasts called “What Does The Prayer Really Sound Like” or “PRAYERCAzTs”.  They are still available on this blog, just search at the bottom menus.   I can do more if they would be helpful.




About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    I purchased this course and started using it.. It’s pretty good on pronunciation. Just my two cents

  2. Sol says:

    Great post, Father! Two observations:

    1. In all fairness, we cannot be sure what the “correct” pronunciation is. If I recall, evidence attests to marked differences in how certain letters were pronounced during the time of Cicero and the Middle Ages, for example. One only needs to look at ecclesiastical Latin vs. how Latin words are pronounced in different countries in Europe to see that there really is no one correct way – the key is to be consistent and to be intelligible enough for the people around you to have no doubt what words you are saying.

    2. You mention how we would hold people in other professions in contempt if they did not know the basic tools of their trade. Well, one of the reasons that is not the case with priests who do not know Latin is precisely because (tragically so) many people no longer think liturgical worship is important enough to make a fuss about it. And I think, if we go deeper, it has much to do with the dictatorship of “practicalism” that we live in in this day and age, where people no longer care about things that do not immediately affect the practicalities of their daily lives. A pharmacist does now know my medicines? “Who is this guy?? Who gave you the job?” But a priest does not know Latin? “Hey, no biggie, who needs Latin these days anyway!”

    I see this as a university instructor, where almost nobody (not even university professors or administrators) cares anymore whether people teaching students are adequately trained and fairly employed – as long as there is anyone “barely” qualified for the job, it’s OK (lots of undergrad teaching in Canada and US today is done by grad students and instructors without PhDs, while students are treated as cashcows and bums in seats to pay tuition for substandard education).

    If the same principle was applied to medicine, people would be up in arms: “What, our doctor is still a student???” But teaching? “Hey, no problem, it’s just teaching, who cares! Who cares about theory, let’s axe the humanities and only teach STEM subjects”.

    This thinking is really pervasive and I think the issue with priests not knowing Latin is a yet another manifestation of the same issue – that we have lost the sence of the transcendent, the not-immediately-practical, the sense of why it IS important to know philosophy, to know Liturgy, to know Latin… We do not live merely in a dictatorship of relativism. We live in a dictatorship of “utilitarism” and that is a major issue today.

  3. Andrew says:

    GrumpyOldCatholic: (SenexMorosusCatholicus)
    The Course you mention was produced by a priest who, once upon a time, was the teacher of Fr. Reginald Foster. It might also be useful to mention that the said Course consists of a book which provides the needed explanations in English, and 13 audio CD’s with Latin lessons (no English at all). Each lesson is divided into 3 units:
    A. Latin, the language of the ancient city of Rome.
    B. Latin, the living language of the Church.
    C. Latin, our daily language.

  4. Fuerza says:

    I agree that it would be difficult to pin down “correct” pronunciation. As Latin was spoken by a very large population spread out over a large geographical area, we can assume that multiple pronunciations were in use at any given time. We can guess at some of these regional pronunciations based on the native languages of the people who inhabited the areas when the Romans arrived, as well as by looking at the phonological evolution of the romance languages. By looking at how Greek words were transliterated into Latin texts, we can also make reasonable guesses as to what Latin sounded like in the city of Rome around the time of Cicero, which is of course where we get what today is referred to as “classical” pronunciation. Church Latin pronunciation is likely what Latin had evolved to sound like in Central and Southern Italy as the language began its transition into what would be the beginning stages of Proto-Romance, and likely also reflects the pronunciation of North African Latin as well.

    I would use this post to again champion the Lingua Latina series by Hans Orberg. It’s entirely in Latin and can be used by total beginners to develop a high level of reading proficiency. Completing even only the first book of the series, Familia Romana, would by itself be enough for one to claim that he or she can read Latin and easily pass a graduate level translation exam. For those who want something even more basic, and cheap, Linney’s Getting Started with Latin is designed for homeschoolers and has a companion website with free audio files of classical and ecclesiastical pronunciation. The writer also has a free online Latin class, with a textbook that can be downloaded for free or purchased cheaply in hard copy, but it only uses classical pronunciation.

  5. HvonBlumenthal says:

    Sol, Fuerza you are confusing tradition with archeology. Latin is still in widespread use all over the Church and the pronunciation has been established for many centuries by convention. You pronounce it as if it were Italian, with the allowable exception that the h can be aspirated.

    The fact that academics have at various times formed views about how Cicero spoke is beside the point.

  6. Just Some Guy says:

    Fr. Reginald Foster still has a summer course where he will drill you until you forget how to speak English.

    Then there’s the Veterum Sapientia course, which is specifically for clerics of intermediate and advanced levels.

    The opportunities to learn Latin are there, and the people to teach it are there, but you have to find them and make an effort to pursue them.

  7. Fr. Kelly says:

    Bravo, HvonBlumenthal!

    Latin is not a dead language that needs to be rediscovered. IT is living and is the patrimony of all Catholics.
    The rules of pronunciation can be found in the Liber Usualis in the document entitled Preface to the Vatican Edition of the Roman Chant, Section IX “The reading and pronunciation of liturgical latin”
    The Liber Usualis can be downloaded freely from the Website of the Church Music Association of America

  8. Sword40 says:

    It’s been 60 years since I took a Latin course. But I remember that my teacher said that there was “Classical Latin” and “church Latin” and we were not to mix the two. She taught us “Classical”
    “weni, wedi, weki” so when I converted to the Catholic church I didn’t have too much of a problem. Except that by that time we started the Novus Ordo.

    Church Latin is far better.

  9. HvonBlumenthal says:

    Fr Kelly

    Thank you for the Bravo, which makes me embarrassed to disagree with your statement that Latin is not a dead language. However, it is indeed a dead language, which is why for church purposes it is a superior language to all living vernacular languages. Dead is a negative sounding word but in fact it means that its meaning is fixed beyond dispute for all time. Documents in latin are thus incapable of misunderstanding resulting from changes in usage.

  10. Lisieux says:

    There are indeed different pronunciation systems. My parish church is Jesuit-run, and when I started attending (I converted in 1998), there were still a few elderly priests who used the traditional English Catholic pronunciation. This varied from both the modern classical* system (‘c’ pronounced as /k/ and ‘v’ as /w/) and the Italianate ‘Church Latin’: ‘c’ was pronounced as /s/, for instance. I agree with Sol: consistency and clarity are the key – but if one’s learning from scratch, then it’s certainly best to use the standard Church Latin, as in the Liber Usualis.

    *If this isn’t too oxymoronic…

  11. Andrew says:

    Is Shakespeare’s English being pronounced correctly in our churches these days?

  12. youngcatholicgirl says:

    I’m all for “Church” (Ecclesiastical) Latin. I have heard that it’s easier, considering that it has closer proximity to English. To me, it just sounds better anyway (who ever heard of Wirgil and Kikero?).

  13. Fr. Kelly says:

    HvonBlumenthal, As I see it, a dead language is one that has no native speakers left alive.
    Like Manx or Galician. Such a language can only be studied from the outside as by an observer.
    Living languages are used and studied from the inside as it were. Such is Latin. Indeed, we are assured that the Church will last until the coming of Christ at the end of the age.

    The deep insightful translations with commentary offered on this site by our gracious host are only possible by a true native speaker of Latin. Such observations are just not available to one who studies it from the outside the way a pathologist studies a cadaver.

    As to your point of the advantage of a stable language with unchanging vocabulary, I would agree with you that Latin, not being regularly spoken by large numbers in wide-ranging contexts, does not change drastically or quickly. I have been known to say that its rate of development is glacial. But nevertheless it does change. Consider the use of the terms “ius” before and after Rerum Novarum, or “munus” in the more contemporary period.

  14. HvonBlumenthal says:

    Fr Kelly, Im afraid you are more hip than I am, Im simply not up to speed on the latest meaning of munus.

    Im not sure I agree about ius, however. I think that the definition given by Tribonian in the opening paragraphs of the Institutes of Justinian still holds for Rerum Novarum and subsequent documents, no?

  15. Albinus says:

    Thank you for this post, Father. The knowledge of Latin among the clergy, at least from my experience, is truly abysmal, which is such a shame. But the good news is that it can be learned! It just takes time and real effort.

    I would like to second the recommendation of Fuerza re: Orberg’s Lingua Latina series. It is marvelous. To those who are looking to improve their Latin: Get the workbook as well. Be patient with it. And do not go on to the next chapter until you have mastered the current one. You will be amazed at the results if you get through Volume One. If you make it through Vol. 2 (much more difficult) and are actually able to read the capitula without translating, you will be able to read virtually any Latin text without much difficulty (you will just need to improve your vocabulary. But the ability to read complicated sentences without translating? No problem). The series improved my Latin tremendously.

    As far as pronunciation goes, I too (like others mentioned) have found the course put out by the Family of St. Jerome to be useful. It is called “Cursus Linguae Latinae Vivae” or something like that and is by Father Suitbert H. Siedl. It isn’t cheap however (~$100).

    Those interested in the proper ecclesiastical pronunciation may also find the following PDF of Fr. Michael de Angelis’ 1937 book “The Correct Pronunciation of Latin According to Roman Usage” useful:

  16. Fr. Kelly says:


    Re: ius it seems to me undeniable that the later renderings of ius as “right” have their origins in earlier uses of it as “law”. It is that older meaning that I see more often in the Institutes, and the newer one that I see more often in Rerum novarum. I am not talking about a major shift, but the language does develop.

    As for munus, in the more recent documents, (especially the last 50 years or so) I am not always sure that the authors are entirely sure what they mean by it. ;-)

  17. Hidden One says:

    It is terribly distracting to hear priests who say or chant the EF one to seven times per week butcher the Latin.

    [Gosh. How horrible for you. You had better stop going.]

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