Apologia pro Munere Suo (‘A Defense of His Work’)
WHY SEMINARIANS NEED TO LEARN LATIN
It never fails. The moment I loosen my Roman collar and settle in for a long flight, a fellow passenger pops the question: “So, Father, what do you do?” Running down the list of my ministerial responsibilities, this one intrigues them the most: “I teach Latin in the seminary.”
“Really? Priests still have to know that? Didn’t the Church get rid of Latin after Vatican II? What do seminarians have to know a dead language for?”
Yes, yes, no, and I would never bother teaching anyone a dead language.
Catholics usually are more perplexed by the requirement for seminarians to learn Latin than non-Catholics, who more often presume, with a sense of fascination, that Latin still has a place in the Church. But not only do I find myself proffering apologiae (“defenses”) to strangers on airplanes, but to brother priests, and even — ne dicam! (“Would that I didn’t have to say it!”) — some bishops.
The short answer to why seminarians need to learn Latin is pure and simple: Canon 249. According to the Code of Canon Law, seminarians are not merely to have a cursory introduction to Latin, “sed etiam linguam latinam bene calleant” (“but they should also know Latin well”). Quite frankly, that means if a candidate for the priesthood hasn’t understood the Latin phrases I’ve used so far, it’s highly questionable whether he should be ordained. So ultimately, I teach seminarians Latin not because I think it’s a good idea, or my seminary thinks it’s a good idea, but because the Church says that seminarians need to know Latin — and know it well.
Every time I point this out, immediately an objection is held up for my consideration: “What about St. John Vianney?” Ad primum sic proceditur (“thus, we proceed to the first point” — a stock phrase from the Summa Theologiae). From his case, it would seem that a knowledge of Latin is not necessary to be admitted to the priesthood. Sed contra (“on the contrary”), the holy Curé d’Ars corroborates my case all the more. Respondeo dicendum quod (“I answer that”) although he did struggle with Latin throughout his entire priestly training, what is remarkable about him is not that he was ordained despite his ignorance of Latin, but that he came to acquire a strong enough knowledge of Latin to be ordained. He was not the beneficiary of an exception to the rule, but rather he exceptionally met the rule through perseverance. And if he was capable of attaining such a state of saintliness by persevering in his Latin studies, so can anyone else who puts his mind to it and begs for divine aide.
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