A fresh look at ancient wisdom

On the Feast of the Throne of St. Peter, Feb. 22, 1962, St. Pope John XXIII convoked the Roman Curia, hundreds of bishops, thousands of priests and seminarians, and representatives of the colleges and seminaries of Rome, to celebrate with him in St. Peter's Basilica.

"Today's feast," he said in his address, "honors the priestly office and manifests the luminous font which, with the power of Christ, enlightens all men who long for the truth. Fidelity to the Chair of St. Peter, from which arises the unity of the priesthood and of the teaching linked to that chair, is what guarantees that one's ministry of preaching be effective and produce much fruit for souls."

On this auspicious and solemn occasion, the pope's first act was to promulgate officially a document, "Veterum Sapientia" ("Ancient Wisdom"), in which he explained the permanent importance of Latin for the Church and mandated that Latin be used as the standard language for the higher education of priests and clerics. It was a theme very close to the saint's heart: "We would like to think that the promulgation of this document will serve as a persuasive invitation to promote assiduously the study of Latin, for penetrating deeply into the simple sustenance offered by the sacred texts of the Liturgy, the Divine Office, and the works of the Fathers of the Church, so that our priests, in this matter too, may be brightly burning lamps for others, giving warmth and light to the minds and hearts of men."

Many who had responsibility for the education of priests responded enthusiastically. The Father General of the Jesuits, John B. Janssens, for instance, in a letter to his major superiors, rightly recognized that "Veterum Sapientia" conformed to a long tradition of papal teaching, and remarked that "it must have been comforting to you to note how often the practices introduced into our Society either through the wisdom of our Holy Father Ignatius or the experience of centuries agreed with the directives and counsels" of the Holy See. Father Janssens then explained that Jesuit scholastics were to study enough Latin as would "at least enable them to grasp readily less difficult Latin texts when read or heard, to understand thoroughly a professor lecturing in Latin, and to express their own thoughts on ordinary matters in speech and writing." He rejected the charge that the Jesuits were "clinging intransigently to an outmoded notion of humanism" and insisted, too, that cultivation of Latin implied no prejudice against modern languages (Woodstock Letters, vol. 92).

But generally "Veterum Sapientia" was soon put aside, or rather ignored, as an unintended consequence of the very council that the saint convoked. Not that the council contradicted what the saint had taught: rather, people understandably were hesitant to implement the saint's directives immediately, as everyone was aware that the council itself was going to take up the question of the education of priests, and the question, involving the status of Latin, as to whether the vernacular could be introduced into the liturgy of the West. And then those who adopted this prudent stance simply could not hold their ground, in face of the powerful eddies and vortices of controversy, and the ultimately unjustified innovations, that in those unsettled times were introduced by some on the pretext of following the council.

The result is that we suffer from a kind of collective amnesia. It is as if "Veterum Sapientia" had never been written, and as though popes throughout the centuries, and holy bishops, doctors and saints, have not favored and strongly supported the study of Latin -- not simply for priests, but for the educated laity also.

Yet perhaps John XXIII's canonization can serve as an occasion to reexamine this matter. I am no canon lawyer; I do not know what, if any, legal force "Veterum Sapientia" still has, considered as a juridical document. Perhaps through some kind of statute of limitations any document which goes so long without implementation loses its force. But also I hardly care. What matters to me in this case is the substance, not the law: what St. Pope John XXIII loved, not what he mandated. He is a saint, after all: his writings are held up to us by the Church as reliable; what he commended should be taken to heart; if he intended to persuade and convince, then we should allow ourselves, I think, to be persuaded and convinced.

So, I say: let us go back to "Veterum Sapientia," read and savor its arguments, and diligently draw out its implications for our lives, according to our office and station.

"There can be no doubt as to the formative and educational value either of the language of the Romans or of great literature generally," the saint says there, "It is a most effective training for the pliant minds of youth. It exercises, matures and perfects the principal faculties of mind and spirit. It sharpens the wits and gives keenness of judgment. It helps the young mind to grasp things accurately and develop a true sense of values. It is also a means for teaching highly intelligent thought and speech.

"It will be quite clear from these considerations why the Roman Pontiffs have so often extolled the excellence and importance of Latin, and why they have prescribed its study and use by the secular and regular clergy, forecasting the dangers that would result from its neglect."

Michael Pakaluk, Chairman and Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University, is currently teaching metaphysics to graduating seniors using Latin primary texts solely.

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