What the Latin says is what counts

March 19, 2007

Fr. Zuhlsdorf’s blog, What Does the Prayer Really Say, has been encountering some server difficulties, so I reprint this excellent post for you to read and enjoy his insight and wisdom.

Exhortation: knowing and using Latin | Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

The Holy Father’s Post Synodal Exhortation has a great deal of food for thought when read through the correct lens, a lens polished and cleaned with obedient openness. But we must be obediently open to text as it is and not as it is not. This means we must make sure that the translation adheres to the official Latin. Even though the document was not composed in Latin, Latin remains the official text.

The other day I pointed out what I consider to be a serious translation flaw in SacCar par. 62, concerning the Latin language itself and its use in liturgical celebrations. Through a subtle word choice, the English underplayed the importance of Latin. This begs the question if that was merely a mistake or was it purposeful. If there were only one such mistake in the English, it would be easier to say, “Well… they just got it wrong.” If there were found more than one examples of downplaying the important of Latin through a subtle word choice, we might have a stronger suspicion that all was not as it should be.

Let’s return to SacCar par. 62. In the paragraph the Pope states in strong terms that he wants seminarians and future priests to both understand Latin texts and know how to use them in the liturgy. He wants them to know and to be able to use Gregorian chant.

The Pope would be asking for this if he didn’t want Mass said and sung in Latin. What’s the point of learning it otherwise?

Then the Pope moves to the other obvious point: lay people need to know Latin and Gregorian chant. They don’t need to know it like the priests do, but if there are going to be Masses in Latin, they need to be able to follow and speak or sing when it pertains to them to do so. The Council said that pastors of souls have the obligation to teach laypeople to speak and sing in both Latin and their mother tongue all those parts of Mass that pertain to them. So, this section of SacCar says nothing new in that regard. However, this was restated by the Synod and then picked up by the Pope who made the Synod’s proposition his own.

Let’s turn to this paragraph:

Lingua Latina – 62. ….. In universum petimus ut futuri sacerdotes, inde a Seminarii tempore, ad Sanctam Missam Latine intellegendam et celebrandam nec non ad Latinos textus usurpandos et cantum Gregorianum adhibendum instituantur; neque neglegatur copia ipsis fidelibus facienda ut notiores in lingua Latina preces ac pariter quarundam liturgiae partium in cantu Gregoriano cantus cognoscant.

The verb peto can be simply “to beg, beseech, ask, request, desire, entreat” but it is the Vicar of Christ who is writing and he is laying out his vision and will. Thus, peto, to my mind, needs a stronger expression, such as “to demand, seek, require”. There is a phrase copia facere which has the impact of “to do one’s best” or “to do all in one’s power”. Copia refers to one’s resources or power but in a sense of abundance. So, we can say “make use of every possible means”. The verb cognosco is “to become thoroughly acquainted with (by the senses or mentally), to learn by inquiring, to examine, investigate, perceive, see, understand, learn”. There is a sense of exertion in cognosco.

Here is a side by side comparison of the English translation of the end of par. 62 with my own somewhat stricter rendering. I will underscore what I think are discrepencies between the Latin and the English.


62. … Speaking more generally, I ask that future priests, from their time in the seminary, receive the preparation needed to understand and to celebrate Mass in Latin, and also to use Latin texts and execute Gregorian chant; nor should we forget that the faithful can be taught to recite the more common prayers in Latin, and also to sing parts of the liturgy to Gregorian chant.


62. … In general, We require that future priests, from the time of Seminary onward, be trained to understand and celebrate Holy Mass in Latin as well as to employ Latin texts and use Gregorian chant; nor should great effort be neglected in regard to the faithful themselves, so that they learn thoroughly the commonly known prayers in the Latin language and in an equal degree that they should learn the Gregorian chant of those parts of the liturgy which are sung.

First, in documents like this, when the Pope invites, even using polite turns of phrase, he is not just inviting, he is commanding… nicely, of course, but commanding nonetheless. Pope’s don’t say “pretty please with sugar on top”.

Second, the Latin clearly implies that the formation of priests in Latin and chant for liturgy be ongoing formation. This is “continuing education”. The English does not exclude the ongoing aspect, but neither does it make it clear that that is what the Latin says. The key is inde, “from that time onward”. Training is not to end with the end of seminary. The Pope says that future priests are to be trained from seminary onward, not that future seminarians be trained from seminary onwards (to the end of seminary). This implies that there ought to be workshops for priests to help them learn how to say Mass in Latin. In will add this: In my opinion, as long as we are at it, we can include how to say the “Tridentine” Mass. As a matter of fact, that would be good for understanding how to celebrate the Novus Ordo.

Third, the laity can and must learn well the Latin of the liturgy that pertains to them. There is no way this can happen unless they have the opportunity, and often. The official English version says the laity “can be taught”, and that it so. But the Latin says that great effort must be used to teach them thoroughly, not just to teach them. To learn something thoroughly, we need repetition: repetita iuvant! … repetitio est mater discendi! Moreover, the Latin says people must learn chant in “an equal degree” (pariter). That degree is inherent in the very cognosco which already carries the meaning of exertion.

This reminds me of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which says that seminarians are to be very well trained in Latin. The verb used is calleo, which means “to know by experience or practice”. This is where we get the English word “callus” and “callous”. You get a callus on your hand from repetitive action. But the Latin has the adverb bene with that calleo. This intensifies the concept of repetition and thoroughness. To know to do something in the sense of calleo already means to know it well and to be expert. Add a bene and you get “very well trained”.

It seems to me that the official English translation has downplayed the impact of the Latin. Rather, the Latin text has emphasized what the vernacular has not. Even if we consider that the Latin text was not the original text of composition, the Latin is the official text.

Eventually the Latin, not the vernacular, will be polished and promulgated in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis. What the Latin says is what counts.


One Response to “What the Latin says is what counts”

  1. Athanasius said

    I appreciate Fr. Z’s explanation. I caught some of the things he said when I read the document in Latin, but I couldn’t comment on them because my wife has been very ill of late (prayers please!)

    Although it is a stretch in my opinion to read peto as demand, it is nevertheless true that when the Pope asks something it should be adhered to by the Church unless it is obviously contrary to faith and morals or common sense. In this direction Fr. Z is completely right, the Holy Father is in fact asking for seminarians to learn Latin and Gregorian Chant.

    The only problem I have with it all is that it seems to me to be an instance of locking the door after the thief gets in. For 45 years, Latin and Gregorian chant have been alien to the formation of a priest, so much so that a Latin Mass (even according to the current rite) would seem almost apart of a different religion. There is almost no common ground to understand the purpose of a Latin Mass since the majority of priests going through seminary learn (as I did in my one year of seminary) that the people need to understand the liturgy, something they can’t do if it is in Latin. Gregorian chant is nice, but it is not for modern man, so here is a Glory and Praise hymnal (which in my opinion could be put to better use as torture instruments in Guantanamo bay). It is fine and good for the Holy Father to insist that priests learn Latin and Gregorian chant, starting in Seminary, but what is he going to do about Bishops like mine who have forbidden Mass at the one location in his diocese where the faithful can here Gregorian Chant and Latin? A small convent of Norbertine Sisters which says the Novus Ordo in Latin with Gregorian Chant is considered so dangerous that the faithful of his diocese are forbidden from attending Sunday Mass there, but are commanded to stay in their parishes. What shall be done about Bishops such as these? Unless such a command/request as this will be backed up by positive action it is entirely useless in my opinion. We not only need a gradual transitioning back toward what Latin Rite Catholics have always and everywhere experienced until 1965, but we also need Bishops who at a minimum will be willing to allow their faithful to experience the Church’s tradition.

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