New Vita For An Old Lingua

In its role as patron of Lingua Latina, the Vatican will soon publish a new dictionary of the old Roman tongue, its first in nearly 30 years, dedicated to the proposition that Omnia dici possunt Latine--everything can be said in Latin. Using some of the several thousand new Latin phrases, a modern Virgil could compose an epic on the Victoria Iraquica celebrating Generalis Norman Schwarzkopf as its hero. Saddam Hussein would hide out in a cella loricata, or bunker, with a big ignivoma manuballista (gun) at his disposal. But to the few remaining church officials who really know and love their Latin, the new dictionary is like the fig leaves on the Vatican's classical statues--a way of hiding the fact that the precise and lovely language of Augustine and Aquinas is no longer accepted or appreciated as the lingua franca of the Roman Catholic Church.

Once the universal language of liturgies from Dublin to Beijing, Latin lost its privileged status in the '60s when Vatican Council II decreed that Catholics would do better to worship God in their native tongues. Shortly after, even professors at Rome's pontifical universities--where Latin was once required even for student debate-were teaching in the vernacular. Today Italian is the working language of Vatican officials, including those who, like Pope John Paul II, are not Italian.

When bishops from around the world meet with the pope, the Vatican has to hunt for people who can do simultaneous translations of documents read in Latin. At last year's synod of bishops, John Paul II complained that no one was speaking in Latin. The next day several bishops did their best to read their speeches in the language the pope loves-and the one in which he wrote his doctoral dissertation. But most of the others quietly plugged in their headphones to hear the speeches in translation.

In theory, the only official translation of papal teachings is the Latin. But John Paul II, despite his love for the classic language, writes his in Polish, and for journalists and cardinals alike it is the Italian version that is consulted since that is the operative language of the Roman bureaucracy. "I don't know who's reading these things," says Father Reginald Foster, dean of Vatican Latinists, waving at shelves of bound Latin translations. But just to make sure that someone can, the Carmelite monk from Milwaukee is teaching Latin after office hours to anyone who cares to learn. Some classes are held in Roman pizzerias, where Foster holds forth in a blue jumpsuit on Cicero and Plutarch as well as the early church fathers. "Latin is a culture--character--and it's broader than the church," says Foster. Indeed, some of the balding priest's best pupils are Jewish exchange students from New York. "You don't have to be Catholic to love Latin," he tells them. All it takes are catholic tastes.