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Vergil and Latin
Msgr. David Q. Liptak
An editorial about Vergil recently (January 2007) triggered surprising interest on the part of several readers. One letter questioned the spelling. “Vergil” is correct, but so is “Virgil.” The New Catholic Encyclopedia prefers “Vergil”; the Brittanica, “Virgil.” The poet’s Latin name was Publius Vergilius Maro.
However, one argument raised against the editorial’s choice of “Vergil” alleged that we had quite forgotten the Latin root, as well as our Church Latin heritage. As John Wayne replied to a Western badman who said he thought Wayne was dead, “Not hardly.”
How could anyone classically trained in the Seminary (as I was, thank God) ever forget the significance and the content of Latin? In public high school, back in Bridgeport, I went through four years of Latin, the last year concentrating on Vergil. During the first two years of college at St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield, we continued with Latin, beginning with the various Latin poets and finishing with ecclesiastical Latin (e.g., the canons of the dogmatic ecumenical Council of Trent).
Next, we arrived at St. Bernard’s Seminary in Rochester, N. Y., just two miles from Lake Ontario (where it snowed from Thanksgiving Day through to May). At St. Bernard’s, then deemed by some as the West Point of American Seminaries, all our major courses were taught in Latin, beginning with philosophy in the last two years of college. Our textbooks were all in Latin; each day’s lectures in philosophy were in Latin; midterm and final examinations had to be in Latin and answered in Latin – in writing. (I used to stop regularly after 40 pages of Latin on large yellow legal pads.) Courses in Church history, educational psychology, catechesis, social justice, Hebrew, Greek, Italian and world literature were taught in English, however.
Once we entered the rarified heights of the theologate – a four year commitment – even Scripture and Canon Law were taught largely in Latin, with Latin texts. My recollection is that we began almost every class day with dogma, then later each day concentrated on moral theology. Somehow we also got Scripture into the schedule, which extended the day to 5:30 p.m. But all the texts, plus the lectures, plus the examinations were in Latin. Hervé was the text for dogma; Noldin-Schmitt for moral; Cappello’s Commentary was used for Canon Law. But all was taught in Latin. I can even remember impassioned debates after classes in the corridors, all in Latin.
Forget Latin? “Not hardly.” In fact, it is almost impossible. For one thing, all our academic work was reinforced by the Latin liturgy – the Mass and the Sacraments. I still occasionally say the Divine Office in Latin, with the revised Latin Breviary, which I prefer while traveling.
There is more. To do scholarly work that requires references, one needs to read Latin. In other words, anyone who wishes to defend a doctoral dissertation in Catholic theology has little choice but to use original Latin texts, all of which require a reading of Latin (the Church’s official language). The famed Enchiridion, edited by Fathers H. Denzinger and A. Schönmetzer, for which there is no substitute, demands a working knowledge of Latin, as well as Greek. (Herder, 1963)
This is not to say that Greek is not important in doing theology, which is why we had to take at least three years of Greek, the third year stressing Biblical Greek, in which the New Testament writings appear. But Latin remains, has always remained, as the standard Church language.
But it really began with Vergil. Vergil was the poet who made Latin respectable throughout the world. Until he produced his masterpiece, the Aeneid, Latin always took a back seat to Greek, which is elegant, rich and precise.
In fact, in first-century Christian Rome, youths who sought higher education would study under Greek tutors as a gateway to promotion. Even the earliest Roman Rite Mass was celebrated not in Latin, but in Greek. In Rome’s Catacomb of Priscilla, one of the earliest, there is a famed chapel called the Capella Graeca, because the inscriptions on the surrounding walls are in Greek. I recall offering Mass there, deep within the underground, during a trip to Rome.
Vergil’s Latin was so magnificent, incidentally, that the Roman Legions carried it even to Britain, where lines from his poetry appear still, over the ages, cut into stone walls by Roman troops.
Forget Latin? “Not hardly.”
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript, and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.