Latin (in the Church)

views updated

LATIN (IN THE CHURCH)

At the time of the first Pentecost the inauguration of the Church the most commonly spoken languages in Jerusalem were aramaic, greek, and Latin. Natives of the city knew Aramaic (a later dialect of Hebrew) as their birthright. From the fourth century b.c. onward, Greek had been the most important language of commerce and communication throughout the Mediterranean; as a consequence, many speakers of Aramaic were more comfortable reading the Holy Scriptures in what amounted to the vernacular i.e., Greek available in the Septuagint, a translation intended for those no longer fluent in the earlier Hebrew. Latin arrived as a language of irrepressible political force first under Pompey in 67 b.c. and finally, after some reorganization, in the days of Augustus, who in a.d. 6 combined Judaea and Samaria into a single Roman province. The inscription placed above the head of Jesus at his crucifixion was written, as John attests, "in Hebrew, in Latin, in Greek" (19.20).

The ubiquity of koine, or "common," Greek during the Hellenistic Age (from the death of Alexander in 323 b.c.) and the reality of Roman control of the Italian peninsula (from 264 b.c.) with a South largely inhabited by Greek immigrants together meant that even the Latin-speaking Romans found it profitable to learn Greek as a second language. The plebeian Roman soldier, however lacking in formal education, would acquire Greek when on duty abroad; those of the patrician class at home who entered public service saw that Greek was a necessary part of their training. Quintilian, the Roman teacher of rhetoric, notes (ca. a.d. 95.) that public servants had for several generations used the exercise of translation from Greek into Latin to sharpen their verbal facility. Consequently, when Peter came from the Greek environment of Jerusalem to Rome he found among people high and low a fully bilingual community where the newborn Church could continue to use the worldwide language of Greek.

Greek is the original language of the New Testament from Paul's Letter to the Galatians (ca. 49) to the Second Letter of "Peter" (ca. 100125); it is the tongue of the earliest Christian Fathers from Clement of Rome to Eusebius and beyond; it is the language of the Eucharistic liturgy and other formal rites as prescribed by the early Church. The nicene creed is a Greek document.

Beginnings of Ecclesiastical Latin

The first missionaries from Rome to the world found in the province of Africa (annexed in 146 b.c. after the last of the Punic Wars) a vast territory centered on a reconstructed Carthage, whose inhabitants spoke both the mother tongue Punic, or Phoenician and Latin, the language of their Roman administrators, but very little Greek. As a result, it was convenient for these bilingual missionaries to use Latin when spreading the Gospel to the Africans. Africa is the source of the earliest Church record originally composed in Latin, the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs (180), in the form of a Roman legal procedure, from which (§12) we gather most importantly that a Latin version of the Bible (including the letters of Paul) was by then in circulation. Here in north Africa, the anonymous translators of the Bible showed the way to tertullian (ca. 160 ca. 225), the earliest Christian writer in Latin whose works are extant. By the start of his career, the Latin-speaking community through its vernacular liturgies had already become familiar with hundreds of words now standard in Christian terminology, e.g., angelus, baptisma, blasphemus, daemonium, ecclesia, ethnicus, eucharistia, extasis, martyr, Paracletus, prophetia, annuntiatio, gratia, peccator, persecutor, sacramentum, saeculum. Tertullian's unforced use of these terms assumes their long familiarity. In addition, he may be given credit for extending Christian vocabulary; his background in law, and its necessary training in Greek, equipped him as a coiner of words from Greek into Latin (e.g., exomologesis, christianismus ) as well as from Latin resources (e.g., vivificatio, trinitas ). In his day, Christians and non-Christians alike sought mastery of declamatio, a speech-writing exercise on set topics practiced in the schools of rhetoric. Thus as an apologist of the early Church, he was able use his secular education to defend Christianity.

Latin Translations of the Bible

The earliest translation of the Bible from Greek into the vernacular, i.e., Latin, grew out of an understandable pastoral concern: the people's immediate need to hear the Word of God preached in their own tongue. But the style and language of the "Old Latin" versions of the Bible made for unusual works of Latin since they preserved both the Semitic thought and the Greek expression of the originals. The Old Latin New Testament is filled with "loan translations," i.e., attempts at putting not only the thought of the original into a different tongue, but also its idiomatic syntax. However odd such a Grecized Latin may have sounded to the uneducated flocks of north Africa, nevertheless, the bilingual missionaries, as their shepherds, very early on through their preaching and exegesis fostered an enduring devotion to the expression as well as to the thought of the Good News in Latin. At the core of many primitive Christian liturgies was the reading of the Latin Bible, a circumstance which soon made familiar that which was once odd.

Toward the end of the fourth century, when in the West Latin had overtaken Greek as the language of the Church, there existed various forms of a Latin Bible in Christian communities across Europe as well as in Africa. The time had come for the compiling of a uniform edition to serve the needs of a widespread, ever more Greekless, Church of the West. So thought Pope damasus, who in 382 asked Sophronius Eusebius Hieronymus, or jerome, to begin this enormous task. The Pope's insight embraced not only the recognition of the need for uniformity, but more significantly, the realization that Latin had become the de facto official language of the Western Church; he had seen in his lifetime the use of Greek in the Eucharistic liturgy its last major use finally give way to Latin. Urged on (after the death of the pope) by bishops Cromatius and Heliodorus, Jerome translated the Old Testament books from the original Hebrew not from the Septuagint, itself a translation. (Some OT books, such as Baruch and Wisdom, probably unseen by Jerome, have come down to us only in Old Latin translations from the Septuagint.) Looking both to preserve and correct as much as he could of the time-honored Old Latin versions, Jerome carefully emended the Latin of the Psalms by comparing it to the Greek of the Septuagint (while also making an entirely new rival translation of the Psalms directly from the Hebrew), but only slightly refurbished the Old Latin of the New Testament, often simply transposing phrases to conform to the word order of the Greek original. For instance, he corrected et pax in terra "and peace on earth" to et in terra pax "and on earth peace" (κα π γ[symbol omitted]ς ερήνη) (Lk 2.14). Jerome's ideal was to serve both the Hebraea veritas and the Graeca veritas the authentic Hebrew of the Old Testament and the authentic Greek of the New. Nevertheless, he anticipated (rightly) that for his troubles some would call him a falsarius sacrilegus "sacrilegious falsifier." Only gradually, over the next 300 years, did the Old Latin version yield ground to Jerome's Vulgate, or "published," edition of the Latin Bible. Not one of the many Bible quotations in the sixth-century work, Instituta Regularia Divinae Legis, by Junillus, comes from the Hieronymian vulgate. Furthermore, the existence of at least one ninth-and one twelfth-century manuscript containing excerpts from the Old Latin translation of 2 Maccabees 7 bears witness to the fact that religious culture, once firmly established, changes but slowly. In 1546, the Council of trent at last gave formal approval to the work of Jerome and his successors; the Vulgate had finally become the editio typica, or official version, of the Hebrew and Greek originals. It was revised under the auspices of Pope Sixtus V (1589) and Pope Clement VIII (1592, 1593, 1598). The Nova Vulgata, the current editio typica, made its appearance in 1979.

Two Levels of Ecclesiastical Latin

Among the earliest Latin Fathers were men trained in rhetoric and the sophisticated literature of classical Latin and Greek; nevertheless, they did not hesitate to apply their secular skills to defend or explain Christianity despite the fact that its basic texts were couched in a graceless Latin derived from a rude Greek. Such Latin Fathers include Tertullian, Minucius Felix, Lactantius, and, of a later generation, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine. Because their works of apologetics and exegesis added to the fund of basic Christian texts, ecclesiastical Latinity was of two kinds: one that produced original works by known authors, where the genius and power of

the language was free to speak out boldly on every page, and another an anonymous and earlier kind that timidly fulfilled the confining task of nearly verbatim translation of the sacred books, a too cautious Latin which the early Fathers found themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to support. The unknown translators' respect for the sacred original and fear of paraphrase had at least initially restrained the proper use of Latin in the Church. (In contrast, Quintilian earlier praised translation as an exercise that gave Latin speakers free rein in turning the thought of a Greek original into idiomatic Latin.) Jerome exemplifies the tension between the two Latins: "What does Horace have to do with the Psalter? Maro with the Gospels? Cicero with the Apostle [Paul]?" (Letter XXII, 29). Despite Jerome's love of the choice language and style of classical literature, ironically, because of his work in revising the Old Latin translations of the Bible, his name is virtually the only one attached to them. But next to his classical library brought to the desert from Rome, he could point with satisfaction to the bibliotheca Christi, "the library of Christ" (Letter LX, 10): Tertullian, Cyprian, Lactantius, Hilary of Poitiers, Minucius Felix, Victorinus, Arnobius. augustine, a native speaker of Punic, versed in rhetoric and the classics, both spoke and wrote a powerful Latin as a second language, and yet he, too, accepted the fact that the literal translations of the Bible had left no room for the display of an idiomatic, if not eloquent, style. The Greek sacred corpus, to begin with, had not been written in the elegant dialect of Plato but instead in the later koine, the common Greek of its time; the anonymous Latin translators, unconscious of literary history, wrote in the Vulgar Latin of their time, one far removed from the Ciceronian ideal. Of this both Jerome and Augustine were fully aware. Later Christian Doctors, such as thomas aquinas, were wholly uninhibited by the question of the levels of Latinity. The language of Aquinas addresses human knowledge and divine revelation in a clear and beautiful manner, proving that ecclesiastical Latin can be the vehicle of powerful philosophical thought.

Latin Superseded as the Vernacular but Maintained by the Church

The partition of the Roman Empire (330) and the dissolution of its western half (early fifth century) accelerated an inevitable process: Latin both began to forget itself and continued to remember itself. When it proceeded unconsciously to change, former Latin-speaking provinces no longer in communication with a centripetal Rome (indeed, in his last days Constantine ruled from Constantinople) each began to develop imperceptibly a local dialect from the prevalent but now moribund tongue of their former rulers. By the end of the sixth century, these local vernaculars were on the way to becoming the Romance languages: Romanian, Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romansch. One example of the transformation will suffice: we can say that by 1100 with the appearance of Le Chanson de Roland the process in Gallia, now France, was fairly well complete; Latin, unchecked, had become French. But when Latin remained conscious of its long history, aided by the unyielding sameness of the written-down word and among Christians by the desire of the Church to preserve rather than to innovate, it took on the role of a second language of the learned class. Educated men of the Middle Ages looked before and after upon two worlds: they might choose to speak or not an emerging patois, such as French or Italian, while at the same time in their formal studies they strove to emulate the style of Cicero, that paragon of classical Latinity, and aimed for a public career where a more formal Latin, written or spoken, was required. The Frankish scholar Einhard (ca. 770840), educated in the Thuringian monastery of Fulda with its excellent classical library, wrote the Latin biography of Charlemagne in a clear imitation of the style of Cicero and the manner of Suetonius. Departures from the classical norm reveal him as a man of his day, conversant with legal and ecclesiastical texts important to his life and work. Literate Christians over many centuries could read Latin in its highest form in Cicero or Virgil, and still cherish the now no longer strange Latin of the Bible with its close imitation of constructions peculiar to Greek. As time passed, however, and the new vernacular languages became firmly established, the uneducated faithful were no longer so well served by Latin. In Italy, for example, dante alighieri, after much hesitation, chose to write his Commedia, not in Latin, now limited to scholars, but in Italian, the tongue understood by all. Translations of the Latin version of the Bible (in whole or substantially so) into the various European vernaculars came relatively early: Anglo-Saxon, ca. 1000; Anglo-Norman, ca. 1350; French, 13th century; German, early 15th century; Swedish, 15th century; Italian, 1472; Spanish, 1478; Dutch, 1545. These several vernacular translations, designed to serve pastoral needs, all appeared before the opening of the Council of Trent (1545 1563). As a Counter-Reformation measure, the council gave a unique place to the Vulgate translation of the Bible by declaring it divinely inspired, thus ensuring for the time that translations would continue to be made from this Latin version. The use of Latin in the Eucharistic liturgy confirmed by the bull, Quo Primum, promulgated by Pope Pius V in 1570 moreover continued well into the twentieth century. From the sixteenth century onward, Latin was sharply perceived as a sacral language, one entirely set apart from the vernacular. The use of Latin passed from a pastoral function to a canonical one.

Characteristic Features of Liturgical Latin

The most remarkable stylistic features in the Roman liturgy were taken from the old tradition of pre-Christian Rome. In the canon of the Mass the striking use of parallelism, the polished sentence structure, the accumulation of synonyms, and the almost legal precision in the expression are all very closely related to the ancient Roman prayer style. Furthermore, in the canon and in the presidential prayers there is a certain predilection for ancient Roman religious terms, which are sometimes even preferred to the equivalent words of the Christian vocabulary. Thus, for example, the ancient Roman word preces (which occurs together with precatio and deprecatio in the early liturgical texts) partly replaces oratio, the early Christian word for "prayer." Next to the early Christian orare, "to pray," we find the old Roman precari. Beatitudo is used more often than the early refrigerium, a word derived from popular usage. Official terms from the Roman tradition, such as pontifex and antistes, are found beside episcopus; praesul another old Roman word beside presbyter. These pre-Christian elements had been neglected by the earliest Christian communities, but by the end of the fourth century any Christian texts that were not translations freely availed themselves of Latin's wide scope. Christians educated in rhetoric, such as Ambrose, fully conscious of the history of the language and the classical models such as Cicero, did not hesitate to compose liturgical texts replete with rhetorical devices (e.g., parallelism, tricolon, isocola, antithesis, chiasmus, synchysis, and paradox) and sophisticated rhythmical clausulae. Such a text is the glorious Exsultet, believed to be the work of Ambrose.

The Ambrosian Hymn

In the same period in which the Latinization of the Roman liturgy was completed, the Western Church was enriched by a new literary form: the so-called Ambrosian hymn. Although hilary of poitiers was the first in the West to introduce hymns on Greek and Syrian models, it was ambrose who fully realized the potential of such a popular form of communication. So completely was Ambrose's name associated with these hymns that the genre itself, taken up by many successors, early on was styled the "Ambrosian hymn." The canonical hours as prescribed by the rule of Benedict of Nursia made constant use of Ambrosian hymns, very many of which are still to be found in the Roman Breviary. The ones generally considered to be the work of Ambrose are "Aeterne rerum Conditor," "Deus Creator omnium," "Jam surgit hora tertia," and "Veni Redemptor gentium." All are in quantitative measures (quatrains of iambic diameter); all reinforce points of Christian dogma.

The Curial Style

When the Western Church was becoming more and more consolidated, the papal Curia gradually took the place of much temporal authority, finally even adopting many of its outward forms. In this combining of the ecclesiastical and the secular, there slowly developed a papal chancery language and style that even today continues to look to classical Latin as its model for its official documents. In its purely ceremonial form for example in proclaiming various honors the Latin used can be nearly inscrutable. In papal bulls, however, it often demonstrates a notable clarity, power, and grace; such a Latin is regarded as the guide when papal documents are translated into the world's dominant languages.

The Triumph of the Vernacular

Since the Second Vatican Council (1962 1965), the Church has borne witness to the fact that the message of the gospel is not language-specific, that it transcends all languages, including Latin. Although the council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy declared that "the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites," it was left open to "the competent territorial [i.e., national] ecclesiastical authority to determine whether, and to what extent, the vernacular language is to be used"(36). The result has been that, although Latin continues to hold an honored place, it has in the celebration of the Eucharist throughout the world been superseded by the various living languages of the people "for the sake of a better comprehension of the mystery being celebrated" (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, intro., §12). To such an extent has Latin declined in importance that the official hymn of the Jubilee Year 2000 appeared in several vernacular tongues, but not in Latin.

Such a rapid reversal could not have been anticipated by Pope John XXIII in February 1962 when, before the opening of Vatican II later that year, he issued Veterum Sapientia, his Apostolic Constitution on promoting the study of Latin. In this bull John repeated the sentiments of his predecessor, Pius XI, who (in 1922) had praised Latin as universal, immutable, and non-vernacular.

The movement away from Latin to the national languages was well underway at the time of the promulgation (in 1969) by Pope Paul VI of the Missale Romanum in its most comprehensive reworking since the sixteenth century. This revision (the Novus Ordo Missae ) was in keeping with the general norms set forth in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 34 36, of the Second Vatican Council. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) and the Missal itself, including the Ordo Missae cum populo, took its more precise form in 1975, and now has the force of law. In his motu proprio Ecclesia Dei (1988), Pope John Paul II renewed permission for the use of the Roman Missal of 1962 (the 400-year-old legacy of the Council of Trent) which he first granted in his universal indult of 1984, Quattuor abhinc annos. Thus today the liturgy of the Eucharist may be celebrated in Latin in two forms, that of the Missal of 1962 and that of 1975 these provisions occurring, however, in the much larger context of the now prevalent use of the vernacular.

The waning of Latin is further marked in the differences between the Code of canon law of 1917 and that of 1983. While the 1917 Code prescribed classroom lectures in Latin, the 1983 Code states that "the program for priestly formation is to make provision that the students are not only carefully taught their native language but also that they are well skilled in the Latin language" (can. 249); in the contemporary American seminary/college, this latter requirement may be fulfilled in two semesters. The 1983 Code, first promulgated in Latin, is freely available to the clergy in the vernacular.

At the start of the third millennium, Greek had been for so long as a former predominant language of the Church, that it was worthy of the utmost respect and serious study. Scholars of philosophy and history know that familiarity with the Greek and Latin sources, not to mention the Hebrew, affords a priceless perspective on the Church and its mission. But the uniqueness of the Latin language over the course of eighteen centuries has been in its changing roles. Originally, Latin was adopted as a pastoral measure to communicate the message of Christ in a language understood by most of the Christian people. Later, the mark of catholicity led Church leaders to emphasize the need for one enduring tongue, Latin, which could be reliably studied and interpreted for the faithful throughout the world. Finally, the process having come full circle, current pastoral concerns have permitted the option of liturgical practice in the vernacular. Although Latin is no longer the common tongue, nevertheless it retains an honored place as the sacral and canonical language of the Church.

Bibliography: p.-m. bogaert, "La Bible Latine des Origines au Moyen Âge: Aperçu Historique, État des Questions," Revue Théologique de Louvain 19 (1988) 137 159, 276 314. a. bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy, 1948 1975, tr. m. j. o'connell (Collegeville, Minn. 1990). f. di capua, Il Latino Letterario Medievale e lo Stile della Curia Romana (Rome 1948). e. dekkers and a. gaar Clavis Patrum Latinorum (3rd ed. Turnhout 1995). b. fischer, Biblia Sacra iuxta Vulgatam Versionem (3rd ed. Stuttgart 1983). h. j. frede, Kirchenschriftsteller: Verzeichnis und Sigel, Vetus Latina 1/1 (4th ed. Freiburg 1996). m. t. gibson, The Bible in the Latin West, The Medieval Book 1 (Notre Dame 1993). m. g. haessly, Rhetoric in the Sunday Collects of the Roman Missal (St. Louis 1938). r. e. latham, comp. Revised Medieval Latin Word-List from British and Irish Sources (Oxford 1965). b. lÉcureux, Le Latin, Langue de l'Église (2nd ed. Paris 1998). e. lÖfstedt, Late Latin (Cambridge, Mass. 1959). f. mantello, and a. g. rigg, Medieval Latin (Washington, D.C. 1996). c. c. martindale, The Prayers of the Missal (New York 1937). b. m. metzger, "The Latin Versions," 285374, The Early Versions of the New Testament (Oxford 1977). c. mohrmann, Liturgical Latin, Its Origin and Character (Washington, D.C. 1957). l. r. palmer, The Latin Language (3rd ed. London 1961). john xxiii, apostolic constitution Veterum Sapientia (22 Feb. 1962). paul vi, apostolic constitution Missale Romanum (3 April 1969). john paul ii, motu proprio Ecclesia Dei (2 July 1988). j. quasten and a. berardino, Patrology, 4 vols. (Westminster, Md. 1950). f. j. e. raby, A History of Christian-Latin Poetry in the Middle Ages (Oxford 1953). l. d. stephens, "Syllable Quality in Late Latin Clausulae," Phoenix 40 (1986) 72 91. k. strecker and r. b. palmer, Introduction to Medieval Latin (Zurich and Berlin 1957).

[j. f. collins]

About this article

Latin (in the Church)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article