VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - With Pope Benedict’s abdication on Thursday, the most prominent living speaker of Latin will retire into the shadows, after doing much during his eight-year pontificate to give the language of ancient Rome a new lease of life.
Benedictus, his name in Latin, set up the “Pontifical Academy of Latinity” to promote its use inside the Roman Catholic Church and beyond and chose to deliver his abdication speech in Latin, in what was considered a model of clarity.
Around the world, Catholics can now hear the Mass begin with the words “Introibo ad altare Dei” (I will go to the altar of God) thanks to a 2007 papal decree made by Benedict to allow the almost forgotten Tridentine liturgy to be used more often.
Benedict also brought the Church’s official language into the modern world by tweeting in Latin this year with the Twitter handle @Pontifex, a term used for Christian bishops which traces its origins back to Roman times and means “bridge builder”.
“Pervolo equidem esse ut sese christifideles gaudeant omnes abs Deoque, Nobismet Suum Qui crediderit Filium, diligi perspicue,” was one of the last tweets from Benedict’s Latin Twitter account, which has more than 24,000 followers.
“If only everyone could experience the joy of being Christian, being loved by God who gave his Son for us!” was the English tweet posted at the same time on Wednesday.
The language of the ancient Roman Empire died out in the late Middle Ages, when modern tongues such as Italian, French and Spanish evolved from it and educated elites stopped using Latin as their lingua franca across Europe.
The Church replaced Latin with local languages at daily Mass after the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council in a bid to make them more accessible. The pontifical universities in Rome that educated generations of the Church’s future elite clergy in the ancient language switched to teaching in Italian in 1967.
Nevertheless, the Church has never strayed from saying “Annuntio vobis gaudam magnum: Habemus Papam” (I announce to you a great joy: We have a pope) to the faithful in an announcement to be given from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican in a few weeks’ time when cardinals elect a new pope.
Rev Reginald Foster, once the Vatican’s senior Latinist, told Reuters before the 2005 conclave that the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the only senior prelate who fully understood jokes he told the gathering in Latin or who could respond in conversation.
Some of the cardinals would struggle to answer but their Latin was “on the spaghetti side”, Foster said, meaning closer to Italian than classical Latin. Many Italian and Latin words are so close that they are easy to guess.
But Latin devotees say interest in the language of Cicero and Tacitus around the globe is picking up, boosted by the 85-year-old pope’s efforts to revive Catholic traditions that were pushed aside after the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council.
“He certainly encouraged the use of the language, especially by founding the Latin academy,” said Christine Seuss, a journalist for the Vatican Radio’s German service, which has seen growing readership of a Latin news file on its web site.
“We see that the Latin news articles receive the most clicks by users,” said Seuss. “It’s often people who studied Latin and are trying to refresh it. But also teachers who want to use it in their lessons,” she added.
Jason Pedicone from The Paideia Institute, which started running Latin language immersion courses in Rome in 2011, said interest was increasing so much they had to turn applicants away for their university-level programme this year.
Several Latin social circles had cropped up around Europe and the United States, organising regular gatherings for enthusiasts to discuss ancient texts, chat in the language and share their passion, he said.
“Being able to read the original, the actual words a person said rather than someone’s translation of those words, brings you so much closer to history,” Pedicone said as he explained what was behind the enthusiasm.
“Walking into a church in Rome and being able to read all of the inscriptions, you just feel so much more culturally competent in Western civilisation,” he said.
The Holy See, where even ATM bank machines offer a greeting in Latin before transactions are carried out in other languages, is one of the last bastions of the language.
Latin is also learnt in Italian schools, with Classical and Scientific high schools teaching Latin for 5 years, and other countries still value the discipline of learning the language with the Classics course at Oxford University called “Greats”.
Many organisations use Latin mottos with the U.S. Marine Corps’ “Semper fidelis” (Always faithful) and the British air force’s “Per ardua ad astra” (Through adversity to the stars).
Knowing the “dead” language can also help when covering the Vatican for today’s real-time media.
Two Latin-literate journalists, one Italian and one French, scooped their colleagues on Feb 11 because they were among the few who understood Benedict’s shock resignation announcement in Latin and broke the news first.
“Everybody spoke in Latin,” Ansa’s Vatican correspondent Giovanna Chirri told Italy’s daily Il Messaggero. “And when the pope’s turn came, I realised immediately he was resigning. But my brain didn’t want to believe it. I was a bit terrified, honestly, and wasted some time. Then I called my office. Those were hectic moments.” (Reporting By Catherine Hornby; Editing by Tom Heneghan and Peter Millership)