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VATICAN LETTER Oct-28-2005 (750 words) Backgrounder. With photo. xxxi

Rigor mortis? At synod, bishops give lip service to Latin

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Latin limped through another synod in October, as bishops paid lip service to the assembly's official language but did their real communicating in the vernacular.

When Cardinal Angelo Scola opened the synod with the traditional reading in Latin of the "relatio ante disceptationem" (pre-discussion report), bishops throughout the synod hall reached quickly for their translation headphones.

The Vatican's translators, also unprepared for the task, had to work from a parallel Italian text.

Only one participant, Latvian Cardinal Janis Pujats, addressed the synod in Latin in both his six-minute speech and free discussion periods. Unlike most previous synods, Latin was not even offered as a language for small-group discussions.

Chinese bishops wrote a letter to the synod in Latin, explaining why they couldn't come to the assembly. When it was read aloud, a synod official said the Chinese prelates evidently still thought Latin was the lingua franca of the synod.

That prompted laughter among some synod participants, who reported mistakes even in the pro forma Latin phrases used to introduce speakers at the synod.

"There was some confusion about (Latin) case endings," said one source.

From the synod's opening gavel to the closing Mass, it was clear that Latin is struggling to survive even at the Vatican.

The final propositions, traditionally prepared in Latin for voting, had to be accompanied by an Italian translation this time around. The only Latin the bishops really needed to know was in the voting boxes marked "placet" (acceptable) and "non placet" (not acceptable.)

Those who understood neither Latin nor Italian were in trouble.

Bishop Donald W. Wuerl of Pittsburgh said one of the most poignant moments of the synod was when he saw that some of the younger bishops weren't able to follow the proceedings.

"I think we have simply moved beyond Latin as a common lingua franca in the church," Bishop Wuerl said.

Asked if he saw a natural replacement, he said: "If you were to judge by the conversation at the coffee break, English is a widely disseminated language."

Bishop Wuerl said he thought future synods would probably end up designating multiple modern languages as official instead of settling on a single common tongue.

Latin came up in one of the synod propositions on liturgy, which called for training of seminarians so they are able to say Mass and lead prayers in Latin. But a proposal to promote Mass in Latin for international, multilingual gatherings of Catholics was downgraded from a recommendation to a suggestion.

Pope Benedict XVI, who presided over the synod and led daily prayers in Latin, surprised people last April when he gave a lengthy inaugural message of his pontificate in flawless Latin. Many of the cardinals in attendance had to read the text in translation afterward.

In June, the pope encouraged the faithful to memorize common prayers in Latin, so they can pray in the same language when they meet at international events.

But Latin gave up the ghost long ago as the primary working language at the Vatican. In recent years, everything from papal encyclicals to the universal catechism has been written in vernacular languages, then translated into the "official" Latin version.

Vatican Radio, which broadcasts in more than 30 languages, including Esperanto, has no programming in Latin. But it does feature a one-man Latin campaign: U.S. Carmelite Father Reginald Foster, who has been a Latin secretary to four popes.

Father Foster is featured on a weekly radio show called "The Latin Lover," where he extols the beauty of Latin and often laments its decline in the church. He said recently that Pope Benedict obviously likes Latin and wants people to know it.

"But how do you get people to do this? That's the problem," Father Foster said.

He recalled that the proceedings of the Second Vatican Council, which ended 40 years ago, were conducted entirely in Latin.

Since then, he said, Latin "hasn't really been squelched -- 'oppressa est' -- but it's just been neglected -- 'neglecta est,' put off to the side."

Most younger priests and bishops don't know Latin well, he said, and the church's Latin teachers are disappearing, too.

While he's not very hopeful about reviving Latin in the church, Father Foster said he remains optimistic about the future of Latin generally. The summer graduate seminars he holds in Rome are overflowing, he said; last year, half the participants were Jewish.


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