Why On Earth Should I Learn Latin? – Part 1/3

This is part one of a three-part Rose. Each part consists of a 20 minute blog post (mixed video and reading) followed by a 20 minute study session. All three completed are a single rose.
For the introductory page to the rose, click here.

Reason #1 – Efficacy

Short video on the efficacity of Praying in Latin

OK so the above video makes a succinct point – but it doesn’t exactly back it up! If this is going to prove to be a lasting motivation for us, we need to take a closer look at whether or not it is actually more efficacious to pray in Latin – and to seek to understand and back up the assertion… Allow me to begin somewhat Thomistically with a couple of ‘Sed Contras’:

A few years ago, I was talking to my father (the one who wasn’t allowed to take Latin for an A-Level subject) and he basically said that he didn’t know why people made such a fuss about praying in Latin, because God listens to our prayers in our own language and doesn’t really care what language we use when they come from our hearts. Of course there is a certain truth in this primacy of the disposition of heart. Actually I wasn’t sure how to answer the objection back – as far as I remember my defence ran something along the lines of ‘Mumble mumble mumble… language of the Church… mumble mumble’. Of course that didn’t mean a better answer didn’t exist! As things were to work out though, it would not be my research but an intervention of the Mother of God that would settle our debate!

I’m going to leave that cliffhanger a moment and bolster his assertion with the (approved but alleged, private revelation is still that) words of Jesus to a canonised mystic whose experiences have been validated by the devotion and veneration of the Church:

“Speak to Me about everything in a completely simple and human way; by this you will give Me great joy. I understand you because I am God-Man. This simple language of your heart is more pleasing to Me than the hymns composed in My honour. Know, My daughter, that the simpler your speech is, the more you attract Me to yourself.” (St. Faustina’s Diary, #797)

Seems simple enough, doesn’t it? One can be confident that typically St. Faustina wasn’t stringing her simple prayers from the heart together in Latin. Her conversations with Jesus, in both directions, took place in her vernacular Polish dialect, in all simplicity. The hymns, on the other hand, composed in Jesus’ honour (but less pleasing to Him) may often have been in Latin!

Why, then, should we think that Latin – which is less familiar to us and may well seem to be an obstacle to simply praying from the heart – makes one’s prayers any more efficacious?

Well, I’ll begin by telling you how Our Lady settled the debate with my father. Not that long after that conversation – I’d say within 24 hours – he and I were getting into his car. The car he had at that time had an intermittent problem with the starter motor, and that day it happened to play up. I suppose we must have been going somewhere I deemed important, because I was convinced the Mother of God was going to start the car. So despite his failed attempts I said I was going to pray a Hail Mary and he was to try again. So we did. And the car got no better. I decided to try again, and this time (feeling multicultural, I suppose) prayed the Hail Mary in Irish. No improvement, and at this stage he’d tried enough and was about to go inside, but I still felt in my heart that Mary wanted to answer the prayer so I insisted: ‘Daddy – once more!’ He agreed. This time (evidently still feeling multicultural): ‘Ave Maria, Gratia Plena…’ – I didn’t reach the end of the prayer before the car started, as readily as if there had been no issue.

Can I prove that was heavenly intervention, as opposed to just chance? Nope, not empirically, the car was too unpredictable. But as the car started Daddy’s few words and facial expression made it clear that the remembrance of our prior conversation came back to him at just the same moment it came back to me. With it, there was a mutual understanding that the debate was settled by something beyond both of us. And without having the rational basis all worked out the evidence was simply: There is something about praying in Latin.

But let’s explore a little more thoroughly before drawing a conclusion. Firstly, we’ll take a look at a testimony from someone with a more dramatic experience of praying in the language than me:

This excerpt should automatically take about 8 minutes, starting just after 2 and stopping just before 10. Stop it if it runs past 10 minutes on the timer!

The clip covers a few things, but for this blog post we’ll stay with the testimony aspect in considering efficacy. I liked this testimony because it was a first hand witness account of a specific incident – but it’s far from unique as stories go. It is well documented amongst exorcists that Latin is actually more effective in performing exorcisms than the vernacular and that demons refuse or show great reluctance to speak it – especially in its liturgical form (if you desire see here, here, here – but these things don’t count as part of your rose time!) One documented example of this is in the case of St. Mariam, the Little Arab, who consented to undergo expiatory demonic possession. Amongst the notable things revealed in the course of her possession was fact that the demons possessing her refused to speak in the Sacred Language of the Liturgy.

Coming back, then to our original question! When Fr. Ripperger speaks of Latin as being a more efficacious language in prayer you have to bear in mind that he is speaking as a priest and an exorcist. His assertions therefore are coming from one who is accustomed to dealing in spiritual warfare and seeking out the most objectively powerful means by which to undo the influence of the enemy in the spiritual realm, that’s not to say other forms of prayer don’t have their place! Now let’s consider the quote from St. Faustina’s diary within its original context.

The first thing to note here is that St. Faustina died in the year 1938. This means that what we now typically call ‘Latin Mass’ was the only Mass she knew. Since many of her most profound mystical experiences took place in the context of the Holy Sacrifice, and her spirituality was deeply Eucharistic, it would be crazy to say that her exposure to that language inhibited her simplicity of soul or union with God. Rather it was part of the liturgical framework within which that simple exchange took place most freely. Therefore it seems that Latin in the Liturgy did not inhibit the simplicity of St Faustina, but if anything supported and complimented it – even though her heart to heart conversations with Jesus were in the vernacular.

What does that mean for Daddy’s original objection as to why praying in Latin should be such a big deal? It means it is somewhat confused due to a false opposition. Of course God treasures, hears and attends to the simple prayers of our hearts with all the attention of a Loving Father, when we use the simple words that come to us naturally. Our relating to that Paternal Love of God must always include those things that we bring to Him in all trust and simplicity, without pretence or artificial blocks. However that same approach cannot afford to stop at what we bring to God. Ultimately, we must seek to discover that to which His Love deigns to call us. We come as we are, but we must learn to seek God as He Is, and also to approach Him according to the Will that He has revealed.

In the context of prayer and language, that means there are times when it is appropriate to seek an order in our approach that is ordained by Heaven and given to us. Prime amongst those times we might expect to find occasions when objectively we are drawn most close to God (as in the Sacred Liturgy) or when we most need His power to be manifest (as in spiritual warfare and exorcism). That doesn’t mean we leave behind the simple words that come naturally or the desires of our hearts, but that we submit them to the discipline appropriate to approaching a God Who is All-Holy. Thereby we embrace the humility required for allowing all that we are to come before His Throne. And always in the spiritual life, far from distancing us from God, humility draws us closer to Him.

To ensure we haven’t skipped a step here, let’s finish by looking at what links those two things – the objective power of the language in prayer and an order given by Heaven. If the language used in prayer is part of that order, there must be reasons for this – some sort of an indication that the language is chosen or set apart by God. Can this be said of Latin?

The answer is yes – and there is even a Biblical reason why! This was looked at in the video clip, but I want to take it a little bit further:

And Pilate wrote a title also, and he put it upon the cross. And the writing was: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. This title therefore many of the Jews did read: because the place where Jesus was crucified was nigh to the city: and it was written in Hebrew, in Greek, and in Latin. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate: Write not, The King of the Jews; but that he said, I am the King of the Jews.  Pilate answered: What I have written, I have written.
John 19:19-22

So the main argument for the Sacred Languages (that is Hebrew, Greek and Latin) being such is that they were nailed to the Cross on which Christ saved us. The Cross of Calvary on which Jesus’ Blood was poured out for all mankind, the Cross on which the Sacrifice offered in the Upper Room was consummated. This is, of course, the same Sacrifice that was offered at each and every Mass thereafter – which incidentally for the first four centuries of Church History appear only to have been offered in these three languages. Latin is efficacious in a particular way because it was linked by the placard of a Roman Governor on a Roman Cross to the Death of Christ. Furthermore, when the chief priests of the Chosen People, those from whom the Messiah was taken, tried to change the declaration and relegate the claim to the realm of subjectivity… it was the Roman Governor who refused. It seems to me that each of the Sacred Languages is not only chosen by God, but has its particular role, function and grace – and that in Pilate’s ‘quod scripsi scripsi’ we have a preliminary hint at what will be one of the primary gifts of Rome and of Latin to the Church…

But that can wait for the next section, for now let’s get stuck into some study materials!

Study Session #1

To complete session one, give twenty minutes in total to reviewing the following three study materials. Unlike the blog, which was just a case of reading through, these aren’t tailor written to lead you from A to B. Take a look through, pray with them, take notes and think carefully about their application to the subject matter in the time you have. For the first two given materials it may be helpful to take notes, as they will be relevant in as the rose continues to parts 2 and 3. The third study material is more a basis for prayerful reflection.

The Etymologies of St. Isidore of Seville – Read De Linguis Gentium, which makes up the first page and a half of Chapter IX )that is to say p.205-206 on electronic numbering/p.191-192 on page numbers).

Veterum Sapientia, Pope St. John XXIII – with particular reference to the first half of the document.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church on the Crucifixion – You don’t need to read all of this, scan through and then focus on some parts that help you to reflect on the Sacrifice of Christ and what it means for us. Then contemplate the meaning of a language being sanctified by direct relation to the Cross on which He died.

When you want to continue with cultivating this rose, return to the introductory page or move on to part two!

3 thoughts on “Why On Earth Should I Learn Latin? – Part 1/3

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