Life & Soul Life and Soul

Latin: the language of remembrance

Resigning in style: Benedict XVI makes his announcement in Latin (CNS)

I recently attended the funeral at the London Oratory of a friend, killed in an accident aged only 47. The baroque magnificence of the Oratory was appropriate for the deep seriousness of death – as was the Latin Mass.

I have never heard Latin spoken so beautifully as it was by Fr Julian Large that morning. He spoke from memory, with such fluency and confidence, that it was the closest I’ve ever got to hearing how, I think, the Romans actually talked.

No one knows the precise way the Romans spoke. You can work out the length of their vowels – whether they’re long or short – from the metre of certain poems. But as for actual pronunciation, it’s anyone’s guess.

I’ve always reckoned that Latin sounded a lot like Italian – which makes sense. The languages are so similar. Italian has become simpler as it has developed from Latin, with consonants dropped off the end of words, and fewer cases for nouns.

But, when it comes to pronunciation, why should it change that much? We speak English much like our parents do; they speak it like their parents, and so on.

Fr Julian Large spoke his Latin with a hint of Italian sprezzatura, and it sounded very convincing – and moving.

Should Latin return, then, as the norm in Catholic services? Much as I – a Latin obsessive – would love that, I realise it’s impossible.

Half a century after Vatican II, it’s too late to turn the clock back and insist on its universal application. Yes, some documents in the Vatican are still translated into Latin. And what style Pope Benedict XVI showed in making his resignation statement in Latin. But then again, he is now 91 – a distinguished representative of the pre-Vatican II intellectual priest. His Latin knowledge will be shared by few modern priests.

Latin certainly once had its uses in the Church as a lingua franca, understood by priests from here to Australia. And there’s no modern lingua franca to replace it. There’s been a suggestion that Italian could take over. At a recent gathering of the Accademia della Crusca, a 16th-century Florence academy founded to maintain the purity of Italian, Mgr Paolo Rizzi argued for Italian as a quasi lingua franca for the Church.

“Italian can be considered, in a certain sense, as the official language of the Church, since it is the one most used in large gatherings of the faithful coming from the various continents, especially when the Pope is present in Rome or in other countries,” said Mgr Rizzi, a priest who works in the Secretariat of State.

I can see his point. He pointed to Italian as the language of the Roman Curia; as the principal language of public gatherings at the Vatican. And Pope Francis speaks in Spanish and Italian.

Italian also lends itself so well to church services. When I go church-crawling in Italy, I often stand at the back of services, and love hearing the words spoken in Italian. Just as with Fr Julian Large’s Latin, modern Italian, so close to Latin, has the stirring echoes of the ancient language that dominated the Western world during Jesus’s life.

But then the Vatican happens to be in Rome – so of course most people, and priests, will speak Italian. That’s not the case across the world, where English has become the lingua franca.

I’ve just been to Lake Como where I bumped into an American woman who was learning Italian entirely because it had no international use; she was learning it for its beauty, not to get along in the business world.

So the answer is to keep the vernacular in different countries – and to dip into Latin for appropriate moments. At my friend’s funeral, Latin was the right language for seriousness, sadness and death. Other people at the funeral, who knew no Latin, still appreciated its innate suitability for such an occasion.

Latin was again the appropriate language on Remembrance Sunday, when I attended a beacon-lighting service in the Islington district of London to salute the Armistice centenary.

The Mayor of Islington introduced Wilfred Owen’s poem Dulce et Decorum est by giving a translation of the poem’s final line, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” – “It is sweet and right to die for your country.”

Owen borrowed the line from a Horace ode that goes on to read, “Mors et fugacem persequitur virum” – “Death pursues even the man who flees it.”

That’s true for everyone: the victims of the First World War; my friend; and the rest of us. And it sounds better in Latin.

Harry Mount is author of Amo, Amas, Amat and All That (Short Books)