Monday, August 23, 2010

Latin Lessons

In an earlier post I told of my plan to learn some basic Catholic prayers in Latin. This was my own personal project, but my kids soon learned what I was doing and asked to join in the endeavor. We began with the ‘Sign of the Cross’ – short and simple, and used so frequently in our daily prayers that the constant repetition aided in their quick learning of it. Once I was sure that they had this under their belts, I suggested the ‘Our Father’ as our next challenge. By that time I had already learned the ‘Our Father’ (‘Pater Noster’) and was able to recite it from memory while they followed along. Within a few weeks they were familiar enough with the prayer that they could recite it unassisted with only a few hesitations and minor mistakes. Not bad for a 6 year-old and 4 year-old. They have shown steady improvement, and we are now ready for the ‘Ave Maria.’

What began as a novelty for my own spiritual benefit has become a standard feature of our whole family’s prayer life. The kids now insist upon it. Whenever my wife and I slip into the familiar English: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son…” the kids scold and firmly remind us: “No, no! In Latin, please…”

The ‘Pater Noster’ has now taken first place among the prayers that we say together at bedtime. Our 6 year-old has tried his own version of Gregorian chant as an alternative to the spoken prayer, and our 4 year-old has a fondness for Shubert’s Ave Maria. And whenever Latin is used at Mass for the ‘Sanctus’ or the ‘Agnus Dei’ or an occasional hymn, the kids’ ears perk up. They seem to know that the language demands our attention and they enjoy the use of Latin in prayer and song.

What is so surprising about all of this is that the conventional wisdom for decades has told us that Latin ceased to be used in the Church’s prayer life so that the laity could be more fully engaged in the Liturgy. Supposedly Latin stifled the average Catholic’s spirituality and limited their experience of the Mass. When Latin was used the people could not understand what was going on and so they tuned it out, or they simply failed to grasp the full depth of what the prayers contained. While I do not doubt that for some Catholics this was the case, watching my kids experience Latin prayer has shown me that this does not have to be so.

When I hear it said that Latin causes confusion, that we cannot understand the words and so we loose the meaning of the prayer, I know differently. Using Latin has prompted more questions from my kids than the use of English ever had, and those questions have lead to far greater understanding than we might have had otherwise. When my child asks, “Dad, what does quotidianum mean?” I am far more careful and thoughtful in my response than if they had asked about the English. It forces me to delve into the meaning behind each word and seek a fuller understanding. The use of Latin has prompted far more questions of this sort and has inspired much deeper discussions than ordinary English. Of course, it takes a little more effort to research a solid response, but the result has been greater understanding, not less as some would suggest.

Many claim that the use of Latin makes prayer less personal. The words of a dead language, a language that is not your own and that you do not speak fluently, separates you from the act of prayer; you do not feel personally engaged in the prayer. In my experience and in watching my children go through the same process of learning a foreign language - learning the correct pronunciation, the rhythm of the syllables, the meaning of the words - all of this only serves to heighten one’s connectedness to the prayer and draw one deeper into the experience. Your thoughts hang on every phrase and you focus on every utterance. In the end, the sense of achievement you feel after learning the Latin increases your personal connection to the prayer – you own that prayer. Every word of it you struggled to master and now it is yours.

Some feel that the Catholic switch from Latin to the vernacular was a mark of progress. They argue that the Church must move beyond its ancient roots and embrace new forms of spirituality. Latin is a relic of the past and should be left behind. But aren’t Catholics the ones who venerate relics? Is it not the Catholic Church’s duty to preserve the faith that has been handed on to us since ancient times? Latin is an integral part of this great tradition. Of course, those who most often argue against such handing on of past customs are usually the same sort who argue in favor of female priests, or who experiment with “cutting edge” liturgical rites, and advocate the abandonment of long-held Christian moral precepts. The rejection of Latin is but a small part of their agenda, and often signifies a deeper rejection of other parts of the faith.

Using Latin in our home has certainly put my children in contact with ancient (and even not so ancient) history, but I don’t think that that is such a bad thing. There are many facets of our cultural past in music, art, and literature that utilize Latin to convey their beauty. Having a familiarity with this important language will only serve to augment their experience of these great works. And let us not forget that the scientific and medical fields use Latin as the source for their technical jargon. If these modern branches of study can make use of Latin so effectively then why should Catholics be thought of as “backwards” or “archaic” for our own use of this ancient language in prayer?

Pope Benedict XVI has strongly encouraged the re-introduction of Latin into the mainstream of Catholic prayer. And there are many good books out there, as well as web resources, to aid Catholics who wish to learn. Older Catholics who still remember the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass from their childhood may need only to brush up a little. Younger Catholics will have to begin from square one. But my children have demonstrated that even the youngest among us can benefit from revitalizing Latin prayer, and you are never too young to start.
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Update: Here are a couple of sites you can visit to listen to recordings of the spoken prayers in Latin:

Catholic iPod, Catholic Prayers in Latin
Audio Recording of Latin Catholic Prayers

From the first site I downloaded files onto my mp3 player for easy listening.
(Instructions for downloading are given on the site.) Hearing the Latin spoken by someone who knows correct pronunciation really helps in learning the prayers. The second site states that the material is copyrighted and the author does not encourage downloading. But listening from the site is another option.

Of course there are many other resources online. These are just two that I found in a brief search when I began learning Latin. Another option would be finding a phonetic pronunciation guide for each prayer as a visual aide.The important thing is to find a method that works for you and that utilizes the resources you have at your disposal.


  1. This is wonderful! I would like to start learning Latin. Hopefully soon. It is a beautiful language.

  2. Thank you for reading...

    I just added an update to this post. If you are interested in learning the Latin for basic Catholic prayers I suggest downloading the mp3s I mention above (as well as some printed materials as a visual aide). These were valuable resources for me as I learned the prayers.

    Good luck...

  3. I think memorizing prayers in Latin is a good idea. The pope encourages it and I have written a python script to aid in memorizing prayers. It is free just thought folks might find it useful.