Latin: A Convert’s Romance in Three Movements

22 Apr

“This ‘one language’…was an expression of the unity of the Church and through its dignified character elicited a profound sense of the Eucharistic Mystery.”
~ Pope St. John Paul II

Allegro

The waitress dropped off our check, and the busboy was starting to clear away our syrupy dishes. “Do you have any other questions?” the priest asked.

Like the waitress, Fr. Tom was itching to get on with his day. He’d already given up a good chunk of his morning over breakfast with me, but he was being trying to be understanding and polite. I was an utterly naïve Catholic wannabe who had parachuted intellectually into the melee of early-1980s catechetical confusion, and I was desperate for straight answers and guidance. As pastor of my Uptown parish, Fr. Tom was generously taking the brunt, and he did his best to field my many questions about Mary, the papacy, confession, and the like.

“Well, yes, I do have one more,” I replied. Fr. Tom waited – I hesitated. It was an embarrassing question that I knew would expose my flights of anachronistic Catholic fancy. “I bought this Rosary the other day” – my first one; I still have it! – “and there’s some Latin on the crucifix. Can you translate it for me?”

I figured (correctly) that Fr. Tom had gone to seminary when Latin was still required, and he nodded as I handed my beads to him. “Let’s see…Ecce lignum crucis in quo salus mundi. Basically it means ‘Behold the wood of the cross which holds the savior of the world.’” It was a condensed line from the Good Friday liturgy, with which I’m well familiar now, but Fr. Tom didn’t mention it at the time. I thanked him and accepted back the Rosary without further comment.

Inside, however, I was thrilled. It seemed so mysterious, so obscure, and yet so solid, so reassuring. Somehow, it meant more to me that the words were in Latin than if they’d been in straight English – or Italian, or even Biblical Greek for that matter. The Roman part of Roman Catholic seemed inexorably bound up with the Latin language, and now I not only had my own little token of it, but I even understood what it meant! It was like I’d been granted an insider’s glimpse of something essential about the Faith – it’s character, it’s personality. It was a small emblem of entrée into a world utterly foreign to me, but it was significant. The Church, to me, was like a family, a big, messy family, with its own bewildering constellation of traditions and quirks and esoteric language, yet it was to be my own.

I clutched my Latin-laced token as if it was a ticket for an ocean crossing.

Andante

“But why is the word for ‘ship’ feminine when the word for ‘sailor’ is masculine?” I asked my longsuffering Latin instructor. “And a farmer is masculine, but farming itself is feminine?”

He sighed, and I suspect the others sitting around the long table did so inwardly. It was supposed to be an accelerated Latin course for graduate students, not a seminar in philology. “There is no reason,” he calmly explained for the umpteenth time. “It’s just how it is. It’s just how the language developed.”

I didn’t buy it, but I let it go…again. We resumed our plodding through Allen and Greenough, and I shelved my curiosity. I was working on a master’s in medieval history at the University of Colorado, and my goal was supposed to be acquiring a reading knowledge of Latin, not unpacking its subtle linguistic lineage. Yet, as I struggled with vocabulary, conjugations, and declensions, I kept coming back to Latin’s alluring temperament. I should’ve been anxious to get on with utilizing the language to tackle minims, miniscule, and manuscripts, but I was getting bogged down in the language itself.

Then the moment came when it became clear that medieval studies were not to be my life’s work. A different instructor took over the second half of the accelerated Latin course, and, on a lark, he decided that we’d spend the final weeks of the semester translating the Vulgate’s version of John’s Gospel instead of Cicero. Who knows why he chose this – at a state university of all places. Regardless, we all dove in – and I was transfixed by the text. The debates about translation naturally revolved around meaning, and I swiftly drifted away from caring much about paleography and medieval charters. What mattered was John’s theologizing about the God-man’s invasion of our world.

As you’d expect in such a class, the goings were slow, but we managed to arrive at John 6 before the term concluded. “The text is pretty straightforward,” the instructor indicated. “Qui manducat meam carnem et bibit meum sanguinem habet vitam aeternam – ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.’ And it aligns well with the Greek. Thoughts?”

It was an open invitation and I jumped at it. I gave a rudimentary overview to my classmates of Catholic teaching on the Eucharist, but with a revealing enthusiasm that marked me for a divergent future. Clearly my career trajectory wasn’t going to involve staid academic impartiality. I was a sectarian partisan, and it wasn’t long after that day that I dropped out of the medieval studies program and headed off to Steubenville to study theology. Once again, a singular encounter with the Church’s dead language had resulted in a lifegiving epiphany.

Presto

Mrs. Dance had Ben’s folder open and it was time to choose his freshman language requirement. “I don’t care what else you take in high school,” I told my teenage son. “But you have to take Latin.”

Why not Spanish? Why not something useful? Why not, why not, why not…? I wouldn’t budge, and I haven’t budged since. Ben and two of his siblings have since graduated high school having enjoyed (or endured) at least three years of Latin each; Crispin will graduate this spring after a full four years. Cecilia is in her second year, and her two younger siblings will follow in her footsteps once they get there. Honors courses, dual-credit college courses, calculus and trig (or drawing and digital photography) – whatever they’d like. But Latin? It’s a must.

For one thing, I’m still persuaded by the argument that there’s no better way to buttress vocabulary, writing skills, and critical thinking than a hefty dose of Europe’s original lingua franca. My collegiate children back me up on this to a certain extent – although there’s a considerable lobby there to allow their younger siblings to acquire a modern, “practical” language.

Overruled.

Besides, in addition to Latin’s value a prep for the S.A.T. and college-level composition, there’s also the fact that it has always been everybody’s high school home base – an oasis in their daily grind, a safe space, both intellectually and socially, even emotionally. This stands to reason if you consider the camaraderie that would naturally emerge when kids of varying classes and backgrounds are compelled by their backward parents to study an ancient tongue. “It was great,” Crispin told me. “There were people I’ve been close to in Latin that I’d never run into outside of class.” And whenever our teens over the years have laughingly shared school-day anecdotes, they’ve more often than not emanated from Latin class.

But this is all smokescreen. The real reason – the ulterior motive, as it were – for my insistence on Latin for my kids has always been because it’s the language of the Church – the syntax and structure of how the Church thinks, the way our Faith family communicates at her very core. I want that drummed into their heads, along with sound catechesis and regular participation in the sacramental life of the Church, so that, if they’re ever to stray, they’ll be plagued by Latinate cadences. They’ll be haunted by the drumbeat of ecclesial sentence structure, and their very imaginations will be penetrated by Romish categories of reason.

That’s not to say that I don’t want them to think for themselves, to think broadly and openly – far from it. “Of its very nature Latin is most suitable for promoting every form of culture among peoples,” Pope St. John XXIII declared. “It gives rise to no jealousies. It does not favor any one nation, but presents itself with equal impartiality to all and is equally acceptable to all.” Its static character is its very advantage, for it fosters organized thought while allowing for wide-ranging entertainment of other and opposing views. And can there be a better foundation for achieving fluency in other languages – Romantic and otherwise – which, in turn, will lead to intellectual meanderings and couplings well beyond the Catholic fold?

Yet, no matter how far they wander, their years of Latin study will ensure an ingrained mental link to the liturgical language of their ecclesial homeland. Even if they come to reject and despise their baptismal heritage, they’ll carry with them that heritage’s mode of expression. That’s critical, because they are coming of age in a culture “often characterized by concern with appearance, superficiality,” as Pope Francis put it recently, “the division between heart and mind, interiority and exteriority, consciousness and behavior.” Study of Latin and Latin literature, the Holy Father said, can be part of the antidote to such postmodern existential caprice, for it can help young people find “the path of life, and accompany them along paths rich in hope and confidence,” to connect them to “the inner and intimate essence of the human being.”

Certainly, in a much more limited and haphazard way, that’s what Latin did for me – at least insofar as it contributed to my grounding in the life of the Church. And there’s nothing more important to me than fostering a similar grounding for my children. It’s the best I can offer them, and they shall have it, despite their objections. Felix culpa – amen.
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Of Bridgebuilding, Barriers, and Fatherhood

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“In the breaking of bridges is the end of the world.”
~ G.K. Chesterton

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An Easter Quo Vadis: St. Hugh of Grenoble

5 Apr

“He closed his penitential course on the 1st of April, in 1132…. Miracles attested the sanctity of his happy death.”
~ Rev. Alban Butler

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Of Mr. Milewski, Pizza, and a Laden Cross

30 Mar

There are two memories I associate with Steven Milewski, my childhood chum. One is his dad, a taciturn man who worked the night shift and was rarely around when I was over at Steven’s house. Sometimes on the weekend, I’d be present when the man arrived home midmorning, bedraggled, weary, downcast. There’d be brief nods and greetings, and then a barely discernible shift in household atmosphere as the blue-collar warrior trudged upstairs for his daytime repose. Steven and I would keep playing army men or whatever, but we’d do it quieter, much quieter. No more grenades and explosions. No more total war on the hardwood floor.

Then, one night, and I’m not sure the occasion, Mr. Milewski took me and Steven out for pizza. It was the first time I remember indulging in that glorious riot of cheese and grease and meat – an epicurean epiphany. The setting was ideal: A local Jersey joint down by the Raritan, complete with red-checkered tablecloths, poor lighting, and boppy music on the jukebox. We ordered root beer – a treat! – but I had to be instructed in how to pick up the slices with my hands.

That first bite, that first bite! It burned the roof of my mouth, but the mingling of flavors and the Zenlike texture of yielding toppings on crunchy crust were well worth it. Maybe Mr. Milewski smiled when he saw my reaction, but probably not. Regardless, I now think back with great appreciation that this hardworking family man gave up a precious night off to treat his son, and I’m so grateful that I got to tag along. Offering hospitality as a shift worker is always challenging; receiving such is always an honor.

My second Milewski memory is the big wooden crucifix that hung in the main entry way of Steven’s house. Although I usually came in through the rear door since our backyards abutted, I’d still pass by the crucifix as I followed Steven up to his room. It was scary, to tell the truth, something utterly foreign in my staid, unadorned Presbyterian experience – much more foreign than pizza. At some point, I got up the courage to look at it more closely: The wooden Jesus, I could see, was actually nailed to the wooden cross. It wasn’t a one-piece molded affair – like the crucifixes on our plastic rosaries. No, this was an actual man affixed to an actual gibbet. I could see the three little tacks. “Why do you have Jesus on your cross?” I remember asking Steven later in his room. He shrugged – he didn’t know. He was Polish and Catholic and that’s just what they did.

Steven might not have been equipped to properly catechize his Protestant neighbor, but the image and implications of his family’s entry-way crucifix have stayed with me ever since. Now that I’m a Catholic myself, I’m particularly cognizant of those nails – the fact that the suffering Savior could’ve been pried free of his torture; that the corpus could’ve been removed to reveal a less disturbing empty cross. But empty crosses are not enough for us. “We preach Christ crucified,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians. It’s a baseline that all Christians must embrace, as Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon insisted: “So Paul…put his foot down, and said, in effect, ‘Whatever others may do, we preach Christ crucified; we dare not, we cannot, and we will not alter the great subject matter of our preaching, Jesus Christ, and him crucified.’”

It’s what the Milewskis silently preached with their family crucifix. It’s what my family now preaches with ours. It’s what you preach with yours. And we pray for the grace to practice what we preach.
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A Criminal Companion for Holy Week

25 Mar

This is Passion Sunday, so you’ll already have a pretty good idea of what to expect: Red vestments, a “pre-Gospel” during the processional, the blessing of palm branches, and a dramatic reading of the entire Passion story. This year, it’ll be Mark’s version, which includes an account of the insults our crucified Lord endured and this telling detail: “Those who were crucified with him also kept abusing him.”

Mark is referring here to the two rebel convicts that were executed on Good Friday, but this is in contrast with St. Luke’s description of a “good thief” who did the exact opposite. “We have been condemned justly,” he tells his unrepentant counterpart, “but this man has done nothing criminal.” Apparently, the good thief had a change of heart as he hung there so close to our dying Savoir, and he gasps an implicit plea for mercy: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23.42).

“Amen, I say to you,” Jesus replies, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” The Church has interpreted the Savior’s words as an affirmation of the good thief’s ultimate heavenly destination, and he has long been regarded as a saint. Although St. Luke doesn’t name him, tradition settled on the moniker “Dismas,” which derives from the Greek word for “sunset” and “death.” Eastern Christians commemorate him on Good Friday every year, but Catholics remember Dismas on March 25 – the day we normally celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation.

It’s a curious liturgical overlap, you might think – a penitent criminal and the Mother of God – but tradition helps sort it out for us. In the Middle Ages, many conjectured that the actual crucifixion took place on the very same date as the Annunciation – that is, the day we annually mark the Incarnation, the beginning of our salvation that God hinged to Mary’s fiat, and its ultimate accomplishment on the Cross providentially align on our calendar. Consequently, although our celebrations of Holy Week and the Easter Triduum shift every year, the commemoration of the dying Dismas’s sanctifying confession became associated with March 25 and Mary’s pivotal acquiescence.

This year, that date – today – coincides with Passion Sunday, which results in an especially rich confluence of images. It’s the day we embark on a solemn liturgical journey with Jesus, from hosannas and acclamation to ignominy, torture, and execution – and, ultimately, Resurrection. Today is also the day that, at least in terms of human gestation, marks the hidden embodiment of the Savior in Mary’s womb. Death and new life; horrific end and new beginnings; calamity and tremendous hope – it all comes together today.

And it’s the day that we traditionally call to mind Dismas, a figure whose Gospel appearance is itself a summary – this rotten sinner who deserves to die and yet who surrenders himself to the One who is Life himself. Doesn’t that describe you and me? Dismas is us, in a sense, and we could ask for no better friend to accompany us this week as we trudge through tragedy to triumph.

If you have time today, you might want to visit Sacred Heart Basilica at Notre Dame. In the reliquary chapel off the main sanctuary, you can venerate the relics of St. Dismas, including with a small splinter from his cross. While there, you can also venerate a piece of the True Cross of Christ in a church so closely identified with Our Lady and her monumental “yes.”

St. Dismas, pray for us. Our Lady of the Assumption, pray for us. Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us.
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This meditation originally appeared in the Sunday bulletin of St. Joseph Parish, Mishawaka, Indiana. 

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