Lingua Latina in Ecclesia: The Veterum Sapientia Institute
by Gregory DiPippo
This past February, the Church marked the 60th anniversary of the promulgation of the Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia. This constitution “on the promotion of the study of Latin” was signed by St. John XXIII with the highest degree of solemnity, on the high altar of St Peter’s Basilica, on February 22nd, 1962, the feast of St Peter’s Chair, a gesture deliberately to chosen to emphasize the document’s importance. This is the reason why the Second Vatican Council, which began a bit less than seven months later, says almost nothing about the role of Latin in the Church; it was understood that the matter had already been dealt with as thoroughly as it could be.
However, you may very well not have noted this anniversary. Although the Constitution was never repealed or modified, and indeed, remains to this day the Church’s law, and the definitive pronouncement on the status which Latin is supposed to hold in its life, in the perfervid years of the Council itself, and even more, in those of its aftermath, it was very widely ignored. And indeed, so fully did it vanish from the Church’s collective memory that many Catholics erroneously believe it was St John who brought about the completely vernacular liturgy, and the lessening or disappearance of the study of Latin from Catholic education.
In point of fact, his intention was exactly the opposite. Veterum Sapientia is not a lengthy document, just over 1800 words in the official Latin version, but it lays the greatest emphasis on the importance of Latin for every aspect of the life of the Church. He repeats the words of a discourse of Pius XI, “The Church, as an institution which holds all nations in her embrace and is destined to endure unto the ending of the world, by Her own very nature requires a language which is universal, unchangeable, and not vernacular”, and then elaborates on how Latin fulfills these needs. In practical terms, he goes on to order that where the study of Latin has been allowed to diminish, it must be restored. Shortly thereafter, the Congregation for Catholic Education issued a series of directives, known as the Ordinationes, for the implementation of what the Pope had commanded in the Constitution. These Ordinationes outline the course of studies to be followed in seminaries and other Catholic education institutions.
St John also makes an explicit comparison between the political and cultural union which the Roman Empire created among the many peoples of the Mediterranean, and the spiritual union which the Church creates among the peoples within Herself. Without treating the Christian Middle Ages as the undoing of the Fall of Man, it is fair to say that the peoples of Europe in particular were never so united as when the Latin-speaking Church held sway over them, and that the unity which we profess in the Creed every Sunday, that the Church is one, then had its best realization in secular society.
The Veterum Sapientia Institute is a new organization that seeks to fulfill the vision of St John XXIII by promoting the study of Latin. Our various academic programs, online courses, intensive, spoken-Latin workshops, and tutoring services offer Catholics (but of course not only Catholics) the opportunity to learn the language, and to make fully their own the cultural and spiritual legacy contained with the “wisdom of the ancients.”
Our newest program to fulfill this mission is a new accredited degree program, the Diploma Latinitatis Ecclesiasticae (Diploma in Ecclesiastical Latin), based on the Ordinationes of St John XXIII. Last November, we submitted a proposed program to the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, in partnership with the Pontifical Institute for Higher Latinity, a faculty of the Salesian University in Rome, which shares our commitment to Latin. On January 25 of this year, the program received the Congregation’s official approval, and it will be officially launched with its first semester in the fall.
We believe, as the Pope stated, that God providentially chose the Roman Empire as the place of His Incarnation, a choice which gave the Latin and Greek languages a permanent and permanently valuable role in the Church’s life. In honoring the cultural and spiritual achievements of Christian civilization, we seek both to restore a previously existing order, and give expression and form to something new and unique that will perpetuate its legacy.
Spring quarter registration is going on now, and classes start April 25! To find out more about the Institute and its programs, and to register: