On this day in the year 2013, Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation of the Papacy went into effect, the first such resignation since the year 1415. He had declared his intention to resign more than two weeks earlier, on February 11th, during a public consistory planned to announce the canonizations of various Saints. As was only appropriate for an event of such importance for the Church, his address was delivered in Latin. The Italian journalist who broke the news, Giovanna Chirri, a reporter for the Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata (ANSA: “National Associated Press Agency”), understood the announcement and was able to immediately break the news to the world, because she was an alumna of the Italian classical high-school system, and knew Latin quite well.

The previous year had seen the 50th anniversary of St John XXIII’s Veterum Sapientia, on the promotion of the Latin language. That year, however, February 22nd, the date of its original promulgation, and the feast of St Peter’s Chair fell on Ash Wednesday, and so it was not publicly commemorated on the day itself. Instead, the Pope waited until November 10th, the feast of Pope St Leo the Great, one of the finest Latin writers among the Church Fathers, to issue a motu proprio titled Latina Lingua, with the same aim as his predecessor’s Apostolic Constitution.

A motu proprio is a legal enactment issued by the Pope “of his own initiative”, as opposed to one that comes from consultation with the various departments of the Roman Curia. In this case, its purpose was to replace an older foundation known as “Latinitas” with a new “Pontifical Academy for Latin”, and much of the text is taken up with the statutes of the new academy. Among these, we may note particularly that, following the lead of Veterum Sapientia, the aims of the Academy are defined as the encouragement of the study of every period, particularly in those Catholic institutions geared to the formation of seminarians and priests. It is also to promote Latin “both as a written and as a spoken language (our emphasis),” and therefore, not merely as a useful tool for study, but as a living means of communication that brings the members of the Church from every background together.

For our purposes, however, the introductory part of the motu proprio is much more interesting, as an official restatement of the Church’s commitment to the promotion of Latin.

His Holiness recognizes the providential role that Latin played, (alongside Greek, of course), in the spreading of the Gospel within the Roman Empire, and continued to play after its fall, as the principal language of theology and liturgy in the West. But this is not a fact of the dead past. “In our time too, knowledge of the Latin language and culture is proving to be more necessary than ever for the study of the sources, (from) which, among others, numerous ecclesiastical disciplines draw from, such as, for example, theology, liturgy, patristics, and canon draw…” The use of a universal language highlights “the Church’s universal character”, which is why all of her most important acts have their “authentic form” in Latin.

“It therefore appears urgently necessary to support the commitment to a greater knowledge and more competent use of Latin, both in the ecclesial context and in the broader world of culture.” And it is to respond to this necessity that the Pope by this motu proprio establishes the new academy.

His Holiness Pope (now Emeritus) Benedict XVI, during his Apostolic visit to Brazil in May of 2007. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Agência BrasilCC BY 3.0 BR)