Resurrecting the Not-Dead-Yet

Learning Latin in Rome Is Increasingly Popular

Rome, (Zenit.org) Elizabeth Lev | 2190 hits

"I'm not dead yet!" protests an old peasant in Monty Python's "Holy Grail" as he is about to be dumped on the cadaver cart. "In fact, I am feeling much better…"

The same could be said of the Latin language, oft pronounced defunct or in a state of advanced decomposition, but to anyone looking around Rome this summer, the prognosis of the ancient language of the Eternal City and of the Church is looking pretty positive.

Two Roman academies are resurrecting the native tongue of Cicero. The first, Vivarium Novum, was founded in Southern Italy in the 1980s but is now running a summer program in Rome. The other, Paideia Institute for Humanistic Study, was founded in the fall of 2010 by several of the alumni of Rome's most celebrated Latinist, Fr. Reginald Foster, who retired in that year. The summer Latin courses held by Fr Foster in the 1990s brought together an extraordinary group of men and women from all over the world to read, speak, tour and eat, always and exclusively in the Latin language.

Both academies are enjoying tremendous success after the institution of the Pontifical Academy for Latin created under Pope Benedict XVI, officially established through a Motu Proprio in 2012. The former Pontiff's own exceptional command of the language has been demonstrated time and time again, memorably in the off-the-cuff Latin homily he delivered in the Sistine chapel shortly after his election in 2005. He took everyone by surprise when he announced his resignation in Latin, undoubtedly watching to see how long it would take for those present to translate and understand those fateful words last February.

In his Motu Proprio, the Pope Emeritus pointed out that it "appears urgent to support the effort towards a better knowledge and more competent use of Latin language as much in the ecclesial ambit as in the wider world of culture." He called for teachers to "adopt didactic methods adequate to the new situation."

Both of these academies have taken steps to ensure that Classical languages remain alive and kicking … quite literally. At Vivarium Novum, students play soccer in Latin, the very definition of "mens sana in corpore sano" … How do you say "offsides" in Latin, I wonder?

Both academies take advantage of the evocative setting of the Eternal City for the study of Latin, whether sitting on the Via Appia amid the tombs of the great Roman generals to read Latin histories or by the ara pacis of Augustus to discuss Virgil or studying St Jerome on the Aventine Hill. These schools allow the past and present to merge in the rich history of Rome.

The full immersion approach has proven very successful and over the five or eight weeks of classes students become comfortable with using the language and thinking in Latin. The benefits are many: one understands Romance languages better and has a deeper level of understanding of the words we use in our own tongue.

I spoke to one of the founders of the Paideia Institute, Professor Eric Hewett, an exceptional young man from Philadelphia. He got interested in Sanskrit while studying as an undergraduate at Rice University and then went on to learn German, French, Spanish, Basque, Italian, and Latin. He told me he reads Ancient Greek, but hasn't mastered speaking it yet.

I asked him about where he got the idea to found this institute. He explained that it was "in 2010, in the wake of Fr. Foster's definitive retirement after offering a summer introduction to spoken Latin in Rome for Americans for about 20 years. We founded the Institute to carry on this work."

I asked if it was tied to the Vatican Academy and Professor Hewett told me that "this is not a specifically Catholic institution – I am Catholic but my co-founder is not – but it is one dedicated to promoting humanistic education. Naturally I am pleased to see the creation of the Pontifical Academy, a sign of the Holy Father's benevolent intentions toward the Latin language within the Church."

However, as a Latin professor, Hewitt does not see entirely eye to eye with the president of the Pontifical Academy. "From his inaugural speech, it seems that the President, Prof. Dionigi, does not agree with our pedagogical approach. His remarks about an 'obsessive search for roots' seems to indicate a concern that spoken Latin is part of some kind of radical traditionalist Catholic fringe movement." But nor does Hewett think that this is the opinion of the entire Academy as he is quick to point out, "some members of the Academy are key figures in the spoken Latin movement, notably Luigi Miraglia, founder and director of Vivarium Novum."

By contrast, Hewett explained that his institute "treats Latin as if it were a living language. By speaking Latin with our students and encouraging and teaching them to speak it, we force them to engage the primary and active faculties of language. Once they can produce the structures of the language correctly, the secondary faculties of reading and writing come far more easily." 

Hewett also introduces a refreshing flash of humor to what might seem like dreary hours of study. "Although the teaching method is obviously somewhat artificial, since none of us are native speakers of Latin," Hewett observes, "in my extensive experience teaching modern languages, I've seen that a playful attitude and a willingness to look ridiculous are actually prerequisites for mastering a spoken language. The students who aren't willing to take risks, make mistakes, and sometimes look a little silly never progress past a certain point."

What is the final goal of all this work and application? Hewett believes that "language is the key which opens a chest full of treasures which have been accumulated over centuries. The fact that a language is no longer spoken by native speakers does not affect these good things in any way. It is a fact of history that the great river of our civilization has flowed for almost the entire history of its existence through two great channels, Greek and Latin. They are the languages of our own cultural and intellectual ancestors, whose thoughts and emotions have formed our own. Without them, we cannot know or understand ourselves."

The Paideia Institute for Humanistic Study has been a tremendous success. From its first summer course with 17 students and two teachers in 2011, it grew in 2012 to three courses, eight teachers, three assistant teachers and 65 students. In 2013 Paideia offered six courses, welcomed 125 students with 20 staff to participate.

Many of the students come from the most prestigious universities in the United States, such as Harvard, Princeton, UVA, Oberlin, Berkeley, and Stanford.

This rediscovery of our tradition, our history and the immense body of culture that the West has accumulated over the millennia is anything but a dead weight on the modern era. Seeing the eager faces of these young students, awed by the cave of wonders that Latin opens, it is clear that the past can energize the present.

No, Latin is certainly not dead and, well, dum vita est spes est (where there's life, there's hope!).

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University's Italian campus and University of St. Thomas' Catholic Studies program. A new paperback version of her book, "The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy's Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de' Medici" was published by Harcourt, Mifflin Houghton Press last Fall.  She can be reached at lizlev@fastwebnet.it.