One Means of Experiencing the Church’s Transcendence

By John Byron Kuhner

A group of Latinists, both lay and religious, have started a new Latin institute to share the riches of the Church’s Latin and Greek past. Some weeks ago, I received an email from Eric Hewett, former Executive Director of the Paideia Institute, announcing the founding of the Veterum Sapientia Institute (VSI), an independently operated organization — it is not run by the Church, but it does enjoy Church approval (Cardinal Raymond Burke among others has written about it) — offering Ecclesiastical Latin and Greek classes. 

In some ways this represents another spiritual descendant of the work of Fr. Reginald Foster, the legendary Vatican Latinist, who inspired the people most prominently involved with VSI. Its genesis was as follows: in 2012, Jason Barone, then in his final year of seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, heard about Biduum Virginianum, a Latin program run by the Latin organization SALVI. During this program a group of about 30 people spend a weekend together entirely in Latin: they eat, play games, take classes, and lounge around a large house where everyone speaks Latin the entire time. Barone was hooked. He came back to Biduum a second year, as an ordained priest, with a group of seminarians, and came also to Rusticatio, a weeklong experience of a similar nature. Afterwards, he said to Nancy Llewellyn, a Foster alum, Catholic convert, and the driving force behind Rusticatio, “We have to have this for priests.” 

Above, Dr. Nancy Llewellyn, a cofounder and codirector of the newly formed Veterum Sapientia Institute, addresses those gathered Nov. 22 at the Allen Center at St. Ann Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, to announce the institute’s launch. (Photo provided by Markus Kuncoro)

Below left, Fr. Jason Barone.  Below right, the late Fr. Reginald Foster, the legendary Vatican Latinist, who inspired the people most prominently involved with the new Institute. Foster died on Christmas Day, 2020 

By 2013 the first Veterum Sapientia event was held, taught by Llewellyn, Dan Gallagher (of the Vatican Latin office and now a professor at Cornell University), and headlined by Foster himself. Participants spent a week together, speaking Latin and reading Church Latin. The event was open to both clerics and laity, in part because they were unsure how many people would want to attend, in part because Foster did not want special treatment just for priests. The response from priests was tepid — there were about half a dozen there — and overwhelming from the laity. “We had about 50 lay people who wanted to do it,” Llewellyn remembers, “but not so many priests or religious.” Foster was not involved the following year — his health was fragile, and he made no secret of the fact that he did not like being around so many conservatives (Foster is in many respects a theological liberal). But Llewellyn was not the sort to put politics before Latin. She and Barone continued the following year: “And really,” Llewellyn adds, “the original concept was that we wanted to do this for priests and religious only. And that concept had never been tried. I think it needed to be for the religious only, because many religious I think are a bit embarrassed by the fact that they have so little familiarity with Latin. And that’s not their fault: they’ve been given very little in their seminaries, a fact which I will note is in direct contradiction to the will of our Holy Father St. John XXIII in his apostolic constitution Veterum Sapientia.”

The 2014 clerics-only version of the weeklong class was a success, and it continued. In 2019 a separate week for the laity was added, called Vinculum. In 2020 a further event as added called Ab Initio, a five-day jumpstart program for people with no Latin. In the meantime the founders have put in the time doing the legal legwork for the new institute and designing a series of online classes. A glance at their initial offerings is exciting: this is a well-thought out program focusing on essential Latin (and Greek) in the Church context.

Llewellyn is teaching two beginning Latin courses, one just for religious and a second omnibus (Latin meaning “for all”) course. Fr. Barone is teaching a course on the ordinary and extraordinary form of the Mass (because the ordinary form is in Latin too) for clergy; John Pepino (a professor at the seminary of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Denton, Nebraska) teaches an omnibus session on the Mass as well. There is also beginning Greek, taught by Jonathan Arrington. There are Patristics courses, on St. Augustine in Latin and The Desert Fathers in Greek; two courses on Aquinas; and a course on canon law. 

This is the kind of education in the rich heritage of the Church which St. John XXIII laid out in his Veterum Sapientia (“wisdom of the ancients”). John XXIII is generally touted as one of the Church’s liberals, but regardless of his politics his position on the importance of Latin for the Church is not in doubt. In Veterum Sapientia he wrote, Nos quoque firma voluntate enitimur, ut huius linguae, in suam dignitatem restitutae, studium cultusque etiam atque etiam provehatur. “We also strive with firm will to promote again and again the appreciation and cultivation of this language, restored to its proper dignity.”

He lays out certain Church laws such as refusing the priesthood to people who do not know Latin and requiring that philosophy and theology classes in seminaries be taught in Latin. To make sure his point was taken, he brought the handwritten document to St. Peter’s Basilica for the feast-day of the Chair of St. Peter and signed it on the high altar in front of an audience of thousands. And the document is a constitutio apostolica, the most solemn form of papal pronouncement — no mere encyclical or exhortation. To this day, canon law insists that all priests know Latin “well” — a law most assuredly now honored more in the breach than the observance. 

St. Augustine at His Mother’s Death by Benozzo Gozzoli, (1465), St. Augustine Church, San Gimignano, Italy

And beyond the question of papal will and Church law, for two generations most Catholics have lost the joy of their own tradition. Some of my most glorious memories in Reginald Foster’s classes were reading Ecclesiastical authors: St. Bernard (“This will make you WEEP, friends!” Reginaldus would say), Eloise (who became a great abbess), St. Leo Magnus. We would take trips out to Rocca Secca to read about the birth of St. Thomas Aquinas and to Ostia, the place where St. Monica, St. Augustine’s mother, died. Sitting near where St. Monica breathed her last, reading St. Augustine’s words describing how he ran into the garden, blinded by his tears, or how the two saints discussed what heaven might be like during St. Monica’s final days — this makes the centuries peel away, and gives the believer an actual experience of a Church community that transcends time and death.

We know that the Church is transcendent; but what changes people, what motivates people, is an experience of that truth. Latin is one of the means to that end. And now we have an institute to help us secure that kind of experience. In multos annos, amici linguae Latinae.

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