The Language of Tradition
At the very edges of the culture you sometimes hear about how tradition is coming back. You hear how the John Paul II generation is coming into the seminaries, the monasteries, the parishes. You hear about how the Traditional Latin Mass is starting to pop up where you least expect it. You hear about how certain trends in architecture, literature and art are looking back to the great methods and styles of the past.
That’s not to say that the values of the past are returning to the popular culture. Two minutes on any television channel—or a peek at the poll numbers on just about any issue—tell you that Western Civilization is not only dying, it is cold to the touch. But somehow there is a warm whisper in the air saying that the popular culture that came along and changed everything is itself subject to the winds of change.
Nowadays the authority figures—professors, politicians, newsmakers, teachers, presidents—are creatures of a generation that sought to break the mold, to dismantle the system of hypocrisies they perceived and so disdained growing up, to build an amoral world where judgment in general was shunned. And, much to our peril, in so many ways they succeeded. Family no longer means what it did, marriage no longer means what it did, spirituality no longer means what it did. But precisely by their being the authorities, they have opened a space for a new kind of rebelliousness: That born of tradition.
The world, after all, offers only ego. As many trends and causes and “spiritialities” as a person may chase after, until they are willing to put God above themselves, above everything else in this world, all the paths will simply lead back to themselves.
The modern world, in that way, is a smaller, more confining place. Truth, once grand and glorious, has been corralled into being personal—something within you alone that need not apply to the world at large. All the miracles, mysteries and blessings in this world either need to be explained by the science of this very moment or they cannot exist. And the public debate is itself smaller, theology is an uncomfortable subject best not brought up in the public square. Everything is a shadow of its former self, and the trivial flourishes. The grand and true has been chased forcibly to the sides to make way for the small and personal.
The reason that the great traditions cannot be stamped out, however, is that they are glorious and universal–they cannot be confined. A generation, an ideology, a political environment hostile to them is simply not enough to get around their edges and box them in. They will come back, and we can see a bit of that if we care to look for it.
For much of the last two millenia the great truths were kept, told and explored in Latin. Peter and Paul died in Rome and the Church grew there. Iraneus, Teurtulian and Ignatius wrote about it. Jerome wrote the Vulgate Bible in Latin for the masses. Emperor Constantine adopted the faith. St. Augustine, St. Patrick, St. Thomas Aquinas and so many saints, thinkers, officials and leaders of the Church took Latin as their own. But, just as technology was making the world an easier place to get around, and an easier place to communicate vast distances, society was letting go of those traditions, becoming “post-Christian,” embracing ego in all its forms. And, about the same time our society began letting go of its traditions, it let go of Latin. Coincidence? Perhaps.
Latin is, after all, ancient. It is universal in that much of the world spoke it. It is a direct connection to the great traditions. It is the living language of the Roman Catholic Church: The terminology of the liturgy was revised in 2011 so that it would more fully comport with the Latin; Lumen Fidei, released by Pope Francis in July, like all encyclicals, is in Latin, with all other versions being translations; the original of the Canon Law is in Latin; and the Traditional Latin Mass is on its way back. It is a part of the grand and true shining around the corners of the walls those who oppose them are pushing so hard on to box them in.
In short, Latin is a part of something that is the opposite of the modern popular culture. It is a part of what was chased out in recent generations to make room for the small and personal, to give the ego more space to make believe that it is everything there is. It is hard work, wired directly into nearly two millenia of exploration into, and explanation of, what is wise and true. It was the language of our civilization, before it died.
Still, there are those who know all of this, and a growing number who will. They are the young adults peering curiously into missals at the Latin Mass. They are the wise in heart who knowingly reject the idea that what is true depends who you’re asking, and looking for confirmation from others. They are the people raised by the culture who somehow know that things are not right, watching in discomfort as the society feeds on the principles that have always held it together.
Latin is not truly dead because it is the opposite of all of this, the opposite of the popular culture, the opposite of the uninspired, confining world that seems to surround us. It is a link, as solid as steel, to the past, to the great saints, to the wisdom of the ages, which is all still within reach. Latin represents a subtle act of rebellion against a civilization that has cut that link and floats adrift in a sea of unchecked ego. There is no reason to learn Latin that this world would recognize.
And that, alone, may be reason enough.