Passion for Latin Thrives in Rome

By Claudia Parsons

Wed Jul 21, 2004

So you thought that irksome language was dead?

ROME (Reuters) - Leah Whittington is an evangelist for a language most people consider dead, and she can tell you all about it in Cicero's native tongue.

"I urge all of you to bring the living, true language into your classrooms," she tells a Latin class at a summer school in Rome run by one of the Pope's Latin scribes.

A graduate of Father Reginald Foster's class of 1997, Whittington has come back to encourage the next generation with her tales of chatting in Latin to a class of 10-year-olds in the New York school where she teaches.

She is one of few people in the world who could talk to a class in Latin for 10 minutes and fluently answer questions about why American kids want to learn a language spoken 2,000 years ago on the other side of the world.

Latin teachers say interest in the ancient world is growing, boosted by the success of films such as "The Passion of the Christ," with much of its dialogue in Latin, and "Troy," an epic based on Homer's Iliad.

"What with 'Troy' and 'The Passion' and the Olympic Games in Athens, it's been a good year for classics," says Barbara Bell, head of classics at Clifton High School in Bristol, southwest England.

Bell is the author of a Latin text book for 7- to 10-year-olds based on a real family who lived in Roman Britain in AD 100. It is named after the household mouse Minimus.

It has sold over 53,000 copies since it was published in 1999, including 10,000 in the United States, and has been used as far afield as New Zealand, the Bahamas and Germany. An Italian edition is due to be published soon.

"In the '60s there was this great swing away from fundamental grammar," said Bell. "It didn't matter if children could spell or punctuate as long as they could be creative.

"Recently governments have become increasingly concerned that children are not expressing themselves, they don't read much, they just grunt their way through life.

"I got sponsorship for the book from the business community because they were concerned that even graduates couldn't write an application letter for a job," Bell said.


Foster's Latin summer school is aimed at school teachers, though many participants are graduate students and a few are seminarians training for the priesthood.

The 64-year-old Carmelite priest from Milwaukee has been teaching Latin at the Gregorian University in Rome for 27 years while also working for the Pope translating speeches and letters into Latin.

Foster first encountered Latin at the age of 13 when he entered a U.S. seminary. He is determined to teach it as a spoken language, using texts by authors like Plautus whose raucous comedies feature young men talking to prostitutes and barmen chatting with customers.

He encourages students to translate the day's newspapers into Latin and uses medieval Church Latin texts written in simpler language than the formal written speeches of Roman orator and politician Cicero.

While lauding Cicero as the greatest master of beautiful Latin, Foster says he would not have spoken using the complicated rules Latin students remember.

"You think Cicero would have spoken in fancy indirect speech -- the accusative and infinitive?" he asks the class. "Cicero's son would have said 'Papa, quiesce' -- 'Cool it'."

Despite his students' enthusiasm Foster is not optimistic about the language's future in the Catholic Church.

The Church used Latin as its common language until the Second Vatican Council in 1965 ruled that Mass could be celebrated in local languages.

Mel Gibson, director of "The Passion of the Christ," belongs to a group of Catholic traditionalists who want to reinstate the Latin Mass.

"The problem with Latin in the church is the polarization in the church," Foster says. "Some people say 'We want Latin because when we had Latin everything was wonderful.' That's a load of baloney."

Monsignor Arthur Calkins, an official in the Vatican's Pontifical Commission "Ecclesia Dei," said that contrary to popular belief Latin had not been abolished in 1965.

There is a daily Latin Mass at St Peter's and parts of other papal masses are also celebrated in Latin.

"I would say that by and large there is greater interest than there was 15 years ago but it would be an exaggeration to say most congregations want to return to Latin," Calkins said.

"There's a certain desire on the part of many younger people to learn about their patrimony and to find out what was so awful about the things that were gotten rid of."

------------------------------------------------------------------------ Copyright Reuters 2004. All rights reserved.

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