CHICAGO TRIBUNE: Father Zachman's revenge

The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Friday, July 6:

We mused once before on this page about Father Carl Zachman. He was a collegiate baseball star - a muscular little catcher. But he rejected a pro contract to join the Jesuits and teach Latin into old age at a high school in Wisconsin. He strolled the aisles of his classroom back to front, cassock dusting the floor, textbook held prayerfully. Answer his question correctly - "Mr. Moran, the plural?" - and he'd move on approvingly. Get it wrong and he'd crack the book on your skull.

Father Zachman firmly believed that the wisdom of bosses can be vastly overrated. Nothing confirmed his suspicion more than the decision of Roman Catholic Church leaders, during their Second Vatican Council of 1962-65, to greatly restrict the use of Latin in Catholic services. Celebrating Mass in local languages, he would argue, undercut the universality of a faith whose liturgy had been virtually identical worldwide - 1 billion believers murmuring the same prayers in one, shared tongue.

Mostly, though, he was heartbroken over his bosses' show of disrespect to such a precise and dignified language. Latin hasn't been spoken secularly since the early 1500s. Yet to this day it shapes the vernaculars of science, law and government, as well as many of the world's modern languages. If this editorial is typical of English usage, half of its words are rooted in Latin.

Father Zachman died in 1977 at age 82. Would that he could celebrate - and who's to say he can't? - the decision of Pope Benedict XVI to relax the restriction on celebrating Mass in Latin. The pope discussed his decision with other church leaders last week, and the Vatican says he'll formally announce it any day now.

Pope Benedict has long admired the so-called Tridentine rite that his church had used since the 16th century. He's been incorporating Latin into masses at St. Peter's Basilica. And in a recent document he urged seminarians and lay Catholics alike to learn Latin prayers.

That's his business: This page generally doesn't opine on the beliefs or practices of organized religions, provided those internal matters don't affect the public realm. Suffice it to report that some Catholics see wider use of Latin as a return to more respectful and contemplative worship. Others, though, fear that it portends an official distancing from the essentially liberalizing changes of the Second Vatican Council.

What it unarguably portends is at least some familiarity with Latin among hundreds of millions of people who've heard only snippets - a Dominus here, a persona non grata there.

The pope's forthcoming statement likely will articulate how broad, or narrow, he expects the use of Latin to be. In recent decades, priests have needed to obtain permission from the local bishop to conduct Mass in Latin. Most haven't bothered. These dispensations are called indults - a term, Webster's attests, drawn from the Ecclesiastical Medieval Latin word indultum, from earlier Latin for indulgence or favor.

But does anyone care? Well, some among us studied Latin for years, and boast the SAT scores or biology doctorates to prove it. Others among us missed the point, and didn't get past making sophomoric language puns ("Semper ubi sub-ubi !" - "Always where under-where!").

A papal edict will encourage at least some of those 1 billion Catholics to learn elements of a splendid language mistakenly given up for dead. Somewhere, Father Zachman smiles.