Priests today and Latin

I understand that nowadays some priests do not learn Latin at seminary, and others may have some courses in it but never become very fluent or are not interested. This doesn’t bother me, since priests nowadays can say Mass and read their breviary in the vernacular, and since St. John Vianney, the patron of parish priests, was reportedly a bad student of Latin (although since he would have had to, at minimum, say Mass and read his breviary in Latin, he was probably still light years ahead of the average priests today). I am sure a priest can still be a good priest without being a big Latin scholar.

However, I did wonder the following:

  • Do priests who study/ do well at Latin have an advantage for advancing within the priesthood to jobs with the Vatican or positions as bishops?

  • How do the priests who don’t study or don’t do well at Latin read Vatican documents in Latin? Do they always have to rely on the translated versions?

I wouldn’t call it “advancement” but yes to the first and not really to the second. Most bishops have done further studies of one kind or another and, certainly for studies in Rome, an adequate understanding of Latin is necessary.

Yes. The same is also true for documents available only in Italian (like the recent Note of the Apostolic Penitentiary on the importance of the internal forum and the inviolability of the sacramental seal). That said, most major documents - like Encyclicals, Exhortations, and Apostolic Letters are published from the outset in a variety of languages. This is particularly important for those countries where Latin teachers are hard to come by.


The 1983 Code of Canon Law has:

“Can. 249 The program of priestly formation is to provide that students not only are carefully taught their native language but also understand Latin well and have a suitable understanding of those foreign languages which seem necessary or useful for their formation or for the exercise of pastoral ministry.”

(From ).


Respected more in the breach than the observance, it would alas seem.

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Latin is the official language of the Latin Rite Catholic Church. A person who is working “in office” for the Church probably has a helpful gift if they know Latin.

And at the same time the Church has wisely recognized the need to communicate effectively with razor-like precision to the faithful. The Church is not the only voice claiming authority over our lives. Many wayward voices are whispering (and shouting) in the ears of the faithful, and the Church finds it necessary to communicate in the vernacular. That is wise (should be obvious).

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When I go to a Latin Mass, the priest (perhaps 50 or so years old), admitted that he had to brush up on his Latin to be able to say the Latin Mass. He’s been at it for about 5 years, and no one else seemed willing to step up, so good for him. However, his pronunciation at times makes my high school Latin-trained ears cringe. But he does his best.

Latin’s certainly not the lingua franca it once was. Remember that Newton wrote many (all?) of his works in Latin, and Gibbon debated with himself whether he should write his “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” in English or in Latin, and that was 1776 I think. British officers in India had a “code” they used to write to each other when they didn’t want the Indians to read their mail. They wrote to each other in Greek. But those days are long gone!

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As a matter of interest, Father, how about the other Biblical languages, Hebrew and Greek? A Hebrew teacher, who had had both Catholic and Protestant seminarians among his students, told me that none of his Catholic students had ever shown the slightest interest in the language; they were there to get their piece of paper saying they had completed the course, and that was all. Among the Protestants, in contrast, some of them, at least, were genuinely interested. Was this teacher’s experience normal, do you think, or would it be an exception to the rule?

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I remember reading that when one of them conquered the province of Sindh in present-day Pakistan, he sent a message to another officer using Latin as code. He wrote, “Peccavi” which means “I have sinned” (I have Sindh). Very clever.


This is a good question. I recently asked our parish priest if he could baptism my child in the extraordinary form and he was sad when he respond that he could not because he does not know Latin. I mean, it is basic reading from a book. I often wonder if there is so many resources and guides that are forever gone to priests that might be helpful in this day and age. My Latin is poor, But how would one get through the seminary without even an ability to recite from a book of the Church?

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In my Diocese, the new priests ( ordained since 2009) all know Latin and recite several of the prayers in the OF in Latin. We were blessed that many of these men went to North American Pontifical College for their seminary training as well as The Josephinum in Columbus, OH. They also chant the prayers.

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the young priests from the Josephinum have been amazing.

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We have one Latin Mass per month. It is celebrated by our senior curate who converted from the Church of England. Our Parish Priest and our other curate have no knowledge of Latin. Latin is supposed to be the language of the Church. In England and Wales it is fast disappearing.

It won’t disappear (unless we are closer to the Second Coming than we imagine). As others have noted, the younger priests are picking it up and they are the future of the Church.

It’s kind of sad in a way to be a 60-something Catholic in the Western World today --old enough to know what the liturgy was and the Church’s vast patrimony ranging from music to art to writings to devotions etc.–and yet to have spent decades with the current liturgy and a wholesale ‘purge’ which was replaced with some good and some really not good.

Really, there was no reason why, in the mid 1960s, the current Mass (known today as the EF) could not have stayed pretty much the same at the start, with a second Mass in which the Latin of the EF was rendered into the vernacular in a fairly literal translation much like today’s OF, with then over the course of many years a gradual development for EACH. . .that “OF” developing more of a dialogue/teaching style with more emphasis on ‘the word’ and the EF maintaining and developing more emphasis on the Eucharist, while both were enriched by components of the other --the “OF” getting more of diversity not from priestly ad libbing and made up practices but from elements of the EF whose devotions were more suited to a given parish or diocese, and the EF getting more Scripture from the increased passages made available in the OF. In either case, changes would have been small to start, would have developed organically, and would have resulted in far less friction and difficulty.

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My friend was ordained a year ago after studying in Rome. He was required to take one semester of Latin and one semester of Greek. He spent a lot more time learning Italian since that was the language for classes.

what?? is this true? @edward_george1 @CRM_Brother

From what I have read, some seminaries do not teach it or have limited lessons in it. In some countries there is likely a shortage of Latin teachers, as InthePew (who is also a priest) said. A priest wanting to pursue further studies in Latin would have to travel somewhere else to do that, but he might not have the means, or perhaps he is primarily interested in just serving the people in his home country and Latin is not something he needs on a daily basis since he can say Mass and the Divine Office in the vernacular.

It does surprise me because all the priests I have ever known knew Latin. But come to think of it, maybe they didn’t know it in depth.

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Yes. I agree. All Roman rite priests should know Latin. Priests of Eastern rites should know Greek as well as a slavonic language. . And depending on the area in which they are stationed, they should be fluent in at least the local language (too many to list here).

It is correct that Latin is not in the curriculum for most Theology seminaries in the United States. Nowadays, Latin is usually relegated to Philosophy seminaries and left at that since translations of the official Latin are so readily availible. In modern theology seminaries, Koine Greek is becoming more popular as a vehicle to carry the original meaning of the Scriptures from the Septuigint and original New Testament writings through the Latin of the Vulgate into modern vernacular.

I think it also depends on whether the priest received his undergraduate degree from the seminary or joined the seminary with a Bachelors.

Below is the academic requirements for St. Charles Borromeo in the Philadelphia suburbs.

Under their Pre-Theology website, they state the following minimum requirements from the USCCB:

The fifth addition of the Program of Priestly Formation (PPF) of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) specifies that a man satisfies 30 credit hours of philosophy and has a basis in Latin and Greek in addition to Spanish (6 hours of Latin, 6 hours of Greek, 6 hours of Spanish). Eighteen credit hours of theology are also recommended by the PPF. All of these credit hours are undergraduate credit hours.

For priests with a Bachelor’s degree, they take 2 UNDERGRADUATE classes (6 credits) at the 500 level in Latin:

  • Ecclesiastical Latin I
  • Ecclesiastical Latin II.

Here is their complete Pre-Theology academic curriculum (the two years before they start their Master in Divinity program during their Theological Seminary years):

However, for the seminarians who enter out of high school, they take 4 classes in Latin (12 credits) at the 100 and 200 levels.

Below is a link to their Undergrad, academic curriculum:

And in case anyone is interested, here are the academic curriculum for the Master in Divinity

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