Latin, the Living Language of the Church

Author: Marion Smedberg


Marion Smedberg

Marion Smedberg lives in Sterling, Virginia.

As Catholic homeschoolers, we have as our goal nothing less than to try to pass along to our children the Faith and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church-in short, to keep Catholicism alive. And yet, dear Lord, we are so unprepared for such a task. As Father Hardon so pointedly emphasized at our first national conference, we must first educate ourselves in the Faith.

But Latin? How important is it to teach our children Latin?

Even the language that we speak with is under attack by the modernists. "And He was made Man..." No longer do we genuflect. But that insult is not enough. Now, the "inclusive language" people would rob our very language of its meaning. I am told that I am excluded by the language from mankind because I am female. Surely it is not the language which excludes me, but the very people who pretend to wish to protect me from exclusion.

And yet, we communicate ideas about our Faith through words. And our very words are in danger of being robbed of their true meaning. How can the true Faith survive?

Exactly the importance of Latin! G.K Chesterton responded to the idea that Latin is a "dead" language: "Every living language is a dying language, even if it does not die. Parts of it are perpetually perishing or changing their sense; there is only one escape from that flux; and a language must die to be immortal."

I was blessed to grow up with the Latin Mass, and to sing the old Latin hymns in Glee Club. In elementary school we learned Gregorian chant by heart for the Easter and Christmas Masses; we learned it so well I could still sing it by heart 20 years later. I only took two years of Latin in high school, enough to gain a much stronger sense of grammar and to appreciate the Latin roots of English. And it laid the basis to be able to learn French, German, and a little of some other languages later.

When we started homeschooling four years ago, I began to teach my oldest son (then 11) Latin using the Henle series available from both Seton Home Study and Our Lady of the Rosary. Certainly it is an adequate text, based on teaching grammar and translating sentences. But there are no easy readings separate from the translation exercises.

Last summer, I was inspired to offer to teach Latin to the elementary-age children in our local Catholic support group, on the condition that their mothers would also attend the classes and take primary responsibility for teaching their own children. Naively, I assumed that it would be fairly easy to find a suitable text for younger children. After spending most of the summer reviewing Latin texts, I was perplexed. Each text had its strengths, but also its glaring weaknesses, and it seemed I had to make a choice among unsatisfactory alternatives. At some point I would like to share with you my insight into the deficiencies of some of those texts, but in this first report I wish to share my own partial approach to a solution.

What I found most offensive about almost all of the texts was the immersion of the children in pagan culture. Either you must learn the myths of Roman gods and goddesses, or you must explore life in the Roman Empire, or learn sayings of the Roman philosophers, or learn military terminology so that you can read Caesar. Not exactly a Catholic education.

I wanted a curriculum which combines a respectful attitude toward grammar, a logical progression of skills development, and lots of chances to read easy Latin. Each week, we have tried to have four parts to our Latin program:

1. Latin hymns or prayers;
2. English grammar, parts of speech and diagraming sentences;
3. Latin grammar and reading;
4. English vocabulary from Latin roots and derivatives.

Each week, I prepare a short tape recording of the Latin hymns or prayers, or memory chants of grammar, or read short passages aloud. The families are to sing or read along at home several times each week. This has been the most successful part of the class.

The children have learned to sing some parts of the Mass in Gregorian chant — the Agnus Dei, Kyrie and Gloria. They have learned the Sign of the Cross, the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be in Latin by heart. We wrote and performed a Nativity play with many Latin hymns and carols, letting all the littler brothers and sisters join us as angels and shepherds. For Lent, we are learning parts of the Stabat Mater (At the Cross Her Station Keeping).

Even if a Latin course tries to approach learning from the "Natural Method," it is still necessary to have a vocabulary of grammar to explain the otherwise-unexplainable. We have learned the eight parts of speech in English, and are practicing identifying them in sentences each week. We have learned diagramming in English, thereby making the diagram a visual tool to identify subject, verb, direct object, etc., even in Latin. The progress of the children, ranging in age from 8 to 11, is uneven. The older children grasp these ideas much more easily, and the younger ones need a lot of help and patient reteaching.

But every child, every single one, and every mother learned the Pater Noster by heart. And we can all truly pray a decade of the Rosary together in Latin. I believe it has drawn us all closer to the Church by coming to know and love and sing traditional hymns and parts of the Latin liturgy.

For the Latin grammar and reading part of our work, we have made up some of our own things, borrowed and copied from old out-of-print texts, and are experimenting with several possible texts which we might use next year. I deeply regret that there is not one really good text which I can wholeheartedly recommend. But I will write more about the good points and limitations of some of the texts which are available.

I would like to see others of you who have a little background in Latin and in grammar to share in this work of trying to prepare at least supplemental Catholic materials for others. Perhaps if we add Catholic prayers, hymns and dialogues and simple Bible stories to an otherwise-secular Latin program, it can become more nearly acceptable. I would love to hear from all of you who have used Latin texts what your experience with those texts has been — their advantages and disadvantages.

The materials which I have developed are not yet really appropriate for a mother who has a weak grammar or Latin background. Perhaps some day we can create such a program through our collaboration. For now, if you would like to see or use my materials, especially the audio tapes or the video we made of our Nativity play, I would be happy to share them with you if you will help me cover the ridiculously inefficient production costs:

I am going to allow homeschooling mothers the right to copy these tapes and lessons for the children or groups they are personally teaching-as long as they are making no profit.

I look forward to hearing from many of you about how you have tried to teach Latin to your children. Please write, and God bless you.

Marion Smedberg
209 E. Staunton Avenue
Sterling, VA 20164

Taken from:
The Pentecost 1994 issue of
The Catholic Home Educator

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