Fifty years ago tomorrow, February 22, 1962, there gathered in St. Peter’s Basilica several thousand priests, seminarians (among them your humble servant), and religious, forty-one Cardinals, around a hundred bishops, members of the Roman Curia, the members of the Central Preparatory Commission, and many lay people. Pope John XXIII’s chief purpose in gathering such an imposing audience was to give the clergy an exhortation to prepare themselves and their people for the celebration of the Second Vatican Council whose opening had been announced for October 11, 1962. But this intention was overshadowed by what preceded it when Pope John signed the Apostolic Constitution Veterum sapientia, on the study and use of Latin in the education of priests. (The Latin text can be found here, an English translation here.)
This document, which was not mentioned in Pope John’s brief notes about the assembly in his diary, required that seminarians acquire a good knowledge of Latin and skill in using it before they began their philosophical and theological studies and that Latin be the language used in lectures and textbooks on those subjects. Bishops and superiors-general of religious orders were ordered also to “be on their guard lest anyone under their jurisdiction, eager for revolutionary changes, write against the use of Latin in the teaching of the higher sacred studies or in the Liturgy, or through prejudice make light of the Holy See’s will in this regard or interpret it falsely.”
Appearing only eight months before the Council was to open, Veterum sapientia was met with a good deal of anxiety, not only because its prescriptions dealt in advance with a matter on the conciliar agenda–the education of the clergy–, but also because it appeared also designed to settle the much-anticipated question, also on the agenda, of the use of vernacular languages in the liturgy. Some casuistic efforts were made to interpret the warning; e.g., it was only people “eager for revolutionary changes” who were warned against. In fact, of course, the document, elaborated in the Congregation for Universities and Seminaries, meant that speaking against Latin was itself a sign of “eagerness for revolutionary changes.”
As it turned out, Veterum sapientia quickly became a dead letter, and the Council dealt with liturgical languages and with clerical education in complete freedom.
For background to the document and larger questions about languages as they arose during the preparation of the Council, I have posted here the pages devoted to the issues in the first volume of the History of Vatican II. Languages and Veterum sapientia
In 1960 a rallying cry for Fidel Castro’s revolution was “Cuba si! Yanqui no!” Garry Wills was alluding to it when he made use of the first two words of Pope John XXIII’s first social encyclical to point up National Review’s critical take on the document: “Mater Si! Magistra No!”–a reaction that put the editors of America into a royal snit. A year later, the trope was utilized in Rome and elsewhere: “Veterum Si! Sapientia No!”