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Former Papal Latinist Dan Gallagher On Benedict XVI's Resignation

“Friends! Can’t you just hear it?” - Reginald Foster

February 28th marks the tenth anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation from the papacy, following his declaratio in Latin stating his intention seventeen days earlier. The event stands as history's most recent witness to the power of spoken Latin. This was partly due to the remarkable ability of Italian journalist Giovanna Chirri to understand what the pope was saying. But there is another reason. Let me explain.

I was working as a Latinist at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, having unworthily succeeded my predecessor and teacher, the late Fr. Reginald Foster, O.C.D., after his return to the United States. On the morning of the announcement, I was sitting at the same desk reading the same Ciceronian tome from which he had drawn his daily nourishment. It was the anniversary of the signing of the Lateran Treaty (i.e., the Vatican’s Independence Day) and therefore a holiday for the Roman Curia. While the other papal minions were out to play, Benedict ordered his Latin secretaries to stay, so we already had a hunch something was up.

Eyes glued to monitors, we were just as surprised as anyone when the pope made his announcement. All the more so since it was our job to either produce or review every Latin word the pope says, and yet we had never set eyes on this text. But there was good reason the pope never showed it to us. He wanted to avoid even the slightest risk of a leak. In hindsight, as surprising as the announcement was, there had been unmistakable signs he had been contemplating retirement for some time. But that’s another story.

In any case, after the announcement, the text was rushed into the hands of our beloved capo, Fr. Antonio Salvi, O.F.M. Cap., who, in turn, asked each of us to scan it for errors. Two peccadillos were immediately found, neither of which – contrary to outrageous claims still floating around the blogosphere – invalidated the pope’s resignation.

After those two minor errors were corrected, the text read thus:

Non solum propter tres canonizationes ad hoc Consistorium vos convocavi, sed etiam ut vobis decisionem magni momenti pro Ecclesiae vita communicem. Conscientia mea iterum atque iterum coram Deo explorata ad cognitionem certam perveni vires meas ingravescente aetate non iam aptas esse ad munus Petrinum aeque administrandum.

Bene conscius sum hoc munus secundum suam essentiam spiritualem non solum agendo et loquendo exsequi debere, sed non minus patiendo et orando. Attamen in mundo nostri temporis rapidis mutationibus subiecto et quaestionibus magni ponderis pro vita fidei perturbato ad navem Sancti Petri gubernandam et ad annuntiandum Evangelium etiam vigor quidam corporis et animae necessarius est, qui ultimis mensibus in me modo tali minuitur, ut incapacitatem meam ad ministerium mihi commissum bene administrandum agnoscere debeam. Quapropter bene conscius ponderis huius actus plena libertate declaro me ministerio Episcopi Romae, Successoris Sancti Petri, mihi per manus Cardinalium die 19 aprilis MMV commissum renuntiare ita ut a die 28 februarii MMXIII, hora 20, sedes Romae, sedes Sancti Petri vacet et Conclave ad eligendum novum Summum Pontificem ab his quibus competit convocandum esse.

Fratres carissimi, ex toto corde gratias ago vobis pro omni amore et labore, quo mecum pondus ministerii mei portastis et veniam peto pro omnibus defectibus meis. Nunc autem Sanctam Dei Ecclesiam curae Summi eius Pastoris, Domini nostri Iesu Christi confidimus sanctamque eius Matrem Mariam imploramus, ut patribus Cardinalibus in eligendo novo Summo Pontifice materna sua bonitate assistat. Quod ad me attinet etiam in futuro vita orationi dedicata Sanctae Ecclesiae Dei toto ex corde servire velim.

Did you see it? If you read slowly enough, perhaps you caught the error. But we were extremely rushed. Each of us returned to our respective cubiculum to hastily and – unfortunately – silently read the text again and again while the world waited with bated breath for a confirmation of what they thought they had heard. Unflappable, Fr. Salvi bade us do what we always did when “rushed”: brew some tea, sit back, close our eyes, and listen to him as he recited the text to us aloud.

It was then we caught the error immediately:

…ut incapacitatem meam ad ministerium mihi commissum bene administrandum agnoscere debeam. Quapropter bene conscius ponderis huius actus plena libertate declaro me ministerio Episcopi Romae, Successoris Sancti Petri, mihi per manus Cardinalium die 19 aprilis MMV commissum renuntiare ita ut…

It was simply a lack of agreement between noun and participle. What had escaped our eyes several times was caught immediately by our ears. You hear the ablative/dative ministerio and you are waiting and waiting for some resolution. What’s it doing in the sentence? How does it function? Then you hear commissum and you hear renuntiare and you grimace. It HURTS! Ministerio was changed to ministerium, and off the text went to the internet office for divulgation.

Why am I telling you this? Because it is just one more confirmation of the disservice – nay, damage – we do to our students by not requiring them to read aloud, speak aloud, and listen aloud. If we did, they would have been just as capable of hearing Benedict’s error as we were. Reginald Foster never finished a class or a reading session without the entire class reciting the entire passage together aloud. The difference between dicis and dices is just one letter on a page but a world of sound to the ear. Just yesterday, I graded a ludus domesticus in which my students had to “reverse” (i.e., change to the singular) "severiorum" in Catullus 5. All but one wrote "severii." And that one student, of course, had taken a conversational Latin course, so the pain of hearing his classmates’ error in class made him grimace no less than Foster did back in the day, and no less than we did that February 11th.

So, I really don’t think Foster would mind if I made a minor addition (in boldface) to principle 6 in the OSSIUM GLUTEN listed on page 3 of his Ossa Latinitatis Sola Ad Mentem Reginaldi Rationemque: “Read the entire sentence aloud, because you will not know what is where: the subject may be last, the object first.”

Back to February 2013. We later learned that the error was due to a previous draft of the declaratio in which the pope used the impersonal, passive form renuntiari rather than the active renuntiare. But the details of why he made that change are a matter of theology and canon law, both of which irked Foster, though not nearly as much as the lack of agreement between ministerio and commissum which he heard back in Milwaukee on a newscast. I can still hear the ten-second groan over the phone. He, of course, caught the error by ear only, having no need to see a written text … ever. I’m sure he’s up there praying our students can do the same someday.


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Daniel Gallagher

Daniel B. Gallagher is the Ralph and Jeanne Kanders Senior Lecturer in Latin at Cornell University.


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