Pope Francis speaks with Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle during the Synod on the Family at the Vatican in 2015. (Photo: AFP)
As Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle prepares to move to Rome and his new position as prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, he is likely to hear a chorus of advice regarding how he should do his job.
When he gets to Rome, he is even more likely to receive much advice of the “this is how we have always done things here” sort. That latter advice is likely to be given in Italian, the language of the Catholic Church’s central administration.
Before he starts getting that, I want to join the chorus with a few notes of advice in and about English.
Like anyone who writes opinion columns, I recognize that the intended recipient may never even see the advice, let alone take it. The only guaranteed reader for a columnist is his or her editor.
So, if a columnist writes in the forest and no one hears, does he or she make any noise? In any case, I shall attempt noise in the forest.
In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, all educated people in Europe not only read Latin but also spoke and wrote it. And that Latin they spoke, especially from the start of the Renaissance, was not the language of the ancient streets of Rome, the Latin used the in liturgy and by “all the prostitutes in Rome.” They spoke the Latin of Cicero and the other great figures of Latin prose, oratory and poetry. Erasmus of Rotterdam reportedly spoke Latin better than he did the Dutch of his homeland.
The talent pool available to the Latin-speaking Vatican administration was as wide as the Church in Europe, which was pretty much the entire Catholic Church of the time. Latin provided officials with access to news, views, ideas and personnel unlimited by geography.
Today, the language of the curia is Italian, which a Latin teacher at my seminary called "a corrupt provincial dialect of Latin" spoken almost exclusively in one small country of fewer than 61 million people. The talent pool that can work in that language is generally limited to Italians, non-Italians like Pope Francis who learned a bit from their emigrant parents and those who have learned the language as a career move in the restaurant, fashion, art or church businesses.
But the Catholic Church today is a worldwide community of more than one billion people of many cultures and tongues.
Major international organizations and businesses do have a language in which they conduct their affairs: English. The Catholic Church in East Asia as embodied in the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences is already English-speaking in its official activities. Should not the Catholic Church as a whole be likewise?
If the Vatican were once again to function in a global language as it did in the days of Latin, it could once again draw upon a world of talent, knowledge, information and experience without being limited to natives of one country or clerical careerists who learn the language of that country as a means to ecclesiastical advancement.
Any attempt to make English, the current universal language, the working language of the universal Church would likely be resisted by those who presently hold linguistic power. But the change is essential.
And so, Cardinal Tagle, my advice is this: start the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, popularly known by its former name of Propaganda Fide, on the path to being the first Vatican office to function in the world’s international language. After all, the work of the congregation is supposed to be directed toward the whole world.
The move, however, should be more than linguistic. It must eventually be geographic. A friend once commented that the curia should be relocated to the foot of an active volcano. "Every morning, they open their windows in Rome and look out at the Eternal City. No urgency."
A Church that claims to be global must globalize, and the department that assists the world mission should start that globalization. Like the United Nations, the curia must have major parts of its operations outside the headquarters in places where communications, international transportation and a global ethos make for efficiency and a broader vision.
There are places on every continent (except perhaps Antarctica until climate change thaws it) where church offices could function and have better contact with the realities that Catholics and others throughout the world face than those offices can have in Rome.
So, scatter the administrative offices of the worldwide Church across the world. If officials can be convinced to make use of modern communications tools, it is likely that the components of curial service will be better able to hear and speak to the world in a language or languages the world can understand.
Father Bill Grimm is the publisher of ucanews and is based in Tokyo, Japan. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of ucanews.