Msgr. Daniel Gallagher

Msgr. Daniel Gallagher

October 15, 2012

When Msgr. Daniel Gallagher was a microbiology major at the University of Michigan, his growing curiosity about the "deep questions" led the pre-med student to take philosophy and other humanities courses on the side.

By the time he graduated, he had discerned his vocation to the priesthood. He had also discovered the appeal of Latin.

"I had this thirst both for the language and what it conveyed, meaning the whole tradition of the West," he said.

Today, at age 42, Gallagher is able to follow both of his callings as part of a seven-man team in the Vatican's Office of Latin Letters, which translates the most important Vatican documents into the Church's official language.

Among other challenges, his job entails concocting Latin words for modern inventions, such as "discus rigidus" for "hard drive" or "aerinavis celerrima" for "jet."

When Catholics pray in Latin, he said, "we put ourselves in a whole family of tradition," experiencing some of the same feelings as our ancestors in faith when they sang or recited the same words.

Making a modern language the lingua franca of the Church would also undermine the unity of Catholics today, he argues, by privileging one part of the universal Church over others.

Latin is "everybody's language and nobody's language," Gallagher said. "No single race or ethnicity possesses" it.

Of course, Latin is now a much smaller part of the Church's life than in the past. Its eclipse in Catholic worship, education and governance was one of the many modernizing changes that followed the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council.

"Perhaps people associated (Latin) with a certain rigidity in the Church, the Church wasn't flexible and needed to be updated," said Gallagher, acknowledging that the "Church really needed to connect to the world" at that time.

"But the changes happened so fast that people didn't realize what was being tossed out," he said.


Thus, half a century later, "young people are experiencing a dryness at not being able to connect to what preceded us, both ecclesiastically but also simply historically in the West."

Gallagher said the Church has "hit bottom" in terms of Latin knowledge among clergy, and the trend is now steadily upward. A quarter century ago, most seminaries were offering hardly any Latin instruction, he said; but in the past 10 years, future priests have shown a "tremendous increase" in the desire to learn the language.

Pope Benedict's decision to lift most restrictions on the traditional Latin Mass in 2007 certainly helped "spark interest" in liturgical use of the language, Gallagher said. But the current movement in the Church is part of an even wider trend, reflected in the resurgent popularity of Latin classes at secular universities.

"Young people . . . are searching to understand who they are and where they've come from, and themselves choosing to take Latin," he said.


That development offers a momentous opportunity for service, Gallagher said.

As the primary custodian of Latin in the centuries since it ceased to be Europe's language of literature, law and scholarship, the Catholic Church is singularly well positioned to help others restore the linchpin that once held together a now-fragmented Western culture.

To that end, the Holy See is considering a plan for a Pontifical Latin Academy, which would promote the study of Latin.

The academy would inevitably bring the Vatican into contact with non-Catholics, including atheists and agnostics, who share its interest in the classical heritage, Gallagher noted.

In Gallagher's view, nothing could be more fitting.

Today's de-Christianized European culture "grew out of a culture that was imbued with Latinity," he said.

"So part of re-evangelizing that culture has to reconnect (Europeans) with Latinity in its large sense, not just the language but the whole human tradition in which the Christian message was presented 1,500 years ago."