Learn Latin, says Pope Francis: Here are 7 words and phrases to make you look smart

Pope Francis this week urged the study of Latin for young people, encouraging scholars to promote it as a trusty tool in navigating life, according to Catholic News Agency.

In an address to the Pontifical Academies, he said, teachers should 'know how to speak to the hearts of the young, know how to treasure the very rich heritage of the Latin tradition to educate them in the path of life, and accompany them along paths rich in hope and confidence...'

PixabayThe Latin version of the Bible.

Though a dead language, Latin lies at the origin of many modern tongues. For centuries the only access Christians had to Scripture was through a Latin translation, the Vulgate. Many wise idioms, famous sayings, verses of Scripture or pious prayers have been immortalised in Latin. Here are seven Latin phrases that might still be useful. 

1. Nunc Dimittis

This phrase means 'now you dismiss' – and quotes the song of Simeon from the Gospel of Luke (2:29-32). In Simeon's words: 'Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation...'

Simeon's song has been carried over into High-Church Christian liturgy such as Compline, Vespers and Evensong – with Nunc Dimittis as its title. More broadly, the phrase connotes a reverence and a finality, a sense of 'enough now'. The famed saxophonist John Coltrane used the simple words at the close of an impressive jazz performance, A Love Supreme.

2. Vox Populi, Vox Dei

It means 'the voice of the people is the voice of God'. The phrase may go back to the 8th century though it gained particular fame in the context of 18th century Whig politics. It can be used approvingly or disapprovingly, but is suggestive of the idea that democracy represents a kind of divine assent, if only figuratively; ie the voice of the people – not a king or dictator – is the ultimate authority in a society. It's actually behind much of the rhetoric backing Britain's vote to leave the EU.  

3. Pie Jesu

'Pie Jesu' derives from a Requiem Mass hymn titled Dies Irae ('day of wrath'), and it means 'pious Jesus'. The most famous line, 'Pie Jesu Domine, Dona eis requiem' means 'Pious Lord Jesus, Give them rest.' A popular version of it by Andrew Lloyd Webber combined the hymn with the Mass chant 'Agnus Dei' – which means 'Lamb of God' - quoting John the Baptist's famous description of Jesus 'who takes away the sins of the world' in John 1:29.

4. Reductio ad Absurdum

This 'reduction to absurdity' refers to a form of argument that dismantles the opposition by showing how the logic, properly followed, leads to an absurd conclusion. It is a valid form of argument that can expose other fallacies, though improperly used it can in itself also be an example of logical fallacy. Drastically taking an argument to a ridiculous conclusion or context doesn't necessarily diminish its actual validity.

5. Via Media

Via Media means 'middle-of-the-road'; the maxim celebrates moderation, compromise and balance in life over taking polarised or extreme positions. It has been used to describe Anglican theology as a 'way-between' the more dramatic positions of radical Protestant reformers can Catholics. It originates from the wisdom of Aristotle, who implored his students to reject extremes of excess and deficiency, seeking a 'golden mean' between the two instead. In our polarised age both inside Church and beyond it,  it's a worthy phrase that would benefit many to learn.

6. Creatio ex nihilo

Use this one to impress the crowds in any theological debate. It means 'Creation out-of-nothing', and refers to the dominant Orthodox Christian belief that God created the world from 'nothing' – he did not rely on pre-existing matter, nor did he, as some argue, make creation out of himself, so that creation is the very substance of God, as a Pantheist would probably say. Rather God's power is such that he speaks the world into existence ex nihilo; the universe is dependent on God, but also distinct from him in essence. A logical, Orthodox theology of creation is actually quite tricky to work out – but this phrase will at least make you look good.

7. Carpe Diem

This may be the most cliché and oft-used of Latin aphorisms. It means 'seize the day'. Like Via Media, it is more commonly found amongst the easy going and optimistic. Carpe Diem is an invitation to grasp what life offers in the moment rather than retreat to familiar safety. The phrase belongs to the Roman poet Horace, and the rest of the quote reads: quam minimum credula postero, meaning 'put very little trust in tomorrow'. It's wisdom that Jesus ('so do not worry about tomorrow') and his brother James (James 4:13-17) would echo only a few decades after Horace.

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