Laetare means “rejoice” in Latin. Last weekend the Catholic Church celebrated Laetare Sunday, the 4th Sunday of Lent. It’s meant as a small, brief respite from the sacrifices of Lent. If you’re off booze, chocolate or crisps, you could take the day off, indulge yourself a little.
Two things came to mind while hearing a homily about Laetare Sunday. The first was a realization that, after all these decades of attending mass fairly regularly, I had no memory of the word. The second was recognizing how few Latin words I know, and the reasons for that.
Although the word “Laetare” wasn’t familiar to me last weekend the concept was. During Lent priests wear vestments of purple (or violet), the colour of penitence and preparation. On the 4th Sunday their robes are rose (which looks remarkably similar to pink) to suggest a lighter tone. The same thing happens in Advent. The purple (or violet) robes are replaced on Gaudete Sunday (the 3rd Sunday of Advent) with rose vestments. “Gaudete” also means “rejoice” and I am much more familiar with this word thanks to the 1970s hit of the same name by folk group Steeleye Span. It reached #14 in the winter of 1973/74 and features the words “Gaudete, Gaudete, Christus est natus, ex Maria Virgine, Gaudete”. It’s one of the few Latin phrases I can work out: “Rejoice, Rejoice, Christ is born of the Virgin Mary, Rejoice”.
There are two main reasons why I know so little Latin. The first goes back to the decade I was born in (the 1960s) and the Catholic Church’s decision, after the Second Vatican Council, to allow mass in the vernacular. For several centuries before that, mass was said in Latin, all over the world, but from the 1960s onwards it has been said in the language of the country you’re in. Anyone travelling to other countries in the 1950s could have attended a Catholic mass anywhere and been able to follow the service as if they were back home. These days if you travel abroad you will hear mass in the native language. I can just about sing along to the Credo – one of the great tunes – but have never got to grips with the Latin form of the Our Father or the Hail Mary.
The other reason why I know so little Latin is because of how languages were taught at my school. We did Classics in the equivalent of Year 7, then Latin in Year 8 and after that had to choose between the dead language of the Roman Empire and a living language (any language you like, so long as it’s German). We all did French through to O-Level (no choice about that) but if you wanted to learn Spanish, Italian, Russian or Mandarin, you couldn’t. It was German or Latin and I chose the living language over the dead one. If pushed I could probably name a couple of dozen phrases (from “ad hominem” through “quid pro quo” to “in camera”) but no more than that.
Usually these Word of the Week pieces are drafted for a Monday but this one’s a couple of days late. I took the priest’s advice and indulged a little in the days after Laetare Sunday. For the first time in four weeks I had a packet of crisps, ate a bit of chocolate, played some pinball (surprisingly successfully) and had a few beers (during a very pleasant dinner with an old schoolfriend). If the Ireland rugby team beat England at Twickenham this coming Saturday (which is also St Patrick’s Day) I will have more reasons to rejoice and will probably indulge in a few pints of the dark stuff, unlike last year.