Many religions have what can be called a sacred language. Hindus have Sanskrit, the language of the Vedas, the Upanishads, the great epics, and the Bhagavad Gita. Therevada Buddhism, I understand, privileges the Pali canon, as Islam gives pride of place to Quranic Arabic.
The inscription over the cross in St. John's gospel has always suggested to me the three sacred languages of Catholic Christianity: Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, Greek, the language of the New, and Latin, the language of the Church. One might even, with important qualifications, call them the languages of the Holy Trinity, the historic languages of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
I don't mean to suggest that facility in a language has anything to do with entry into or the depth of one's practice of Christianity. The majority of Christians through the ages may well have been illiterate, and obviously there are illiterate Christians whose devotion, charity and Christlikeness would put the average literate Christian to shame. It's more a question about whether those Christians who have the opportunity, and the capability, to learn something of the sacred languages, should do so.
If, for instance, we ought to promote biblical literacy--as undoubtedly we should--does that not suggest that knowing the testaments in their original languages (to the extent that we have them) is of prime importance? But, the objection runs, I'm not a genius--how can I learn Greek? Well, however highly we think of the Greeks, they certainly weren't a race of geniuses. I remember having this conversation with a young woman, objecting that she just wasn't smart enough or educated enough to know a second language. During our conversation her gardener came in with his helpers. She gave them their instructions in English, and they walked out speaking among themselves in their native Spanish, and she went back to telling me that only intellectuals could handle more than one language.
Learning another language certainly takes time and commitment. But it's more a matter of will than intellect. Poor and uneducated people, whether in the Old South or first century Palestine, will learn as many languages as it takes to get by.
Latin is sort of a special case. It has no particular standing for the Eastern Orthodox, or for Protestants. But for Catholic Christians it is the official language of the Church, the Church as Mater et Magister, Mother and Teacher. Within living memory the most solemn worship of the Church was conducted in Latin (putting aside the Eastern Rites). And though vernacular worship has been the norm since the promulgation of the Mass of Paul VI, the vernacular is still a translation from a Latin Roman rite, and there remains a vocal minority that prefers a Latin mass. In that regard I think it's something of a shame that the appreciation of Latin in worship has come to be identified with reaction. I understand full well that the majority of Catholics have neither the time nor inclination to learn Latin and I have no quarrel with mass in the vernacular. But some limited availability of worship in Latin in no way threatens the prevailing approach.
I needn't mention how the acquisition of these ancient languages of the faith also opens up a world of incomparable literature. Virgil and Homer, Plato and Cicero--these are names to conjure with. Latin went on to become the common language of the West and remained the chief means of transnational learned communication through the day of Spinoza and Newton. (It even occasionally shows its head in the title of blogs.)
Latin is extolled within the Church as a common language, if not for the faithful, at least for the clergy. Canon law requires that it be taught in ordinary seminary education. How far that requirement obtains in real life I have no clue. But it does promote, to some extent, that dream of a common language throughout the orbis terrarum. If its usage today is limited, it can still be extolled, not only for its aspiration to universality, but for its long continuity. As Pope St. John XXIII put it in his apostolic constitution Veterum Sapientia:
Neque solum universalis, sed etiam immutabilis lingua ab Ecclesia adhibita sit oportet. Si enim catholicae Ecclesiae veritates traderentur vel nonnullis vel multis ex mutabilibus linguis recentioribus, quarum nulla ceteris auctoritate praestaret, sane ex eo consequeretur, ut hinc earum vis neque satis significanter neque satis dilucide, qua varietate eae sunt, omnibus pateret; ut illinc nulla communis stabilisque norma haberetur, ad quam ceterarum sensus esset expendendus. Re quidem ipsa, lingua Latina, iamdiu adversus varietates tuta, quas cotidiana populi consuetudo in vocabulorum notionem inducere solet, fixa quidem censenda est et immobilis;
Furthermore, the Church's language must be not only universal but also immutable. Modern languages are liable to change, and no single one of them is superior to the others in authority. Thus if the truths of the Catholic Church were entrusted to an unspecified number of them, the meaning of these truths, varied as they are, would not be manifested to everyone with sufficient clarity and precision. There would, moreover, be no language which could serve as a common and constant norm by which to gauge the exact meaning of other renderings. But Latin is indeed such a language. It is set and unchanging. it has long since ceased to be affected by those alterations in the meaning of words which are the normal result of daily, popular use.
I don't know if this is good linguistics. This alleged immutability of Latin may be as aspirational as its universality. But Latin certainly carries a kind of patina that no other Western language can claim. I think of even the Harry Potter books, where Ms. Rowling put her spells into a kind of pidgin Latin. Even children know that that's the language of antiquity, and of linguistic power.
Dr. Johnson once remarked, "Greek, Sir, is like lace; every man gets as much of it as he can." We have to admit that precious few of us aspire to "getting" much Greek. Latin may still carry some of that allure, however much it has faded. For those with the time to take it up, I think it very worthwhile. And most of us would have plenty of time, even with full time jobs and families, were we not preoccupied with television, and smart phones, and the web.