Why More Catholics Should Learn Greek

If you are familiar with Catholic schools and the curriculum they offer, you probably know that many students have the opportunity to take several semesters of Latin. In fact, I know many students enrolled in a Catholic grade school who are currently taking Latin IV (how much Latin a grade school actually covers by their Latin IV course, I do not know).

Now I have nothing against learning Latin, but I have never understood why the Catholic school system emphasizes teaching Latin over Koine Greek, which I have never seen as part of a grade school’s curriculum. I know Latin is the language of the Church, but is it really practical for our students to learn instead of Greek? Greek will always come first in the areas of biblical studies, theology and apologetics. While Latin would be useful for translating Church documents and early Christian writings (and helpful for people studying in the medical field, I suppose), that seems to be very specialized and secondary work compared to the theological foundation Greek is able to offer.

Regardless of how useful Latin is or is not for the average Catholic, more Catholics at least need to learn Greek. My realization of this came during two different encounters I had at two different Catholic churches, both involving an incorrect use of Greek in their art.

The first involved a liturgical banner on the sanctuary next to the tabernacle. The banner depicted two Greek letters: Chi and Rho. The significance behind these two letters is that they are the first two letters in Greek for the word “Christ” (χριστος) and thus form a Christian monogram for “Christ.” However, the particular decorator of that church must not have known his or her Greek because the banner was displayed with the Chi-Rho backwards (see picture below for example).

xp4                                   xp2

Now this is not a huge deal because anyone who knows Greek could see that this was a simple mistake, but it does make me wonder how helpful our Catholic art is in elevating our minds to Christ if no one knows what it means in the first place. I should also mention that the banner remained backwards for over three weeks until someone changed the decorations for a different liturgical season.

My second encounter with an incorrect use of Greek in Catholic art was at a wedding I attended in a different Catholic church. While admiring the sacred art in the worship space and trying to identify all the details, I noticed this artwork in the sanctuary:

px1

Since it is a little hard to see the bottom half of the artwork, here it is with the letters highlighted:

px2

Now I want to make a quick disclaimer about what follows: I could be wrong about the intended meaning of these characters, in which case I’m looking for someone to enlighten me about the correct meaning. However, as I see these four letters, they seem to represent the Chi-Rho and the transliterated Alpha and Omega (beginning and end). If that is the case, then there is a problem with the order of the letters. The Rho mistakenly comes before the Chi and the correct order should be ΧΡιστος. It seems the artist separated the Chi-Rho but didn’t know the Greek alphabet well enough to identify the correct order to place the letters.

Again, this may not seem like a huge deal, but is our sacred art fully serving its purpose if it is displayed incorrectly? And even if it is displayed correctly, is it helpful if no one knows the meaning behind it? I do not ask these questions to suggest or imply that we should remove our sacred art. Rather, I think we should seek to educate ourselves about the meaning the art conveys (or intends to convey) so that when we view it, it serves its purpose in elevating our minds to the beauty of God.

So what can we do? Encourage yourself and/or others to learn Greek! Actively have a conversation with Catholic schools about the possibility and importance of adding Greek to the curriculum. It is truly a valuable language for encountering the beauty of our Catholic faith in scripture, theology, apologetics and sacred art. In my experience, most Catholics are missing out!

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