Each year when Easter grows near, I think back to when I learned just enough Latin to be an altar boy at Mass.
I’m not saying I understood the Latin language. I really didn’t, not at all. I just learned the prayers and responses that were used in church during the Mass. Father McPhillips (Rev. Thomas James McPhillips, although it never occurred to me back then that priests had first names) taught me. He taught each new class of Mass servers, and he toiled like a steel worker to drill the proper pronunciations of the Latin words into our young brains. As 10- or 12-year-old servers, we hadn’t a clue what we were saying, but by golly we’d say it correctly if Father Mac had anything to do with it. I assure you, he had everything to do with it.
Latin added an element of mystery to the celebration of the Mass, especially during Easter time. That’s when the church pulled out all the stops, with much incense and chanting, choirs singing and congregations responding. It meant long, intense services that sometimes ran through three solid hours on Good Friday and a good hour and a half on Easter Sunday. Latin and the Mass were inseparable when I was a kid. Eventually, of course, the church allowed Mass in English, and while more of the congregation probably understood things, I thought some of the mystery went out of the whole thing.
Several years after I first learned those church responses, I had the opportunity to study the actual Latin language in high school. Merle Adams taught that class. She also taught a journalism class and served as adviser for the high school newspaper. I took the journalism course and worked on the newspaper. I didn’t take Latin. I kind of regret that today, but at the time I was one of those guys who thought, “Who in this modern world would ever need to know Latin.’’
Many years after I turned down a chance to learn the language, my daughter took Latin at Riggs High in Pierre. Jay Mickelson taught the class, and he worked at it as hard as Father Mac ever had. In the spring of each academic year, the students and their families attended a Latin banquet, a widely anticipated annual event. Students and their parents or guardians dressed in togas and sandals, the whole deal, and they took part in a meal that carried at least some of the flavor of the Roman Empire. Some adults probably felt a little foolish walking to the high school dressed like that (OK, one adult — me — did), but once they reached the gym, they were in good company.
One year when we attended, a fire call came midway through the meal. I’ve seen some unusual sights in my 77 years, but watching half a dozen volunteer firefighters bolt out of the school in togas and sandals on their way to battle a blaze remains close to the top of the list. One of the people next to me that evening remarked, “You have to wonder what the homeowner will think when those guys show up to put out the fire.’’
I’m pretty sure those Latin-loving firefighters changed into their real gear before they reached the scene. I’m also pretty sure that if they hadn’t, the owner of the property that was burning would have welcomed their presence, togas or not. While I know nothing about whether volunteer fire departments existed in ancient Rome, I do know that firefighters are among those people who sacrifice for other people in their community. So do other first responders, and so do people who work in hospitals and schools and senior living centers and the like. They give of their time, talent, training and personal lives to serve others.
That selflessness, that willingness to sacrifice for others, is part of the whole meaning of Easter. Whether you believe in the traditional story of Easter Week or not, the point is that there have been and continue to be those who will sacrifice for others. That part of the story translates pretty well from the old Latin.