Pittsburgh Catholic, 1962-03-01

Catholic fact check: Pope John XXIII, Veterum Sapientia, and high altars

There is an anecdote that circulates in the Catholic blogosphere about the promulgation of Pope John XXIII's apostolic constitution Veterum Sapientia.

In one example, the story goes:

“Veterum Sapientia is proud to announce its Fourth Annual Latin Conference for priests, deacons, religious (male and female), and seminarians, hosted this year at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. from July 31 to August 6. The program is called Veterum Sapientia after the Apostolic Constitution which Saint John XXIII signed at the high altar of St. Peter’s (Feb. 22, 1962), defending and promoting the study of Latin by seminarians.” 1

Cursory Google checks reveal no further detail or even corroboration of this dramatic scene. So, as an exercise in Catholic fact-checking, I started with newspapers in the hope of finding a contemporary account.

Round 1

I searched the Catholic News Archive for:

  • “Veterum sapientia” signed
  • “Veterum sapientia” altar
  • “Veterum signed”~10
  • “Signed on the altar”
  • “Signed altar”~10

The National Catholic Reporter graces us with three contextually helpful results.

The first is a brief report from Terry Brock announcing the death of Cardinal Antonion Bacci, who “is believed to be the author of Veterum Sapientia.” 2 Brock notes that, “Less than two years later, Vatican II…revoked the Bacci document.”

The second is a scathing 1966 editorial by Father Joseph T. Nolan (whose illuminating obituary can be read below 3). Fr. Nolan comments:

“Neither did the Fathers decree that Latin is the official liturgical language of the Church. […] One does not have to be a rebel, only a realist, to expect that the recent decree upgrading Latin for seminaries will be a dead letter in regard to prayer life and classroom lectures. It seems to be the Roman way to make a last-gasp effort to put it all on paper, to say “we tried” and then accept the inevitable. We are going through Veterum Sapientia (“The Wisdom of the Ancients”) all over again, and when this earlier reversal of the vernacular trend came along to puzzle everyone, it was a Vietnamese priest who wrote the famous article of protest beginning, “They are not our ancients.” 4

The third article from the NCR is a 1965 editorial by the journalistically prolific John Leo 5. The general thrust and the tone of the column should not surprise us at this point; what is worth mentioning is a reference to Father Bernhard Haering that Leo uses to justify his creative rhetorical exercises. Haering, (sometimes Bernard Haring), was a German Redemptorist who was the “best proponent” of “renewed trends” in sociology and moral theology:

“[In September 1963] Haering introduced his ideas and the new liturgical practices that incarnated his ideas: a dialogue mass, a Bible vigil, mass with communion in both kinds, and a solemn high mass, vespers, and compline all in English. These now common practices were revolutionary in 1963.” 6

Extracting ourselves from the web of midcentury Catholic historical minutiae, we can find two contemporary accounts of the actual promulgation of Veterum Sapientia: one from The Catholic Advocate 7, and one from Pittsburgh Catholic 8. The Catholic Advocate's article gives us our first clue, and first bit of hope, as it mentions:

“The Constitution was entitled “Veterum Sapientia” (The Wisdom of the Ancients) and was signed with great solemnity by the Pope before he addressed the audience. […] Then the Pontiff referred in his talk to the Constitution on Latin usage which he had signed in the presence of his listeners…” 7

The Catholic News Archive can take me no further, except for an interesting reference to the fact that the votes at the 1846 Council of Baltimore were signed on the altar 9.

Round 2

I searched Google for various combinations of “veterum sapientia,” “signed,” and “altar.” The winning combination was:

  • “veterum sapientia” “altar” “signed” before:2010 after:2000

That retrieved a article from Latin Mass Magazine that appears to be the origin of this story!


Alfons Cardinal Stickler wrote an essay, “Erinnerungen und Erfahrungen eines Konzilsperitus der Liturgiekommission” in Franz Breid's 1997 conference proceedings Die heilige Liturgie 10. Cardinal Stickler was Vatican Archivist, Librarian, and one of the nine cardinals on Pope Saint John Paul II's Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei.

Thomas E. Woods, Jr. provides an English translation of Cardinal Stickler's essay, which ran in the Winter 1999 issue of Latin Mass Magazine,and which appeared in my search results. The pertinent quotation from Cardinal Stickler is:

As an expert on the commission for the seminaries, I was entrusted with the question of the Latin language. It proved to be brief and concise and after lengthy discussion was brought to a form which complied with the wishes of all members and was ready for presentation in the Council hall. Then, in an unexpected solemnity, Pope John XXIII signed the Apostolic Letter Veterum Sapientia on the altar of St. Peter. 11

This is the earliest and best evidence I can find for this anecdote.


A quick search for Stickler retrieves two interviews demonstrating his scholarly 12 reputation 13 (the former found thanks to a finding aid in the Catholic News Archive's companion, the Catholic Portal 14).

And, as a final adventure, a search for Jones, Jr. (the translator of the key article) retrieves an entertaining editorial Jones wrote in the Wall Street Journal against Father Andrew Greeley 15 - a good place to round out this constellation of curious Catholic figures.


  1. DiPippo, Gregory. “Veterum Sapientia Latin Conference in DC, July 31 - Aug. 6.” New Liturgical Movement (blog), 2016-02-17. http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2016/02/veterum-sapientia-latin-conference-in.html

  2. Brock, Terry. “Latinist dies.” National Catholic Reporter, 1971-01-29. https://thecatholicnewsarchive.org/?a=d&d=ncr19710129-01.2.8&srpos=11.

  3. “In Memoriam.” Boston College News, 2016-07-27. https://www.bc.edu/bc-web/bcnews/campus-community/faculty/in-memoriam-fr-joseph-nolan.html

  4. Nolan, Father Joseph T. “Shed no tears for Latin.” National Catholic Reporter, 1966-05-04. https://thecatholicnewsarchive.org/?a=d&d=ncr19660504-01.2.57&srpos=6

  5. Leo, John. “Lesson in listening.” National Catholic Reporter, 1965-01-20. https://thecatholicnewsarchive.org/?a=d&d=ncr19650120-01.2.51&srpos=4

  6. Laverdure, Paul. “The Years of the Second Vatican Council, 1958-65.” In Redemption and Renewal: The Redemptorists of English Canada, p. 219, 1996.

  7. “Pontiff reaffirms importance of Latin.” The Catholic Advocate, 1962-03-01. https://thecatholicnewsarchive.org/?a=d&d=ca19620301-01.2.2&srpos=2

  8. “Pope John reconfirms Latin as Church's official language.” Pittsburgh Catholic, 1962-03-01. https://thecatholicnewsarchive.org/?a=d&d=TPC19620301-01.1.1&srpos=1

  9. “Council of Baltimore.” The Catholic Telegraph, 1846-05-28. https://thecatholicnewsarchive.org/?a=d&d=TCT18460528-01.1.7&srpos=1

  10. Internationale Theologische Sommerakademie, and Franz Breid. Die heilige Liturgie: Referate der Internationalen Theologischen Sommerakademie 1997 des Linzer Priesterkreises in Aigen M. Steyr: Ennsthaler, 1997. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/924590534

  11. Stickler, Alfons Cardinal. “Recollections of a Vatican II Peritus.” Latin Mass Magazine, Winter 1999. http://www.latinmassmagazine.com/articles/articles_1999_WI_Stickler.html

  12. Tierney, Brian. “Infallibility and the Medieval Canonists: A Discussion with Alfons Stickler.” The Catholic Historical Review 61, no. 2 (1975): 265-73. www.jstor.org/stable/25019677

  13. Ward, Roberta. “The Vatican Library - precious things for all peoples.” Catholic News Service 1975-10-02. https://thecatholicnewsarchive.org/?a=d&d=cns19751002-01.1.22&srpos=2

  14. Richard P. McBrien Papers: Guide. University of Notre Dame Archives. https://vufind.catholicresearch.org/vufind/Record/unaead_W91Lba

  15. Jones, Thomas E., Jr. “The Wondrous vs. the banal.” Wall Street Journal, 1997-05-05. https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB862766555571113000

Sharon Kabel
Librarian; Nuisance

I like Catholic newspapers, amateur data visualizations, and walls of text.