Sea Story: Latin Interpreter (1962-1964)

DSCN0227We had been living in Rome for three years when the brand new Pope, John XXIII, stunned his own cardinals and advisers by announcing that he would convene an Ecumenical Council. No one really understood how historic it would be, on so many levels. Three years later, in October 1962, 1962-Second_Vatican_Council_by_Lothar_Wolleh_007more than 2,000 Bishops and major prelates converged on the Eternal City to answer his call. It was the first time that an Ecumenical Council included outside observers (17 denominations of Eastern Orthodox and Protestants). In my opinion, it was the first true Ecumenical Council since the Council of Trent in 1563, because Vatican Council I only had a minority of bishops (88 Italians and 4 Frenchmen) in attendance by the time that Garibaldi crashed through the Porta Pia on 20 September 1870 and scattered the assembly. Most of the cardinals and bishops were still on their way. (“Ecumenical” means everyone.)

1962-Second_Vatican_Council_by_Lothar_Wolleh_006Rome was crazy with colorful clergy of all types wandering around. The American delegation was struggling. To their great surprise, there were no interpreting services at the Council, because every priest was expected to be fluent in Latin. JTH-Cardinal Spellman 1964This was not a dead language for me and my classmates taking Latin IV at school. We were using it every day, interpreting for delegates or just helping with conversation practice after serving Mass each morning.

JTH-Fulton Sheen 1964Mom and I operated the sauna and steam bath concession in the basement of the Cavalieri Hilton Hotel, which had just opened. As the first five-star, American-style hotel in Rome, the American prelates favored the Cavalieri Hilton, and many came down to our establishment to get over the stress of the day. The joke ran around the hotel that our cool-down pool was full of holy water from the constant immersion of bishops and cardinals.

JTH altar boy 1964One night as I was closing up, I got a phone call from one of our regular clients, the Auxiliary Bishop of Newburgh, New York. He was a humble man, who did not like being called anything fancier than “Father.”

“Jonathan, could you come up to my room for a while?” he asked. “I have a document that we need help with tonight.” Thanking my lucky stars that I had finished my own homework already that evening, I took the lift up to his suite. He met me with a thick, typewritten manuscript.

“We were just given this today. I think it’s a draft Encyclical [major policy letter from the Pope]. The American delegation has a meeting right after breakfast to prepare our national response to it. But none of us can read it, especially something that thick in one night.”

“I can’t type or write that fast, Father,” I said, hefting the volume in my hands. He sat down at his coffee table, and pulled a large yellow pad of paper towards himself.

“I was wondering if you could read it to me – in English. I will take notes. I am hoping that will give us enough information to put something together in the morning.”

He was asking for a “sight translation,” something that court interpreters often do. Sight translation from Latin? Why not? I opened the manuscript and began to interpret, “Pacem in Terris…” Peace on Earth…

Today, I think that the first crack in the two-year-old Berlin Wall appeared as I read, walking a circle into the carpet of his room. On Maundy Thursday, 11 April 1963, Pacem in Terris hit the world media, and the Cold War began to come to an end. It was the first Encyclical not written to Catholics, but to all people. In it, Pope John blasted both sides of the Cold War, meaning the Americans and the Soviets, and their respective Allies. He told them to get on with taking care of their people and to start working on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.

For more on both the Encyclical and the Council, check out and


© 2019 JT Hine

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