There aren’t many jobs where mastery of a dead language is an asset. But when Giovanna Chirri, Vatican correspondent for Italy’s ANSA news agency, heard Pope Benedict make an announcement in Latin earlier this month, she understood completely, and raced to break the story: The pope was resigning. Meanwhile, many of the assembled cardinals, it was reported, were left scratching their heads. Their Latin skills weren’t up to snuff.
It took the first papal resignation in six centuries to thrust Latin—as a live, spoken language—back into the news. Beyond the extremely rare circumstance of major world religious leaders announcing their retirement, however, you might well wonder: Who still speaks the language of ancient Rome outside of the Vatican walls? In this day and age, what would be the point?