A Primer of Ecclesiastical Latin by John F. Collins

A Primer of Ecclesiastical Latin by John F. Collins (Catholic University of America, 1985) 451 pp.

First off: NOT FOR LATIN NEWBIES! This is a very fast-paced course. If you have no previous Latin experience, you should start with another text. It’s called a Primer of Ecclesiastical Latin, and technically it is, but it is not good for use as a primer for learning Latin–so caveat emptor!

The Primer was written to allow both college and self-study students to learn to read Ecclesiastical Latin within a year. It is divided into 35 Units, which I would call lessons. The Units organize the book’s 178 grammar and syntax concepts with the vocabulary lists. Drills and sentence exercises end each unit, and about 30 Latin sentences are for translation to English, and about 6 English sentences are for turning into Latin.

The main Latin source texts this Primer is based upon are the Vulgate Bible and some of the Latin Mass texts. (However, a blog reader has observed, “The Mass text given in pp328 – 334, in ‘Further Readings’ isn’t the Traditional Rite, but the Novus Ordo.” Which, naturally, means this book will not prepare a student for the Latin of the Traditional Latin Mass as well as a pre-VII book would, so do bear that in mind as well.) This is reflected in the vocabulary lists and the translation practices at the end each unit, which are mostly Scripture verses from the Vulgate by the second half of the book. That is my favorite thing about this textbook.

Unfortunately, this text is one of those that makes Latin seem exactly like what prospective students fear Latin study will be: loads and loads of dry grammar rules, dizzying amounts of random endings, and endless, boring memory work. Because of all that, it’s a solid, sturdy, thick textbook. If you can make your way through it, you will unquestionably have the ability to read Ecclesiastical Latin–and you will certainly have earned it!

One more thing I disapprove of is unrelated to the lessons, but I do want to bring it up: In the second paragraph of the preface, the author begins a statement with, “Although Latin is no longer the universal language of the Church…” Um, I am pretty sure it is still on the books as the Church’s official language, even in these dark days. (And hey, Hollywood still presents Latin as connected to the Church in its lurid depictions of things Catholic…) Happily, there’s a Latin revival currently going in within (as well as outside) the Church, so I guess his perspective from 1985 can be understood as outdated. Considering the terribleness of that decade, I will try to overlook that statement!

Thankfully, for those self-studying students that dare to make the attempt, this book has an answer key for all exercises in a separate volume prepared by John R. Dunlap. (Also CUA Press, copyright 2006.) The answer key provides answers to all the drills and sentence translation in the Primer, as well as addenda and errata for the textbook that were discovered through years of its use.

I can recommend this book for those who have preferably had two years of Latin in high school or college. It will review and augment what you have already learned in an organized and thorough way. For everyone else, start with a true beginner’s guide to Latin (perhaps Fr. Most’s wonderful Latin by the Natural Method), and in time maybe you will come to this text later on.

4 thoughts on “A Primer of Ecclesiastical Latin by John F. Collins

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  1. What do you think of starting in grade 7 with MP’s First Form series through to grade 10 and then doing Collins Primer as a two year course for grades 11 and 12? We want to follow FF with Church Latin rather than classical.


    1. I’ve known a school that starts FF1 in 5th grade, so I think it would be a solid foundation at a good, steady pace for your 7th grader. However, if your student is particularly gifted when it comes to words and language, it *may* be too easy. (That happened to me in 8th grade when my mother had me doing Latina Christiana [usually used with 3rd graders] for the first time. I hated Latin for years after that, whoops!) How comfortable are you with teaching Latin, how comfortable is s/he with learning it–try FF out and continuously judge as you go along. Your student will certainly be ready for the Collins Primer after the entire FF series!


      1. I am currently using FF in a small co-op school situation where there is a range of abilities. I need something such that any student willing to do the work is able to succeed. A couple of the students probably could move faster, but they don’t seem bored.

        Lately I have been thinking about long term plans and came up with the idea of adapting Collins for high school use after we finish the FF series. Since you seem familiar with both, I wanted your opinion.

        The students are all from Latin Mass attending families and Church Latin will be far more relevant and useful for them than the classical Latin resources recommended by MP to follow FF.


      2. I think that will work out well. I very much appreciate the grammar/translation method, which is how I learned Latin, and also have recently come to appreciate the Natural Method. I think it would also work well in high school to have them do Fr. Most’s series, since they will already thoroughly know the grammar structure of Latin by then.


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