N CHRISTMAS DAY, the renowned Vatican Latinist Fr. Reginald Foster, OCD, passed away. In addition to his work in the Latin language for four successive popes, Fr. Foster was known as a unique and extremely gifted pedagogue. Since his death, many of his former students have written elsewhere on his passionate and effective teaching. I wish I had had the benefit of studying Latin with him, but I did not. But my one encounter with him left a strong impression, which I will share here, since it has a direct bearing on our calling as musicians for the Church.
In May of 2013, the Paideia Institute sponsored a weekend event for Fr. Foster’s students in New York. At the time, I was singing at two different parishes (in both forms of the Roman Rite) in Connecticut and New York. After my evening Mass in New York, the end of a long and difficult Pentecost Sunday, the celebrant mentioned that Fr. Foster’s group was visiting the parish that evening for a Mass. I stayed in order to meet him, and eventually offered to sing some of the proper chants for the Mass.
The experience was unique. Long-time readers of the blog know that Fr. Foster was not interested in the liturgical trappings that usually go along with the concept of “the Latin Mass,” indeed he was quite opposed to the return of the Traditional Mass. Instead, this Mass was celebrated with the bare minimum of ceremony, although it was conducted entirely in Latin. Indeed, it felt very much like a vernacular Mass, since the language of the prayers and readings was all directed toward the kind of immediate comprehension that we expect when conversing among native speakers of a modern language. When I sang the sequence Veni, Sancte Spiritus, surely one of the most perfect of all melodies, I was immediately asked to sing it again, so that all those present could appreciate certain niceties of the Latin poetry.
I have written before in this space on the transcendent and magnificent power of chant, able to carry us far beyond anything that could be accomplished with words alone. Isn’t it true that the most exalted moments in our sung prayer come when the words are momentarily left behind, as in the melismas of the Gradual, or especially in the jubilus of the Alleluia? Still, Fr. Foster’s approach to that Mass forcefully reminded me that the language in which we sing was also once spoken for communication and comprehension. And of course, the Biblical and Medieval poetry, of which our chant is the vehicle, is powerful and salutary on its own.
Here is the challenge that Fr. Foster gives us, as singers of chant, we should always know what we are singing. I tell my students this in approaching any vocal music, but it is easy, when toiling in the vineyard, to tune out and let the ecstatic melody carry us away. Instead, let us strive always to know what each word means. For some people, this might involve a simple step like studying the proper texts the night before the Mass or even writing in the translations along the side (or using helpful editions that do this for you). The language of the propers is vital and comprehensible, even as we plumb its depths for new knowledge year after year. Taking the time to make sure we know exactly what we are singing can only deepen the prayerfulness of our singing. Fr. Foster did much for his students to advance the cause of the Latin language, which is so vital to what we do.
Requiescat in pace.
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
Editor’s Note: Readers are encouraged to explore the Saint René Goupil Website, which attempts to provide verbatim vernacular translations underneath the Latin words. This idea was stolen from a 1909 German Graduale by Dr. Karl Weinmann (d. 1929), a Catholic priest who studied with Liszt’s friend, Monsignor Franz Xaver Haberl (d. 1910).