Sunday, March 30, 2014

No, but I do like Latin

Monsignor Daniel Gallagher
Ok, I’ve already blown my cover.  I’m a liberal.  I’ll admit it.  I listen to NPR.  And this past week, listening to NPR’s All Things Considered with Audie Cornish, I heard an American accent tackle—syllable by stammering syllable-- Cuique nostrum necesse est proficere, propriam scilicet vitam emendare. Hi quidem quadraginta dies iuvant vitia vincere.
It was Monsignor Daniel Gallagher, one of the Pope’s seven official Latinists, talking about the challenges of putting the Holy Father’s Twitter-thoughts into Latin—one of about 40 languages in which they tweet. 
Now, I don’t tweet.  I don’t even text.  “Liberal” as I am, I am my own kind. I happen to be a liberal who likes Latin—though not for Mass.  That just doesn’t make any sense.  I like Latin like my sister-in-law likes Crossword puzzles or like my nephew likes Jeopardy.  I like to play with it.  I like it for fun.  I also do like it for its own elegant sounds and even more elegant syntax.  (When I say “sounds”—I follow the Ecclesiastical or Italian pronunciation rather than the German.  It never made sense to me why you pronounce an ancient language once spoken on the Italian peninsula like a constipated Berliner, but hey—that’s academia.  Norman Cantor and I used to have wars of the wills over pronunciation when I was one of his students, though he always praised my Latin and said that it gave me away as an alumnus of Jesuit Education.  Years later I met a Princeton contemporary of Cantor’s and he told me that Cantor couldn’t do his Latin to save his life.  Probably true because I am not really that good of a Latinist myself.  I would have said alumni back there if spell-check hadn’t corrected me.)    In any event, I recently served on a search committee for a Church Music Director and I showed off by asking him if he was familiar with the patrimony of music in the western Church and could we expect occasionally to hear Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus or Caesar Franks’ Panis Angelicus.  I mean, I like this music and a little Latin works in Church, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of prayer.  I mean prayer, not the sentimental slop-shop of pious feelings engendered by an unintelligible libretto combined with a clerical corps de ballet swishing through rubrics that exist for rubric’s sake.  As I have said before, if you like that sort of thing, go see Tosca.  You can leave after Act 1 and you won’t be deluding yourself into thinking that your aesthetic indulgence has anything to do with God.
But back, for a moment, to unintelligible libretto.  God bless Monsignor Gallagher, but I had to listen to him eight times to transcribe a single sentence.  The Latin is perfect—or certainly better than anything I could do.  But if we are going to use this language, we need to pronounce it with flow, not by climbing each syllable like it was a rock-wall. I mean the poor minor prelate was breathless after a minute. 
It reminded me of attending Mass at a little Church in rural Virginia one Monday morning.  I had stayed over at a friend’s the night before and we went off to weekday Mass at his parish the next morning.   About 40 people were there—mostly mantilla-draped soccer-moms with their home-schooled children.  Should have been a clue.  Father came out and began In Nomine Patris… The Mass was in Latin.  It was the Novus Ordo, but in Latin.  And so we listened to Father struggle through his Missal, syllable by breathless syllable, for thirty minutes.  He never took his eyes off the book—how could he: he was at sea in a language he had no idea what it meant.  You could tell from where he gasped for breath or how he clumped words (in his case strings of syllables) together that he had no idea, or at least no clear idea, of what he was saying.  On the way out of Mass I said to him.  “Father, I understood you perfectly, but then I am an ex-Latin teacher.  And I am sure God, who reads the heart, understood you.  But no one else in that Church—including you—had any idea of what you were “praying.”  I wished him luck.  But this is not what the Mass is about. 
Maybe I lived in Rome too long and it is easier for the Italians to pronounce the Latin more naturally.  And I don’t think I could to better than Monsignor Gallagher.  That isn’t my point.  My point is that this is the language for prayer only if it is a language that is natural for you.  Pray from the heart, not from a text.  There was a day when the Papal Latinist—an American—spoke Latin as fluently and naturally as he did his native American English.  Father Reginald Foster, a Discalced Carmelite Friar from Milwaukee, served as a papal Latin scholar from the late 1960’s until health issues forced his return to the United States in 2009.  We should do a few blog entries on Father Reginald as he is one of the great characters of Papal Rome, famous for his quips and bon mots that are anything but reverent towards supercilious churchmen.  Maybe before long I can get around to an entry or two that captures the gift this man has been to the Church and to those of us who refuse to take the Church as seriously as some would like.       


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