Quote of the Day: Reginald Foster

Fr. Reginald Foster has been one of the Pope’s Latinists since the 1960s. No one knows Latin like Reggie, but he doesn’t favors a return to Latin liturgy. Whether Latin is a sacred language?

“A sacred language? In the first century every prostitute in Rome spoke it fluently – and better than most people in the Roman Curia.”

– Robert Mickens, “Letter from Rome,” this week’s Tablet.





34 responses to “Quote of the Day: Reginald Foster”

  1. Ioannes Andreades Avatar
    Ioannes Andreades

    I’d like to know who it was who advocated a return to the Latin liturgy because Latin is, by its very nature, a “sacred language.” Citation?

    Wouldn’t it be great is Pray Tell were a straw-man-free zone.

    1. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
      Anthony Ruff, OSB

      Hi Ioannes – You added a “because” which is not in my post. Two separate sentences, no necessary causal connection between them. No straw man here.

      1. Ioannes Andreades Avatar
        Ioannes Andreades

        Still, who claims that Latin is a sacred language? Otherwise, why refute it?

    2. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
      Anthony Ruff, OSB

      For a typical statement that Latin is sacred and therefore well suited for liturgical use today, here is Msgr. Pope blogging at the Archdiocese of Washington DC’s website after the 1962 Mass at the shrine:

      “So, why pray in Latin? Why not? It is for us a sacred language of worship and there is an instinct in human culture that liturgy is world apart where we enter heaven.”

      Just google “Latin sacred language” and see how many million websites come up.


      1. Ioannes Andreades Avatar
        Ioannes Andreades

        Sanscrit is a sacred language for Hindus despite the fact that prostitutes once spoke it.

      2. Jack Wayne Avatar
        Jack Wayne

        “It is for us” seems an important part of that quote – it may have been a widely spoken vernacular at one time, but it’s now used almost exclusively for religious purposes and has thus become associated with sacredness. It’s perhaps not sacred in the same sense that Muslims consider Arabic to be sacred, but I’m not sure I’d call it “just another language” with nothing going for it. We don’t live in first century Rome so the associations of ancient Romans aren’t very helpful for us in the 21st Century.

        Oh, and Vatican II wanted Latin to be used for the liturgy and wanted all the people of the Latin Rite to know at least a small repertoire of chant – it didn’t specify that for any other language.

  2. Chris Grady Avatar
    Chris Grady

    Long live Reggie!

    “Doesn’t favor a return to latin liturgy” might be putting it mildly.

    Reggie was widely quoted, not long before Summorum Pontificum came out (e.g. http://www.angelqueen.org/forum/viewtopic.php?t=12209&sid=c2f48ae793b5de151179cea1a9aba5c1) as saying wonderful things like “It is a useless Mass and the whole mentality is stupid. The idea of it is that things were better in the old days. It makes the Vatican look medieval.”

    Incidentally, the above link also shows that Reggie’s been pushing the prostitue line for a while now!

    Ad multos annos, Reggie (and Mickens, too)!

    1. Jack Wayne Avatar
      Jack Wayne

      Yes, how wonderful to call people you don’t agree with stupid!

      And people wonder why there is more divisiveness after Summorum Pontificum.

    2. Jeffrey Pinyan Avatar


      I don’t share his opinion (or, it would seem, yours) that the older form of Mass is useless or has a stupid mentality. I don’t find such sentiments wonderful.

      How long, I wonder, would a comment like “The Novus Ordo is a useless Mass and the whole mentality is stupid. … It makes the Vatican look modernist.” last here. And just think of what would happen to the commenter who called such sentiments “wonderful”.

      NB: That’s not my stance.

      1. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
        Anthony Ruff, OSB

        Jeffrey – I’m glad that’s not your stance, and I already had gathered that it’s not! 🙂 So what follows isn’t really directed at you, but I’ll put my comments here.

        But just to make sure we don’t fall into the dictatorship of relativism, there is a standard for all this. It’s called the Second Vatican Council. Ergo, critiques of the unreformed Mass have more going for them than critiques of the reformed Mass. At least on this blog, which supports Vatican II.

        And to be clear, editors of pretty much every publication have their own stance (bias, opinion, worldview, whatever you want to call it), and the editors of Pray Tell reserve the right to do the same. It never ceases to amaze me that a few folks want to cry foul about PT’s editorial views, to see injustice in our having opinions, as if we’re the Supreme Court for the whole Church. We’re just one more blog, you know.


      2. Jack Wayne Avatar
        Jack Wayne

        Fr. Ruff – as an art teacher, I would never let someone critique another person’s work as being stupid or useless regardless of how much it does or doesn’t conform to a particular standard – it’s lazy and rude.

        Even using Vatican II as a standard by which all must be judged, I fail to see how anyone could declare the old Mass to be useless, regardless of how “unreformed” it is.

      3. Jeffrey Pinyan Avatar


        Fr. Anthony, I’m not against critiquing the E.F. (or the O.F.), as I think has been shown by my comment record here. I just find that particular critique (“useless”) to be utterly bereft of merit.

        And I know that every blog has a stance. I just notice that certain commenters, like Chris Grady, can make statements which I don’t think reflect PT’s editorial staff — though I could be sorely mistaken there… — without an ensuing dialogue or confrontation, while many conservative commenters are quickly taken to task.

        Perhaps I am mis-interpreting the ignoring of a troll, which has been a flaw of mine for some time.

      4. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
        Anthony Ruff, OSB

        “Useless” is stronger than I would ever state. I think if a commenter said that we’d probably pull it. But here, a commenter is quoting the person which the post is about, so I think it’s a relevant contribution to our discussion.

        Judgment call, I could be wrong on this on. We’ll keep thinkg about it.

      5. Ioannes Andreades Avatar
        Ioannes Andreades

        Fr. Anthony, I agree with you 100% that Vatican II needs to be the gold-standard. However, it is not clear that critiques of the unreformed mass “have more going for them”, since it is a matter of debate as to how well the reformed mass measures up to Vatican II’s standards. Making such broad generalizations only hinders the exchange of ideas.

  3. Chris Grady Avatar
    Chris Grady

    In Robert Bolt’s play A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, when the Spanish Ambassador comes to see More (hoping to make him treasonous toward his King on behalf of Catholic Spain, I think!): he says to More, “Dominus vobiscum!” to which More replies, of course, “Et cum spiritu tuo”

    The Spanish Ambassador says, “And how much longer shall THAT holy tongue be heard in this Realm?”

    More replies drily: “Tisn’t holy – just old.”

    1. Timothy Thomas Avatar
      Timothy Thomas

      Does it strike you, Mr. Grady, that St. Thomas More might just have been employing some of his famously dry, humanistic wit? For a man like More, raised, educated, and practiced in Latin (he was a lawyer, scholar, statesman, and author), he knew its qualities – as well as its age. And so did Robert Bolt, an avowed agnostic, which is in part how he portrayed More so effectively and vividly in his play.

      1. Chris Grady Avatar
        Chris Grady

        Oh yes, Mr Thomas, that struck me, and more.

  4. david sullivan Avatar
    david sullivan

    Pope John XXIII had this to say in 1962 about the Latin language (Veterum Sapientia):

    “Finally, the Catholic Church has a dignity far surpassing that of every merely human society, for it was founded by Christ the Lord. It is altogether fitting, therefore, that the language it uses should be noble, majestic, and non-vernacular.

    In addition, the Latin language “can be called truly catholic.” It has been consecrated through constant use by the Apostolic See, the mother and teacher of all Churches, and must be esteemed “a treasure … of incomparable worth.”

    Seems to me “consecrated through constant use” is pretty close to “sacred.” Suppose that prostitutes and other sinners pray the Our Father–does that make it any less sacred?

    Source of quote: http://www.adoremus.org/VeterumSapientia.html

  5. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
    Anthony Ruff, OSB

    I think these discussions tend to be unhelpful because they avoid the issue of what “sacred” means, or else they presume to know what “sacred” means. I thought Nathan Mitchell’s “Amen Corner” on this topic was helpfully challenging, which is why we summarized it here:


    1. Ioannes Andreades Avatar
      Ioannes Andreades

      A relevant piece has showed up over at

      The Catholic Thing

  6. Pastor Tim Madsen Avatar

    It’s not just Latin. In my wife’s home church which was a member of the old Augustana (Swedish) Synod, back in the 1920’s, it used to be said of them, “They forgot their English on Sundays.” For me, the whole issue of Latin in the liturgy was and is cultural. It’s an attempt to restore a culture that once existed in the Catholic Church.

  7. Mary Ann Carr Avatar
    Mary Ann Carr

    Rather sexist choice of terms in that quote, if you ask me. A prostitute is made in the image and likeness of God, after all.

    1. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
      Anthony Ruff, OSB

      Huh? Using the term “prostitute” is always sexist? I don’t follow your argument. Nothing Fr. Foster wrote is necessarily contrary to prostitutes being made in the image and likeness of God. Nor does he specify whether he’s talking about male or female prostitues. (There were and are both, you know).


      1. Jeff Rice Avatar
        Jeff Rice

        Sexist? No. But I do wonder why who speaks the language has anything do to with whether it is sacred or not. Doesn’t seem to be relevant or helpful to the discussion.

  8. Rev. Bryan J.B. Pedersen Avatar
    Rev. Bryan J.B. Pedersen

    This is a familiar line of Fr. Foster that I first heard from my brother who had a the opportunity to study under Fr. Foster. As my brother told me, Fr. Foster often uses this line in his class as a way to critique those who argue that Latin is too difficult to learn. “Every bum and prostitute in Rome spoke Latin.” Yes it is complex but it is not too hard to learn. It is also a humorous line that accords with Foster’s style, a style that serves to encourage his students to work diligently to learn the language. With that said I hope Mickens and the editor (awr is that you?) who posted this is not using this line of Foster’s to assail the concept of Latin as a sacral language, which is ridiculous as it is taken out of the context that I have always heard it used. Is not the point of the line meant to illustrate that Latin is not just for Christian worship? The Latin used in the roman rites and the other western rites is not merely the “same” language spoken on the streets of Rome. Yes it is Latin, but as Uwe Lang once pointed out the language used in the actual rites is a complex hierarchical form of speech appropriate to its place. (i.e. the Sacred Rites). They were probably few if any bum and prostitute in Rome speaking the Latin of the Mass or composing collects of the “Roman style.” They may have heard some of it possibly, that is if they were close enough to hear it, but if they were unreformed prostitutes they were most likely in the part of the Church reserved for the penitents! Or perhaps they were whispering some vulgar latin while participating in some mystery cult. Come to think of it they may even have gotten paid to aid in the worship of some exotic oriental deity!

    1. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
      Anthony Ruff, OSB

      Fr. Pedersen, you raise many good points and I thank you for them. I think you’re right, taking Fr. Foster out of context doesn’t make for a good argument. May I confess that I posted the line just because I thought it was so funny? Of course every language, including sacred ones, is spoken by all sorts of people. And as our Prep School German teacher often says, “German isn’t difficult at all, students. Every idiot in Germany can speak it.”

      On the issue of “sacred” language, I think we’ve now entered into expansive terrain, and it’s probably beyond the scope of this thread. We need some really heavy thinking about what “sacred” means – and here I have in mind the whole theological renewal of that concept by people like de Lubac starting in the 1920s. I think we may have a good topic for a commissioned post or three. Stay tuned.


  9. Mary Ann Avatar
    Mary Ann

    Yes, male and female prostitutes. Of course I think of the women first, hence the reaction.
    Still, I think the comment was in bad form. So what if every prostitute spoke Latin in those times? The looking down one’s nose/ pharisaical tone of that particular comment is still there, sexist or not. I think I agree with you on the basic point being made, but I find it offensive to make

  10. Bill deHaas Avatar
    Bill deHaas

    Mary Ann – you would have to read some of Fr. Foster’s works; listen to his class presentations, etc. His style of teaching is unique; he tends to provoke to make you think; he tends to say outlandish things to get you thinking and responding.

    Please take his comment in the context within which he worked and lived.

    1. Jeffrey Pinyan Avatar


      That context might be completely unknown to readers of this blog. And no context was given here, either.

  11. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
    Anthony Ruff, OSB

    I think we need an icon at Pray Tell to communicate “Warning: humor coming. Sensitive souls may experience difficulty. Humor may be overstated at times and not readily admit of logical analysis.”

  12. Paul Inwood Avatar
    Paul Inwood

    Anthony is right. We need an in-depth discussion of sacral or sacred language. On another thread.

  13. Brad Wilson Avatar
    Brad Wilson

    Maybe this is too simple a concept, but can any language be considered uniquely sacred? I don’t consider English a sacred language, but the English words used at mass and in prayer are sacred. I can’t classify Latin as wholly sacred, but the Latin words used at mass and in prayer are sacred. Maybe we need to get away from the concept that a certain language can be specifically categorized as sacred and conclude that ANY langauge can be sacred if used in the theological context of worship. I don’t think it is an argument that Latin should be used in the church because it is a “sacred” language, but because it is part of our unique catholic heritage. Just as Greeks or Italians may maintain a certain vocabulary of their native languages, even if they speak English everyday. They don’t want to forget where they came from and how their culture has enriched their lives. The same, too, for the culture and heritage of the Catholic Church as it pertains to the Latin language.

    1. Michael Podrebarac Avatar
      Michael Podrebarac

      If your concept is indeed too simple, Brad, then count me as happily among the simple, for to me you summarized the whole point, and most effectively. Thank you!

    2. Jack Wayne Avatar
      Jack Wayne

      I agree with you too – particularly the reason you give for why Latin should retained. It’s a beautiful part of our musical, artistic, and cultural heritage as Catholics, and one of the reasons I tend to be drawn to the EF at times. Unfortunately, there seem to be many people who do not want to include Latin in liturgy and feel that it should be actively discouraged. It almost seems as if it something to be ashamed of.

      Of course, another good reason to have Latin is that Vatican II wanted it.

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