The funeral took place in Rome today of Fr Eugenio Costa SJ. He was 86, and been undergoing treatment in hospital when he tragically caught Covid and died on Sunday.
Most Pray Tell readers have probably never heard of him, unless they recognize his name as the author of the text of the official Vatican Hymn for the 2015 Holy Year of Mercy, Misericordes sicut Pater (of which I was privileged to be selected as the composer of the music), but in Italy he was one of the best-known among liturgists/theologians/musicologists.
With his death we come to the end of an era of the great post-Vatican II liturgical pioneers, of whom he was the last survivor.
Eugenio Costa was born in Genoa on the feastday of the Annunciation, 25 March 1934, into a wealthy family (cruise ships, etc), and went to a Jesuit secondary school. After a year studying jurisprudence at the University of Genoa he entered the Jesuits in 1953. In addition to the usual Jesuit studies in philosophy, theology, etc, he did a Masters in theology and modern literature, earning his degree from the University of Genoa in 1964 with a thesis on “Ecclesia in the writings of St Cyprian: meanings and usages”.
Ordained priest in 1965, he spent a tertianship year in Vienna from 1966-7, and during the period 1967-71 he studied in Paris for a PhD, completing a dissertation entitled “Tropes and Sequences in the Context of Medieval Liturgical Life”. His teachers in Paris were none other than Joseph Gelineau SJ and Pierre Jounel. During his time in Paris he also found time to study piano and composition at the Ecole César Franck, and liturgical music with Gelineau. He sang in Gelineau’s choir at Saint-Ignace, and was a co-director of the youth choir (“Mini-Hosanna”) at the same church. As a result of these experiences, he became bilingual in French, with a good working knowledge of German, English and Spanish.
In 1965, at Gelineau’s encouragement, Eugenio and some of his classmates took part in an international conference in Fribourg, one of the seeds which would result the formation in 1966 of the international study group for liturgical music, Universa Laus, of which body he was for a number of years a member of the Praesidium.
From 1972 to 2004 Eugenio was Director of the Jesuit Theology Centre in Turin, where his work was a major influence on liturgical reform in Italy as well as further afield. From 1974 to 2004 he also taught liturgical music at the Turin Archdiocesan School of Liturgy and Music, and for part of this time was also director of the Turin Cathedral Choir. From 2004 he became pastor of San Fidele in Milan, a house for retired Jesuits as well as a parish. In 2008, with declining health principally caused by a flesh-eating bacteria that had attacked him many years before and which had left him with circulation problems in one leg, he then moved to the Jesuit HQ in Rome, where, right up to his last hospitalization, he continued to work as a translator for the Jesuit Curia.
Of his other achievements, some not so well-known, we can mention Costa’s massive work on the Italian Bishops’ Conference revision of the translation of the Bible, starting in 1974 with the Old Testament, moving on to the psalms, and from there to the entire Bible which finally appeared in 2008. He was one of the team responsible for the entrance and communion antiphons of the Italian Messale Romano and, among many other things, for the latest Italian version of the Our Father. His articles appeared in English-, French-, German- and of course Italian-speaking journals, and his books included a guide for cantors and several volumes of translations into Italian of poetry by the French Jesuit Didier Rimaud. He was much in demand as an editor and translator for a number of journals. In the last decades of his life, he became interested in the area of dance in the liturgy, supporting the work of Roberta Arinci of Milan in her attempts to integrate the movements of classical Indian dance into the liturgy.
As already stated, he was a founder member of Universa Laus; additionally he was a member of the Jungmann Society (the Jesuit liturgy network), a liturgy and music advisor to the Italian Bishops’ Conference, and a teacher in COPERLIM, the Italian bishops’ advanced liturgical music course. In his younger days he had issued a couple of recordings of liturgical songs, accompanying himself on the guitar. Later, he became well known in Italy as a composer of simple yet prayerful and beautiful liturgical music, using a variety of styles and resources.
Eugenio also impacted the Sistine Chapel Choir. He was instrumental in getting Don Giuseppe Liberto appointed as director of the choir in 1997, in succession to Lorenzo Perosi and Domenico Bartolucci, with the idea of achieving a change of direction for the choir. Eugenio continued as a friend and advisor to the next director, Massimo Palombella. One of the outcomes of this was his being asked to produce the texts for the Hymn for the Holy Year of Mercy, already mentioned, and the Hymn for the Beatification of Paul VI.
Eugenio carried his learning lightly. He was widely respected for his competence in matters literary, liturgical, musical, and even ethnomusicological, and had an impish sense of humour. He will be sorely missed.