For the past few years the best Latin lessons in the world were being offered in the unlikely setting of a nursing home basement in Milwaukee. After working in the Vatican for 40 years as “the Pope’s Latinist” and achieving renown as the ancient language’s foremost expert, teacher and champion, Fr. Reginald Foster, OCD retired to his native Milwaukee where he continued to teach. As a student and lover of Latin, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity while traveling through Wisconsin to drop in on one of Fr. Foster’s classes. It was a wonderful experience I will never forget. It is a common refrain of Fr. Foster’s students that learning Latin from him is like learning English from Shakespeare.
I remember first hearing about Fr. Foster when I began studying Latin as a freshman in high school. I asked my teacher if there was anyone in the world who actually spoke Latin. I was then regaled with stories about Fr. Foster.
In Fr. Foster’s 40 years working in the Latin Letters section of the Secretariat of State of the Holy See, he worked with a small team of linguistic technicians who were responsible for translating everything from encyclicals to letters of appointment for bishops into the Church’s official language. No one could compose and translate Latin quicker and better than Fr. Foster.
His greatest legacy, however, is the influence he had on thousands of students as a teacher, many of whom are now themselves some of the most dedicated teachers of Latin across the world. He taught generations of students at the Pontifical Gregorian University, and at his own eight-week summer school operated at his own expense available to anyone tuition-free, as long as they loved Latin. It was at his summer school where Fr. Foster’s cult status among Latin enthusiasts took off. The opportunity to learn from the chief Latinist of four popes with the historic sites of ancient Rome as a classroom attracted students from across the world.
Two of the best profiles about Fr. Foster that I came across really give a sense of the man. Alexander Stille originally published his in The American Scholar in Autumn 1994, entitled “Latin Fanatic: Profile of Father Reginald Foster”. I also greatly appreciated John Byron Kuhner’s “The Vatican’s Latinist: On the Career of Reginald Foster” which originally appeared in the March 2017 edition of The New Criterion.
In addition to Fr. Foster’s busy schedule translating at the Vatican and teaching at the Gregorian, he was also able to record a weekly program on Vatican Radio called “The Latin Lover” where his wit and wisdom is on full display.
Fr. Reginald Foster died on Christmas morning at the age of 81—a great loss to the cause of preserving Western civilization’s great patrimony of the Latin language. Helping to alleviate this loss is the work of Fr. Daniel McCarthy, OSB who is taking on the massive project of publishing books encompassing Fr. Foster’s method of instruction and his approach to Latin. Fr. McCarthy is a former student of Fr. Foster and has worked closely with him in this project which has seen two volumes published so far.
When I asked Fr. Foster to sign my copy of his textbook he retorted: Non est liber manualis sed liber dux—“It’s not a textbook, but a guide book!”
I’m grateful to Fr. McCarthy for making time to answer a few questions for the readership of the CWR on Fr. Foster’s life, legacy and the series of Latin guidebooks keeping his cherished teaching method alive.
Fr. Seán Connolly for the CWR: Please provide for us a survey of the life of Fr. Reginald Foster, from his youth in Milwaukee to his work in Rome as Latin secretary to the pope and teacher to generations of students.
Fr. McCarthy: Reggie represents the last of a breed. He was thirteen years of age when he began a life fully immersed in Latin during his two years at St. Francis Minor Seminary in Milwaukee (1953-1955). Instruction, exams, notices on the bulletin board, chores about the house and cutting the lawn were all in Latin. He continued his studies for three years at St. Joseph’s Minor Seminary in Peterborough, New Hampshire (1955-1958), again all in Latin. His novitiate year as a Discalced Carmelite was done at Brookline, Massachusetts, where he professed first vows on 15 August 1959.
Years later when a student of his said he grew up in Brookline, Reggie asked where in the city, then the street name, then the house number. Lo and behold, the very house in which Reggie had made his novitiate had been sold and became a private residence where this Latin student grew up.
Reggie returned to the Carmelite Holy Hill Basilica and National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians, located on the highest peak in Wisconsin, where he completed his years of philosophy (1959-1962). Then he traveled to Rome for theology at the Teresianum, the Order’s International College. He was ordained in the chapel of the Teresianum on 17 April 1966.
I say that Reggie was the last of a breed because in each seminary and college where he studied, all instruction was given in Latin. Thirteen years of education of full immersion in the Latin language. But after he left each school, it soon dropped the Latin curriculum and switched to English language instruction or Italian at the Teresianum. Reggie was at the tail end of a way of life.
Reggie recalled that when his ordination was entered into his baptismal record, he looked up the entry for his parent’s marriage at Holly Hill. All the entries on the register were written in German except for the entry of his parents which was in Latin, almost a premonition of Reggie’s love for the Latin language.
During his time at the Teresianum Reggie sowed the seeds of what would become his career. These were the years of the Second Vatican Council. Bishops and periti were arriving from all over the world and many wanted to be able to speak Latin on the council floor. So Reggie offered classes in colloquial Latin in the Brazilian embassy using the volume Latine loquor.
At that time the Salesianum University in Rome was developing its curriculum in higher studies in Latin including the doctoral program. Reggie had asked to continue his studies there, but he was called back to Milwaukee because there was some doubt about the usefulness of advanced studies in the Latin language at a time when seminaries and even the liturgy were changing from Latin to the vernacular. He obediently spent the year there, and then was allowed to pursue his dream, and he was never held back.
During Reggie’s first year of studies at the Salesianum, in 1969, when Msgr. Hamletus Tondini of the Office of Latin Letters in the Vatican became ill, it fell to Abbas Carolus Egger, the heavyweight Latinist in the office, who was teaching at the Salesianum, to come into the classroom to ask:
Visne, Reginalde, pontifici scriptor esse Latinitatis?
Reginald, would you like to be the writer of Latin for the Pope?
Catching his breath, Reginald responded:
Reggie boxed up his doctoral work for storage and began working as papal Latinist. After the proverbial nine years of working in the Vatican office, Reggie read a page of his doctoral work and then took all 700 pages and threw them in the dumpster outside of St. Ann’s Gate.
After the Council when the curriculum in seminaries had switched to the vernacular, some young seminarians arriving in Rome wanted a quick course on Latin as they began their studies. Reginald would begin each class by writing an authentic Latin text on the board and he led them in understanding it. Once this method was established, he never looked back.
When the Scottish Jesuit Clarence Gallagher was put in charge of the Latin School founded by the Jesuit Emilio Springhetti at the Gregorian University, he invited Reggie to teach there. Here he remained until nearly his retirement from the office at the Vatican in 2009. In 1985, he added his famous summer school which met daily for eight weeks.
After his illness in 2008 and leaving Rome finally in 2009, I met with Reggie to ask if he would be willing to write together his method of teaching the Latin language. As we worked together, he saw the first book published Ossa Latinitatis Sola ad mentem reginaldi rationemque (The mere bones of Latin according to the thought and system of Reginald). It provides the skeletal structure and ligaments joining Latin’s body together.
After his 40 years working in the office, and after having published our first book together, Reggie took up once again his doctoral research on the letters of Cicero and we began work on our second volume Ossium Carnes Multae e Marci Tullii Ciceronis epistulis (The Bones’ Meats Abundant from the epistles of Marcus Tullius Cicero), which Reggie always said would be better than the first volume. He so wanted to hold the printed book in his hands as the completion of his studies and a crowning achievement of his career. Reggie was grateful to have left the Roman scene and remain in the peace and quiet of his hometown Milwaukee to take up this energizing publishing project. Much of this history is told in Reggie’s own voice in this forthcoming volume.
CWR: Explain for us the experience of Fr. Foster’s “Summer School” in Rome.
Fr. McCarthy: People think that the ludi domestici are like worksheets that correspond to the lesson just presented in class. But Reggie gave them to us in such a way that we always had two ludi going at the same time. We would have a week to finish each one. Sometimes I would begin to work on the ludus right away and get stuck only to find out that he would present the material in the next session. I eventually began to see that that was part of his plan. On those occasions I had to realize what I did not yet understand, struggle with it for a while and realize that I had something to learn. In part this uneven way of moving forward is because Reggie spent his time in class working at the pace of students. He was never bothered by the error of a student because it gave him a chance to review the material which other students surely needed to review as well.
This also happened during the summer sessions but on a larger scale. Reggie was able to attract doctoral students from the top universities in the US, UK, professional Latinists from Australia, Latin teachers and professors, students from Jerusalem, Germany. My students in Rome also come from Japan and China, India and Africa. We had a former ambassador from Albania, a Muslim woman, who said her country’s history is written in Latin.
During those eight weeks of daily sessions, we met in the basement cafeteria of a primary school. Many of these top Latinists from around the world sat on children’s chairs at low tables. It was hot, but no fan was allowed, no fanning oneself, all was quiet, still and focused on our dialogue about Latin. The only thing we did was read texts together, consult the dictionary and only rarely consult a handbook. After several weeks they started asking Reggie for his teaching on the sequence of tenses. Reggie would hold off with the teaching as they continued to be frustrated with texts until they were practically begging for his teaching. Then after about four weeks, on a Saturday afternoon, Reggie would take five minutes to explain the sequence of tenses in such simple, clear and convincing terms that the room would sigh in disbelief that it had not occurred to them before. Part of his method is to help people see the problems with the way they are handling a text and to see what they want to learn. Then teaching is easy.
In the evenings we would meet sub arboribus, “under the trees”, in the garden of the nearby Teresianianum. We would have a topic and Reggie would help guide a discussion in Latin. He made sure everyone got to contribute something at their proper level and that no one was frightened away by boastful Latinists. Reggie had a rotation of reading texts assigned to the different days of the week so we were sure to read all different genres, authors, and eras of Latin. Every year Reggie used different reading materials, and created new ludi each year to keep himself fresh and learning and enjoying the process of discovery with the students. At one point I thought this might have been an exaggeration, but I have now collected about 1200 unique ludi type-written by Reggie which we shall publish in two bound volumes along with a listing of the different authors and their texts for each year at the Gregorian University and each summer.
CWR: Why is Latin important to the Church and world?
Fr. McCarthy: Latin is no more dead than Mozart, Bach, Handel, Puccini, because their music lives on and touches people’s lives profoundly. Reggie liked to compare teaching Latin to teaching music. All he has to do is open the student’s mind to the beauty of the language and beauty itself will attract them and draw them in.
If you want to read Augustine as he expressed his own thoughts, they are in Latin. Councils of the Church, Latin. Gallileo, Martin Luther, Latin. Calling Latin a dead language does not change the fact that most of Western history happened in Latin, and if I want to access our own history as it was originally conceived in the mind and expressed, I must understand it in Latin. We must know Latin to have contact with our own roots, our tradition. Beyond that is Greek and even Hebrew and Aramaic.
The official language of the Catholic Church even today is Latin. The typical edition of the Roman liturgy is in Latin. The latest edition of the Missale Romanum was published in 2008 with a few additions made by Pope Benedict XVI in Latin who even made an addition to the Missale Romanum of 1962 in Latin.
Students of liturgy here at the Pontifical Institute of Liturgy at Sant’Anselmo in Rome must pass an exam in Latin and in Greek before they register. They research liturgical texts in their original language, Latin, Greek, Syriac or even Coptic. From the original language, they can then consider the vernacular editions.
When I teach the history of the short prayers of the liturgy, my students must handle the study editions of the early Roman sacramentaries, Gallican, Mozarabic and Ambrosian ones as well as others all in Latin. Even the Book of Common Prayer has been translated back into Latin in numerous editions.
When my students study the theology of a collect or preface, we spend a good deal of time making sure they understand the Latin text well, because only then can its literary beauty be appreciated, and by the time they study the theology of their chosen collect, they are in awe of its beauty.
Reggie came to my monastery in Atchison, Kansas for “The Lights and Delights of Latin” when we compared the letters of Cicero and Gregory the Great. One of my confrères gave his rendition of a Latin text. Reggie responded: “My dear, I admire your enthusiasm, but those words will never mean what you want them to mean!” I’ve produced plenty of similar renderings of Latin texts, and even you, Fr. Seán refer to the translation you developed with Reggie’s help. That is the way to go forward together, with clear understanding.
If we ignore Latin, we ignore our own tradition. Some students think that getting the general gist of a Latin text is sufficient. If all I need is the general gist, then I’m free to think the text means whatever I want. All I need do is ask a student what one line of Latin in his or her doctoral dissertation means in English and I’ll understand how solid the foundation is on which they have built their castle.
The Liturgy was first celebrated in Greek in Rome. Even Emperor Constantine attended the liturgy celebrated in Greek throughout his lifetime. Only by around 380 had the Liturgy in Rome adopted Latin as much as it has. St. Jerome lived on this very Aventine hill where I write these words, and he gave to us the Vulgate Bible in Latin.
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