By Fr Brian Lucas
The renowned Vatican Latinist, Fr Reginald Foster OCD died on Christmas Day at the age of 81. He was originally from Milwaukee in the US and worked in the Holy See’s Secretariat of State from 1970 until his retirement in 2009. His role was to compose and translate papal documents into Latin, the official language of the church.
As well as working in his office in the mornings, he spent afternoons and evenings teaching Latin at the Gregorian University. So popular were his courses and such was the demand, that from 1985 he ran an eight-week intensive (seven days a week) summer school for students who needed to demonstrate a proficiency in Latin for their other courses, especially those studying canon law.
His international reputation drew Latin enthusiasts and teachers who proffered from his free courses. Unfortunately, that generosity upset his academic superiors who resented the fact that he allowed too many students to attend without paying.
Unique teaching style won many fans
His teaching style was unique and included visits to important sites where students read texts in their original context. That was how I came to meet Fr Reggie as he was popularly known.
It was in October 1989 and I was passing though Rome on vacation. I arranged to catch up with a priest friend then studying at the Angelicum University. He was one of Fr Reggie’s students and on the Saturday in question, when we were going to meet, he suggested I come along for a Latin excursion.
The class was to meet at the Stazione Termini and travel to Roccasecca, the birthplace of St Thomas Aquinas (b.1225). My friend introduced me to Fr Reggie who was thrilled that someone would come all the way from Australia to join his class, even if only for the day.
In the footsteps of Aquinas
After a train ride and taking a minibus for the final leg we arrived at the ruins of the castle of Thomas’s father Landulf, Count of Aquino. The class literally sat on the ground. Each student was given some photocopied pages from the 1323 history of St Thomas by Guilelmus de Tocco.Each in turn read a passage about the birth of St Thomas, in the very place to which it referred.
Commentary and questions on the vocabulary and grammar kept everyone well engaged. This was certainly a memorable and enjoyable outing and Fr Reggie’s way of making Latin come alive.
Fr Reggie was critical of those who taught Latin students about Latin. His analogy was the swimming instructor who told the students about the pool rather than letting them get wet. His passion was the original texts. The trips around Rome he organised brought those texts alive.
Never a dull class
Alexander Stille wrote an essay on the work of Fr Reggie published in The American Scholar and which was titled “Latin Fanatic.” His description of the teaching style accorded with my own brief experience: “Foster is committed to the notion that learning Latin must be fun or shouldn’t be done at all. His classes are always punctuated by extravagant utterances, shouts, howls whistles, dramatic renditions, comic mimicry – even singing”.
Some years later, working in the Sydney chancery, I took a call from a Supreme Court judge who had heard about a priest in Rome who taught Latin and asking whether I could give him any information? I think he was impressed when I said that, in fact, I had met the very character he was seeking. I found out later that they did meet up in Rome.
Among the various tributes published since his death is this comment from Fr John McGowan OCD, from Kensington Priory: “Fr Reginald was a legend in the Vatican … He was known not only for his position in the Vatican but also for coming to work in what people called a boiler suit. He was the antithesis of what we associate with the Vatican, in the way he dressed and his austere lifestyle.”
Latin does not have the same significance in the life of the church as it had a few generations ago when the liturgy was celebrated in that language. Whether it was ever truly a universal language is a matter of conjecture. There are anecdotes to the effect that at the Second Vatican Council the severity of French, Italian, German and English accents often made the spoken Latin generally unintelligible.
Google translate offers a Latin option. I am not so sure that Fr Reggie would approve. We are grateful for his contribution to Latin scholarship. May he rest in peace.
Fr Brian Lucas is the National Director of Catholic Mission.