Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The Vatican’s Latinist

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John Byron Kuhner wrote in The New Criterion in 2017:

I1970, the Procurator General of the Discalced Carmelite Order, Finian Monahan, was summoned to the Vatican for a meeting. The subject of the meeting was a promising young American priest by the name of Reginald Foster. The head Latinist of the Vatican’s State Department had tapped Foster to write papal correspondence, which was at the time composed entirely in Latin. Foster wanted the job but was bound by a vow of obedience, and the decision would be made by his superiors. Monahan intended to resist. Foster, thirty years of age, had proven himself to be both supremely intellectually gifted and utterly reliable—a precious thing at a time when the Catholic Church’s religious orders were hemorrhaging priests. Monahan thought Latin was a dead end. He didn’t want to lose one of his best to a Vatican department that would only get less and less important every year. He said Foster would go to the Vatican “over my dead body.”

Foster remembers the meeting vividly. “So we arrive there, and we’re ushered into this office, and who do we find there but Ioannes Benelli,” Foster says, using Benelli’s Latin name, as was customary at the Vatican at that time. He continues:

Benelli was Paul VI’s hatchet man—whenever he wanted something to get done, he called on Benelli. He was very energetic—got things done, and no nonsense. Everyone was terrified of him. I was too, and now here we were in the room with him, and he turns to Monahan and says, “This is Foster?” The General said yes. Then Benelli said, “Thank you very much, we won’t be needing you anymore.” And he took me by the hand and brought me down to the State Department and that was the end of that. Monahan didn’t say a word. I was now working for the Pope, and it was like I was more or less out of the Carmelite Order. A lot of the time the Order didn’t even really know what I was doing.

Foster would spend the next forty years at the Vatican, part of a small team of scribes who composed the pope’s correspondence, translated his encyclicals, and wrote copy for internal church documents. His somewhat unique position between the Carmelite Order and the Vatican bureaucracy meant that in fact he had a great deal of freedom for a priest. Later in his career his loose tongue—some in the church called it a loose cannon—would attract the notice of journalists looking for interesting copy. “Sacred language?” he said when asked about Latin as the “sacred language” of the church. “In the first century every prostitute in Rome spoke it fluently—and much better than most people in the Roman Curia.” The Minnesota Star Tribune quoted him as saying “I like to say mass in the nude,” which caused a small Curial kerfuffle (Foster claims he was misquoted). He appeared in Bill Maher’s movie Religulous, which featured him agreeing with the proposition that the Vatican itself was at odds with the message of Jesus, that the pope should not be living in a palace, and that hell and “that Old Catholic stuff” was “finished” and “gone.” Foster says the pope received complaints from bishops and cardinals about his appearance. “They said ‘Who is this Latinist of yours and what the hell is he doing?’ They would have fired me for sure. But by the time the film came out I was sick and a few months away from retirement anyway. So they just waited it out and let me go quietly.” He had already been fired from his post at the pontifical Gregorian University for allowing dozens of students to take his classes without paying for them.

Besides being the Pope’s Latinist and “one of the Vatican’s most colorful characters” (as the Catholic News Service called him), Foster has been a tireless champion of Latin in the classroom. Indeed, Foster’s greatest legacy may be as a teacher. “The most influential Latin teacher in the last half-century is Reggie Foster,” says Dr. Nancy Llewellyn, professor of Latin at Wyoming Catholic College. “That’s not just my opinion—that’s a fact. For decades, he had the power to change lives like no other teacher in our field. I saw him for an hour in Rome in 1985 and that one hour completely changed my life. His approach was completely different from every other Latin teacher out there, and it was totally transformative.”

A humanist par excellence, Latin for Foster was not something to be dissected by linguistic analysis or serve as the raw data for a theory of gender or poetics: it was a language, a medium of human connection. I first met Foster in 1995, at his summer school, and couldn’t get enough: I returned seven times. No one on Earth was reading as much Latin as he and his students were, but he was more like an old-school newspaper editor than an academic: he wanted the story. But for that you actually had to know Latin, and know it well. Foster was ruthless about ignorance, and equally ruthless about anything that to him looked like mere academic posturing. “I don’t care about your garbage literary theory!” he barked at his students one day. “I can tell in about ten seconds if you know the Latin or if you are making it all up.” “Latin is the best thing that ever happened to humanity. It leaves you zero room for nonsense. You don’t have to be a genius. But it requires laser-sharp concentration and total maturity. If you don’t know what time of day it is, or what your name is, or where you are, don’t try Latin because it will smear you on the wall like an oil spot.” The number of Foster’s students runs into the thousands, and many of them are now themselves some of the most dedicated teachers in the field. “When I was in college I asked people, ‘Hey, we all know Latin is a language. Does anybody actually speak it anymore?’ And they told me there was one guy, some guy at the Vatican, who still spoke the language, and that was Fr. Foster,” says Dr. Michael Fontaine, a professor of Classics at Cornell University. “I said to myself, ‘I have to study with this guy.’ And that changed everything for me.” Dr. Paul Gwynne, professor of Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the American University of Rome, said of Foster, “He is not just the best Latin teacher I’ve ever seen, he’s simply the best teacher I’ve ever seen. Studying Latin with the Pope’s apostolic secretary, for whom the language is alive, using the city of Rome as a classroom . . . it changed my whole outlook on life, really.”

Time seems to bend around Foster, and past and present intertwine. When I wrote to Fr. Antonio Salvi, the current head of the Vatican’s Latin department, for comment about Foster, he responded entirely in Latin, beginning with four words that sounded like an old soldier praising Cato—“Probus vir, parvo contentus.” An upright man. Content with little. And in many ways Foster’s resembles the life of a medieval saint: at the age of six, he would play priest, ripping up old sheets as vestments. He entered seminary at thirteen. He said he wanted only three things in life: to be a priest, to be a Carmelite, and to do Latin. He has spent his entire life in great personal poverty. His cell had no mattress: he slept on the tile floor with a thin blanket. His clothes were notorious in Rome: believing that . . .

Continue reading.

Full disclosure: The Younger Daughter teaches Latin and Classical Greek.

Written by Leisureguy

27 December 2020 at 8:42 am

Posted in Daily life, Education, Religion

Tagged with ,

2 Responses

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  1. I love Reggie. I met him in ’90s, attended his “experiences.” (not classes) in Rome for several years, and last joined him and other old students from far and farther away in Milwaukee for his 80th birthday, a long weekend. I read the obit in the NYT, and it reads like a cartoon. John’s article gets closer to the man I knew.

    writingroma

    27 December 2020 at 2:55 pm

  2. He sounds like a remarkable person. I envy your experience with him.

    LeisureGuy

    27 December 2020 at 3:12 pm


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