Monday, January 25, 2021

Fr Reginald Foster: My Unusual Latin Teacher, a Passionate and True "Latin Lover"

Fr Reginald Foster at his workplace in the Vatican Secretariate 

Why Latin?

There are very few teachers who leave behind an indelible mark in students' life.  I must confess that Fr Reggi is one of them. In Roman circles, he was known as Father Reggi, Pope's Latinist or "Latin Lover." Even though a year of Latin was enough to get the required credits to complete Bachelerate in Theology, because of the persona and his teaching, I opted for another year of Latin at the Jesuit-run Gregorian University in Rome. I should say that among all the languages that I have studied (Kannada, English, Hindi, Russian, Italian, Greek, French and German) learning Latin was fun. It is purely because of Fr Reggi.

The three years that I spent in Rome studying theology cannot be forgotten partly because of Latin. What I saw in my academic life is that I found a person who really loved his subject so much that he made others fall in love with that language.

Who likes to study Latin in the 21st century? Who wants to invest one's time and energy in learning a language which is not much spoken around the world? Moreover, one would certainly ask why this language to a Jesuit coming from India? I am certain that there are very few takers of that so-called "dead" language. Fr Reggi would say if we term such a fellow as "imbecile". Often he said, “You don’t have to be Catholic to love Latin,” However, Latin still enjoys the official tag as the language of the Vatican. 

Who is this Fr Reginald Foster?

On Christmas day of 2020 Fr Reggi died in his home town in Milwaukee. Born on 14th November 1939, to a family of plumbers he joined the Carmelite training seminary in 1955 at the tender age of 15 in New Hampshire. In 1959, Reggi joined officially the Discalced Carmelite Order and moved to Rome for theological studies in 1962 when the good Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Reggi often mentioned in the classes the exuberance and energy that was being disseminated due to the Council Fathers in Rome and how he felt fortunate to be around.  Fr Reggi was ordained as a priest in 1966. Even though the Council called for a renewal in every matter of Christian faith including moving away from Latin as the language of instruction in its seminaries, universities, and liturgies into vernacular languages somehow Vatican II was the beginning of the end for ecclesiastical Latin.  

Austere but free

Fr Reggi was a modern man who thought that Church personal should be courageous enough to be simple and straightforward. When I came to know at the beginning of the Latin course that Reggi was a Carmelite, I was baffled. Because he was a different sort of person. I often thought about how Reggi found his place moreover how others felt with him in the Baroque architectural structure of the Vatican Secretariat of State where he worked five days a week. Reggi was simple and austere. I never saw him in a different dress in the two years that I spent with him in the class. He came to the class with a long-sleeved jeans type blue shirt and rusty black trousers. In spite of the cold Roman winters his dress never changed. He came with a minimum of warm winter clothes. It was so funny to see him one day as he had a terrible cold still he made it to the first floor of the Gregorian where we had the class. He took out from his briefcase a roll of toilet paper and started to wipe his nose which was profusely flowing! That was Reggi. He never cared about what others felt or saw. He lived the way he thought.

A new method of learning Latin

Reggi was a serious teacher. He never compromised with the discipline. Those who made mistakes had his word "imbecile" or "balloney." Everyone would have to answer the translations or explanations. His method of teaching  Latin was different. We never learnt declensions. He said we should determine the meaning of the word or the sentence by its ending. For that, he gave ideas, sutras or rules to follow. When we missed it he reminded the rules of grammar. Moreover, we had to carry a dictionary for every class, the recommended was "Cassell's Latin Dictionary: Latin-English, English-Latin." Whenever a new word come we had to go back to the root of the word and its different forms, etc. The famous "Ludus Domisticus" the homework or Ludi Domestici, homework sheets was tough. It took almost 4 to 6 hours to finish it because we had quotations and other matter from Latin literature from Cicero to Marcus Aurelius, St Augustine to St Aquinas. We had both translations from Latin into English and English into Latin as well as other stuff.  Each class was also packed with a lot of general knowledge from why Cicero's writings are tougher than Augustine, or why the name of Jesus is written in early Latin as Iesus and later Jesus, etc. Reggi welcomed sensible questions and of course, he delivered the right answers. If someone was dosing off as the classes at Gregorian were held in the afternoons he had the remedy with questions to the person as he had learnt the names by the very first few classes.

Fr Reggi in the classroom of Jesuit-run 
Gregorian University, Rome, Italy
One of the most splendid ways through which he would encourage us to learn Latin was to show how with very few words a thing could be described so beautifully. That must be the reason why when theological insights were written in Latin there weren't many disputes that would take you to the Holy Office, now CDF. In Latin things and thoughts are clear, precise and lucid unlike the vernacular as translation in other languages becomes quite tiresome. In order to facilitate the learning of Latin, Fr Reggi would say even the market-goers, passers-by including prostitutes in Rome spoke fluent Latin and you guys can't even get simple sentences. 

During my two years of study 2004-2006, Reggi was full of life. In the morning hours, he would spend his time in the Office of the Latin Letters section of the Vatican Secretariat of State previously called Briefs to Princes. He worked in this office from 1969 until his retirement in 2009 working either composing Latin letters for Pope or translating the letters from other languages into Latin including the papal encyclicals or exhortations. Often he felt frustrated because it would be more sensible to translate something from Latin to other vernacular languages than other way around. 

A legend of Rome

Reggi worked for four popes day in and day out. But always felt that he could do little to create interest among the priests and bishops to learn the language.  That must be the reason why he started Latin Summer School for free in Rome. He would say that those who like to attend that special summer school one must pass his exam and should have sufficient knowledge of Latin in order to advance in that language. So it was an advanced Latin language course in the summer in which a number of Latin teachers, researchers participated from the world over. May be because of his personal commitment to Latin, he would say in the class that instead of a siesta in the afternoon the Church leaders should read Latin for the people from 2.00 PM to 4.00 PM in the Vatican. 

He served four popes — Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II and Benedict XVI who wrote his resignation letter in Latin in 2013— composing original documents in Latin, which remains the Vatican’s official language, and translating their speeches and other writings into Latin from a series of papal languages including sentences of excommunication and signposts for Vatican City into Latin. His fluency in Italian, German and Greek helped in explicating the differences in the structure of grammar and language form while teaching Latin. 

In spite of Reggi's strictness in the class, he was student's teacher. One day he bitterly cried in the class explaining the troubles Galileo and his two daughters who were cloister nuns went through. Reggi had great words of praise for Piccolomini of Sienna who became later Pope Pius II, a great intellectual and lover of art and aesthetics. A couple of times, I invited him to our house, Collegio Internazionale del Gesù for Pranzo (Lunch). This was one of the ways of introducing the teachers to our house. I was surprised to see him on my diaconate ordination day in the Church of Gesù. He graciously accepted the invitations in order to encourage us. 

Fr Reggi was of the opinion that if you know well Latin then you can write well in any other language. According to him Latin is something like foundational language. Even today for all the pharmacological and of medicinal components terms are given in Latin! An admirer of St Augustine, Foster would say that the Bisop of Hippo cannot be be understood in English because he thought and wrote in Latin. It's like listening to Mozart in a tape recorder. 

The last time, that I heard about Fr Reggi was from Robert Mickens, currently, the editor of La Croix International when I met him in Oxford, UK in 2010. However, what I learnt from Fr Reggi has been useful and Latin has come alive in one way or the other while flipping through the books of theology. With my recent job in the archives of the Karnataka Jesuit Province, Latin is coming back once again, as I grapple through the correspondence and writings of Jesuits and others between 1876 to 1960 which is for the great part is either in Latin or in Italian.   

Pater Reginaldus Requiescat in Pace!

- Olvin Veigas, SJ

25th January 2021

A number of posts have appeared on Fr Reggi in the news outlets carrying the news of his death:

1. Renowned Vatican Latinist Fr Reginald Foster has died

2. RIP Father Reginald Foster, 81, the Pope’s Latin teacher. By Katie Walker

3. Death of legendary Latinist leaves the Church a grayer place

4. REMEMBERING FR. REGINALD FOSTER (1939–2020) by John Byron Kuhner

5. Amo, Amas, Amat: Remembering Father Reginald Foster, the Vatican’s legendary Latin expert

6. Pope sends condolences for death of Fr. Reginald Foster

7. Father Reginald Foster Used Latin to Bring History Into the Present

8. Reginald Foster, Vatican Latinist Who Tweeted in the Language, Dies at 81

9. The Vatican’s Latinist by John Byron Kuhner

10. Profile of Reginald Foster

11. Latin Fanatic: A Profile of Father Reginald Foster ALEXANDER STILLE

12. Father Reginald Foster, exuberant figure in Vatican life who was Latinist to four popes – obituary

13. 'Ad Patris domvm': Famed Carmelite Latinist dies at 81

14. The Latin Lover

15. Latinitatis Corpus

16. Archive of The Latin Lover with Fr. Reginald Foster

17. Sancti Leonis Magni Tractatus Sermons of Pope St. Leo the Great read by Fr Reggi in audio

18. A few more details on the Latinist by Fr Coulter

19. Latin links and resources

20. Thinking Latinly: Remembering Reginald Foster


Joilin said...

Dear Olvin,
It's amazingly wonderful tribute to the Teacher who has made a difference in your life.
I truly appreciate and admire the way you admire your Teacher of Latin language for His steadfast commitment to living a life filled with seeking a passion and teaching you to do the same.
His fascination with the study of the language and the manner of teaching the same and his message of hope always resonates with his students.
It's making me alive in praise of my dear teachers too as I always treasure their kind words, caring smile and elevating encouragement.
My big salute to your Super Latin Teacher!
May his soul rest in peace Amen.

Filomena said...

Interesting blogpost. People like John and I had to study Latin. In Singapore, we spent hours in Latin class in convent school. John says that he learned English grammar by learning Latin. Much later on I studied some Sanskrit. There was a similarity between Latin and Sanskrit in study of cases snd attention to grammar. Very elegant and economical. Thanks sharing your encounter with such a fine and wonderful teacher.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this lively portrait of Fr. Reginald, and for introducing him to us, Fr Olvin!

Neil said...

Hi Father Olvin. Have read about this American priest's demise recently in American Media/magazine online. I've read somewhere that he was a very strict teacher when it came to Latin. If he taught you then I'm sure you're Latin must be really 👌🏻
Wow. That must have been quite a journey. Very nicely written tribute to him 👌🏻

Anonymous said...

Great narration about Fr. Reggi. I enjoyed reading it at one breadth. Thanks Fr. Olvin. Well written in super style. May the soul of Fr. Reggi rest in peace. And through his intercession may you become a Great scholar in Latin. Best wishes.