By CLIFFORD J. LEVY
May 29, 2004http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/29/international/europe/29fpro.html
VATICAN CITY - Let us now enter the inner sanctum of the Vatican. Walk past the Swiss Guards, up the marble stairways of the Apostolic Palace, through corridors adorned with wondrous Renaissance frescoes rarely glimpsed by outsiders, to a hushed spot near the residence of the pope himself.
There, in a small office, toils a plumber's son from Milwaukee with a shaved head, rascally sense of humor and fondness for janitor outfits that look as if they came from a J. C. Penney. (Which they did).
He is a Carmelite priest, but do not address him as father. The name's Reggie, as he is known to admirers around the world. Or perhaps Reginaldus.
Part ecclesiastical oddball, part inspirational educator, the Rev. Reginald Foster is a master classicist who has devoted his life to saving Latin from extinction. Not just quill-on-parchment Latin. The conversational Latin language of Cicero, wellspring of Western civilization and, at one time, mother tongue of the Roman Catholic Church.
It still is, technically, but in his 35 years as one of the Vatican's premier Latin translators, Father Foster has watched its role in the church wither. Church documents continue to be issued in Latin, but fewer and fewer priests know the language well, if at all.
Father Foster believes that Pope John Paul II and the church establishment no longer value Latin, and as a result are spurning two millenniums of tradition. Without Latin, how can anyone truly grasp St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas and Erasmus, not to mention Descartes and Newton and countless others who worked in the language? To those who carp about the language's difficulty, he retorts, "Every prostitute and bum in Rome knew Latin."
"The fact that you don't have Latin, you are just sitting out there in left field," he said in an interview in his office. "You have no sense of history, no sense of continuity."
"If you do Latin, all this other stuff is just peanuts," he said. "It's nonsense. If you do Latin well, Spanish and French, you can do that over the weekend. All these languages and all this culture came out of Latin, whether you like it or not."
Father Foster, 64, has immersed himself in Latin since he was a teenager at a Carmelite seminary in New Hampshire. He says he dreams in Latin, and considers it his first language.
As one of a handful of Vatican Latinists, he writes and translates a daily regimen of documents weighty and banal, from encyclicals to a recent congratulatory letter issued by the pope - Summus Pontifex Ioannes Paulus II - to the bishop of Rochester, Matthew Clark, on the 25th anniversary of his appointment. Most of his translations are into Latin from Italian, the Vatican's real lingua franca.
Father Foster prizes simplicity. His office is as spare as his work clothes, which he buys while visiting relatives in the United States. It contains a table, a few books and a bonsai tree. A bottle of vermouth, which he occasionally sips while working. Across the hall is his manual typewriter. He dislikes computers, though he did provide Latin text for the screen of a Vatican Bank teller machine.
His antics and candor have long exasperated his bosses, but he is apparently too valuable to be cast out. At least on the issue dear to him, he does not shy from criticizing the pope, who, he says, "uses Latin less than anyone in history.''
"The use of Latin in this pontificate has gone right down the drain," he laments. It is Father Foster's outside work - teaching classes in Rome to clergy and laity - that has garnered him much of his acclaim. Alternately abrasive and endearing, he brings the language to life by drawing on works of titans like Ovid and Virgil, not grammar primers. Classics professors around the world send him students.
"You people have to learn these things, and pass on this flame of Latin," he exhorts his students at the Pontifical Gregorian University. While Latin is enduring or even thriving in academia, he worries that inside the church, he might not have successors. It matters little that a prominent cardinal recently ordered a commission to issue a report on how to improve Latin education in the church. It has all been done before, and amounted to little.
"We do not need any more documents or letters!" thundered Father Foster, whose oratories, whether in Latin or English, require a storehouse of exclamation points. (His many guffaws, grimaces and verbal raspberries are not so easily transcribable.)
There was a knock on the door from a fellow Latinist, this one wearing the more customary garb of a monk's brown habit. The two engaged in a rapid-fire exchange in Latin, causing the visitor to plumb his brain for any remnants of his high-school Latin. It seemed to be something about a routine papal letter. Or maybe plans for lunch.
Father Foster is not one of those ritual-clinging Roman Catholics who rail against the Second Vatican Council of the 1960's, which largely did away with the Latin Mass. He has nothing against the vernacular, and in some respects is theologically liberal.
He merely believes that the church should compel priests to study Latin extensively at seminary, and encourage the laity to learn Latin as part of religious schooling.
Father Foster dismisses as a sideshow recent Vatican attempts to invigorate interest in Latin by issuing dictionaries with newly coined words for modern concepts and things, like "escariorum lavator" for "dishwasher." Instead, he uses all of Italy as a teaching tool. On the Ides of March, he takes students to significant places in Julius Caesar's life, including the spot he was assassinated. "Oh, it's a glorious day!" Father Foster said.
"Latin is not going to die," he said. "There is so much interest - all outside the church!" The classes are uplifting, some former students said. Gone is the old-style approach of relentlessly drilling pupils in declensions ("hic, haec, hoc") and their ilk.
"For me, the big revelation was this idea that Latin could become part of your living life, and you could have friends to whom you could speak only Latin," said Leah Whittington, 24, a Latin teacher at the Nightingale-Bamford private school in Manhattan.
Her boyfriend, John Kuhner, 28, who is writing a Latin textbook based on Father Foster's methods, said the priest was driven by fear of the language's demise.
Back at his office, Father Foster was asked how the Vatican could rescue Latin. He pecked an answer on his typewriter: "Exemplo non documento est linguae Latinae inculcandus usus," which means, he said, "The Latin language should be encouraged by example, not by a document."
He yanked the paper out. The pope, he said, "should stand up at the United Nations and speak Latin. And say, "If you don't understand this, it's too bad, jack!' "
Then he sighed. He was not optimistic. Even at the Vatican, he said, when the pope leads senior church figures in the Lord's Prayer in Latin, after "Pater Noster," their voices often descend into mumbles.
(c) The New York Times. All rights reserved.
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