The Chronicle of Higher Education

June 18, 1999

With Gossip and History, a Carmelite Monk Breathes Life Into Latin


The Rev. Reginald Foster rarely misses a day teaching Latin, so the sign posted outside his classroom at the Pontifical Gregorian University takes some students by surprise.

It says: Cum Reginaldus noster a medicus (quos odit) teneatur, dubitat quin aulam veniat ad scholam Habendam. ... Non est in extremis! Or: "Since our Reginald is being held by the doctors (which he hates), he doubts he will be able to come to class. ... He is not in serious condition!"

The notice was written by the Rev. Thomas Buffer, an American priest who waits in the corridor as students arrive. A visitor asks if he's a colleague of Father Foster -- a fellow Latinist, perhaps? Oh no, the priest says; he's a student of Father Foster.

"When it comes to Latin," Father Buffer says, "Reginald has no colleagues. He has no peers."

A Carmelite monk from Milwaukee, Father Foster is Rome's most famous Latin teacher. He came here 37 years ago and stayed. In the mornings, he works at the Vatican as a Latin translator for Pope John Paul II; in the afternoons, he teaches Latin to seminarians and other students. Many of his students aren't even registered -- in the course or at the university. That's fine with Father Foster. If they're serious about learning Latin -- if they're willing to work through his dense work sheets -- they're welcome. He corrects hundreds of papers a week, by himself, switching ink colors every few lines because he likes to. He doesn't know how many students he has, and he doesn't care.

"This is not a kindergarten," he says. Besides: "Jesus didn't count. Confucius didn't count. Aristotle didn't count."

During his summer vacation, Father Foster runs an intense daily Latin course for advanced students who come from all over. (For information, write him at Piazza San Pancrazio 5A, 00152 Rome, and be prepared to take a placement test by mail.)

Father Foster's strength is that he brings Latin alive. He uses primary texts -- letters from Cicero and Seneca, for example -- in all his classes. He takes students on field trips to see the sites of Tiberius's villa and the birthplace of Thomas Aquinas. For his Ides of March tour, students read Plutarch's account of Caesar's assassination.

A sturdy man with a smooth, rosy head, Father Foster has a cheerful, slightly impatient manner. He's got places to go, verbs to conjugate, a language to preserve. His personal uniform almost always consists of dark blue trousers and a short matching jacket; he looks as if he ought to be driving the number-64 bus that will take him from the Vatican to the university at midday.

A Swiss guard dressed in red-and-yellow pantaloons guards the Vatican palace where Father Foster works, and the Pope lives. (They seldom meet.) In the Secretary of State's office, a pietra dura map of North and South America depicts place names in Latin. But to Father Foster, the grandeur can't hide Latin's decline in the Roman Catholic Church.

He has been studying Latin since he was a high-school seminarian. He remembers when Masses were conducted in Latin, and most priests knew Latin reasonably well. But that changed after Vatican II: By the time Father Foster was ordained here, in 1966, Latin's decline had begun. He continued his studies at a pontifical institute for Latin, and began working at the Vatican in 1969.

It's not just Latin that's in decline, Father Foster laments as he walks down a ravishing, vaulted gallery near his office that contains 54 biblical scenes painted by Raphael. This is the Vatican's Raphael loggia, closed to the public. He points to scenes of Pharaoh fretting over his dreams, little Moses floating in the river, the Queen of Sheba, the Last Supper. "People don't know their Bible anymore," he grumbles. A minute later he's standing on an outdoor terrace where all of Rome -- with its obelisks and domes and bell towers poking through the haze -- spills out before him. The view cheers him. "Not too shabby, eh?"

The number-64 bus passes more of Rome's impressive sights, made even richer with Father Foster's commentary. It crosses the Tiber, then cuts close to the spot near the Campo dei Fiori where Julius Caesar was assassinated. It continues past the ruined site where the ancient Senate met and winds around the Piazza Venezia. It passes Michelangelo's elegant Campidoglio, the ornate white Victor Emmanuel Monument, Trajan's Markets, and the entrance to the Roman Forum before depositing Father Foster a few blocks from the university.

The Gregorian University overlooks the Piazza della Pilotta on Rome's Quirinal Hill, a few blocks from the Trevi Fountain. In Father Foster's second-floor classroom, about 70 students are crowded into austere wooden benches and narrow desks. Today's written assignment, in English and Latin, includes this introduction: "We are now ready for the brilliant, super-Latin correspondence between the most educated, controversial, man-teacher-theologian-philosopher-abbott of the Middle Ages -- Petrus Abelardus [1072-1142] and his super-educated lover-student-nun-prioress Heloissa after the tragic outcome of their love affair in 1118. [They are both now in monasteries!!! = cells.]" The work sheet contains numerous grammatical questions and a portion of Heloissa's first letter to Abelardus, which students are asked to translate.

As the class hashes out word forms (Latin sentences take their meanings from word endings rather than word order), Father Foster offers gossipy asides about ancient Roman personalities, compares the styles of Seneca and Cicero, and provides constant encouragement. "See how you can do this, my friends?!" He digresses briefly from Heloissa's letter when he explains how, in the Middle Ages, "certain girls with certain problems ended up in nunneries. So much for divine vocations."

What distinguishes him as a teacher isn't so much his entertaining style or his theatrics or his intimate knowledge of Roman history, say his students. It's his respect for the language. He makes it breathe.

"I used to hate Latin," says Patrick Serna, a student at the Gregorian University. Then he met Father Foster, who discusses, in Latin, subjects dating "from antiquity up until yesterday."

"When you see the Coliseum," says Father Buffer, "you have to remember that the guys who cut the marble spoke Latin, and the gladiators spoke Latin, and the prostitutes spoke Latin." Father Foster reminds his students of that.

Everyone has a story to tell about the Latin-loving priest. There was the time he served as adviser to a Vatican City bank that decided to make Latin a language option for its cash machines. There was the time he baptized a former student's baby inside the Pantheon, where supposedly no baptism had been recorded for several hundred years. There was the time he overheard another former student (also at the Pantheon) telling friends that nobody could read Latin inscriptions on buildings anymore: Father Foster provided an on-the-spot translation. (The Pantheon's inscription, M. Agrippa L.F. Cos Tertium Fecit, says that Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, consul for the third time, had it built. In fact, Hadrian had the Pantheon rebuilt after it burned down, but kept the name of Agrippa, the first builder, on the facade. Father Foster cherishes such details.)

"I saw him for one hour in the summer of '86, and he changed my life," says Nancy Llewellyn, a graduate student in classics at the University of California at Los Angeles. She had been studying Latin, "but he was the first person I ever saw who actually spoke it. I vowed to return to Rome to study with him." She did, and went on to help found SALVI, whose Latin initials stand for the North American Institute for Living Latin Studies. Many of the group's members call themselves Reginaldi Foster alumnis -- alumni of Reginald Foster.

Father Foster has received quite a bit of press coverage over the years, including a lengthy 1995 article in The American Scholar that was written by another alumnus. It called him "a kind of one-man Audubon Society for the Latin language, determined to save it from extinction."

There has been talk about Latin making a comeback in recent years, but Father Foster isn't so sure. He can only do what he does -- day by day, declension by declension. His classroom is his pulpit, and he basks in its warmth. He is an evangelist who expects no miracles.

At the end of the day, he'll take the number-44 bus home to his monastery on the Janiculum Hill. Then he'll spend the evening correcting papers.

Copyright 1999 by The Chronicle of Higher Education
Section: The Faculty, NOTES FROM ACADEME
Page: B2

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