Father Reginald Foster, The Vatican’s Latinist: Requiescat in Pace


Father Reginald Foster, O.C.D, died on Christmas Eve from complications arising from Covid-19. (Yes, I know – people across America are dying with bullet wounds and head trauma, falls, heart attacks, and what not else from ‘Covid’, but we might trust this one, for now).

But whatever it was that took his soul to God, his death marks the end of an era, and I thought I would squeak in a little Ave atque Vale for Father Foster before this year came to a close. He was one of the foremost Latinists of the 20th century. A brilliant student, the young priest was appointed the Pope’s chief Latinist in 1969, responsible for composing and translating pontifical and Magisterial documents of all sorts, as well as teaching generations of students at the Gregorian. I suppose for those outside the Church’s fold – and, sadly, even for many within – a ‘Latinist’ might signify expertise in Spanish-Hispanic-Mexican-Argentinian culture – like, say, Hilaria Baldwin – but no. Father Foster was a peritus in the linguam Latinam of the ancient Romans, and before them the Etruscans, which was in turn adopted by the Catholic Church in the late fourth century, and then by the Christian culture and civilization that the Church formed and founded.

I’ve often thought that Father Foster had a near-ideal job: Living at the Vatican, immersed in the Church’s teaching, precise translations – with one’s days off hiking in the Dolomites or plunging into the Mediterranean, or wandering the streets and monuments of the Eternal City. I have dreamt that one day, perhaps…But I am a victim of our cultural loss of Latin, and any British schoolboy of 1910 or so would mop the floor with my smattering.

Even that ‘small Latin’, as Johson wrote of Shakespeare, is being lost. Up until rather recently – say a generation or two – everyone had a smattering of Latin, enough to muddle through a bit of Caesar and Aquinas, perhaps even a bit less of Cicero and Augustine; and they could certainly have made it through the ‘Latin’ Mass. A myth to be sure that people did not understand the words at Mass. I have been castigated for singing the Sanctus, because people in the parish don’t know Latin’. I don’t think one needs any Latin at all to grasp the significance of the Sanctus, which would be comprehensible in Chinese.

Just back in the sixties, the Fathers at the Second Vatican Council were scandalized that some bishops needed simultaneous translation for the discussions and speeches, conducted, of course, in Latin. One of the last things Pope Saint John XXIII wrote – and he was no liberal, contrary to myth – in 1962, was the Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia (the highest level of authority of Church documents, and, yes, the link is in English) exhorting the reinvigoration of Latin, and ordering that all seminary instruction be conducted in the language. The professors went on strike rather than obey, which showed where things were headed. But by that time, poor Pope John in June of 1963 had already gone to his own eternal reward.

Go a bit further back, and those with a modicum of education were quite fluent in the ancient language, not just translating, but also composing. Cardinal Newman was fluent, as was Thomas Jefferson, who would pen Latin and Greek epigrams in his spare time. Isaac Newton wrote his Principia – with all the complex calculus – in Latin.

It was the lifelong mission of Father Reginald Foster to bring some of this back, to ‘instaurare‘, to reinstate, the perennial Latin language, in which so much of our culture is written, and the greatest minds expressed their thoughts. After all, is not something always lost in translation? To Father Foster, ignorance of Latin is, well, ignorance.

Father Reggie was a controversial figure – zealous, hard-working (teaching ten courses a semester at times), diligent, solicitous of his students, ascetical – he was scandalized by the lifestyle of some of his fellow ecclesiastics when he was first in Rome – and a brilliant teacher and translator. But he could also be rather contrary, and did not suffer fools nor dilettantes gladly. I was always a bit puzzled when I read years ago of his decision to adopt a ‘modified’ habit of blue overalls – I heard them described as a ‘jumpsuit’ – rather than his proper Carmelite habit, as called for by the Council itself, but which Father Reginald claimed no longer corresponded with the ‘dress of the poor’. Hmm. What would Sanctus Johannes Crucis have to say about that?

Perhaps I quibble, as is my wont. Father Reginald certainly left his mark, and legions of loyal students attest to his unique pedagogical method, emphasizing the military and precise nature of Latin, so given to clear, oral, as well as written, expression. There are no exceptions to the rules of Latin, unlike English, where the exception is the rule. He would have them read, cajole, shout, sing, in Latin, feeling the flow of the words. Eamus – Let’s go! Manducemus et bibamus! – Let us eat and drink!

And how much more devotional prayer is in the ancient and official language of the Church herself – of her saints, fathers, doctors, priests, bishops, missionaries and martyrs through the ages. (Of course, we would, and should, include Greek here, for the same panoply of greats in ‘other lung’ of the Church, in the East, but that is food for another reflection. I would recommend the recent Climbing Parnassus, an exhortation to immerse oneself on both languages of our culture).

Father Foster kept his pedagogical zeal right up to the very end, teaching ‘by remote’ a few days before his going to eternity in a nursing home in his native Milwaukee. May he hear the words of our Saviour:

Euge, serve bone, et fidelis: quia super pauca fuisti fidelis, super multa te constituam; intra in gaudium domini tui.

And may learn to love the mellifluous and melodic language of our Holy Mother Church, of all those who came before us, so that we may pray and sing with them.

As one of the foremost Latinists of any age once exhorted, Qui cantat, bis orat.  And he who ‘cantats’ in Latin, ‘oras’ even more well. Yes, I must work on my Latin, and English.

Requiescat in pace, Pater Reginaldus Foster, et lux perpetua luceat tui.