Learning Latin from Fr. Reginald Foster

The author, right, with Fr. Reginald Foster in 2002, at Horace’s Villa, an architectural site near Licenza, Italy

By Patrick T. Twomey

I was incredibly fortunate to spend three summers on sabbatical studying Latin with Father Reginald Foster, a renowned instructor who died at Christmas in a nursing home in Milwaukee. My journey to Rome and Fr. Reginald’s classroom was motivated by a long desire to correct a deficit. I knew nothing of the language of the Western Church, and, as a priest, felt some shame in my ignorance. I went to learn, having no idea how much I would learn and how much my life would change for the better.

Drawing on his humble working-class background, Reginald Foster achieved acclaim while still in his teens as an exemplary Latinist, through deep personal piety and academic rigor. He was eventually appointed the Pope’s chief Latinist at the age of thirty, a position he held for forty years, until his retirement and return to Milwaukee in 2009.

When not at his day job, Reginald taught Latin to anyone who had the time, desire, determination, and maturity to learn the language of the Romans and the official language of the Roman Catholic Church. He taught for several decades at the Gregorian University during the academic year and conducted an intensive summer course in the basement of an elementary school near his monastery. Students came by the hundreds, and they arrived from all over the world. Many returned repeatedly.

Reginald became a celebrity, a myth, in part, of his own making, which functioned as an effective advertising campaign. Students came because he was a great Latinist, but they also came because of the stories they heard about him. So, it is no surprise that several obituaries, most notably The New York Times, painted a cartoonish version of the man: given to drink, combustible, morose, loud, vulgar, undiplomatic, anything but ascetical.

The picture is a half-truth and, in some respects, a falsehood. For instance, he lived a very ascetical life, giving away nearly all his money, sleeping very little on the tile floor of his monastic cell, endlessly sacrificing his time and boundless energy on behalf of his students, ending his days penniless and on public aid.

I met Reginald in the summer of 1999. Two years prior, I attended a concert at the Lawrence University Conservatory in Appleton, Wisconsin, located adjacent to the parish church I served as rector. I listened as a group of singers/scholars called the Anonymous Four sang motets to the Virgin Mary. The Latin text was printed on the left-hand pages of the program with a translation to the right. Inwardly, I felt something was wrong. I had a functional command of Koine Greek but no knowledge of Hebrew or Latin. To this day, I regret not having learned Hebrew. Of these languages, Latin is arguably the most important for a priest because it is the language of the Western Church, and not merely of the Roman Catholic Church. Latin was the language used in theological treatises and disputations throughout and on all sides of the Reformation.

Most of the mainline denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church, decided decades ago that seminarians need not study, much less master, Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. After all, a level of competence and elegance in the vernacular seemed far more critical to the task of preaching and teaching in a parish church. Still, it seems a strange situation when preachers cannot read the source material. I was ashamed.

I approached the chair of the classics department of Lawrence University, Professor Daniel Taylor, who kindly allowed me to sit in on an introductory Latin Course. During a private conversation, Dan told me of a strange priest in Rome who spoke Latin, and he directed me to an article in The American Scholar by Alexander Stilles entitled Latin Fanatic. I wrote a brief note of inquiry to Fr. Foster, and he sent me two entrance exams, one for mid-level Latin students (Iuniores) and one for the more advanced (seniores). I took the first, and I failed miserably, which I interpret as a felix culpa (fortunate fall). Reginald wrote to me: “I have received your entrance exam today, and I certainly noticed some LATIN MISERIES. They are not incurable, however. So, yes, if you want to come, you are welcome.” Losing never felt so good.

Arriving on the grounds of Reginald’s monastery in Rome on the first day of class, the nervous energy was palpable. A general sense of excitement was mixed with real fear, which only intensified when Reginald appeared speaking in Latin, which was pure glossolalia even to those with many years of Latin study.

Once we were settled in our places, Reginald took command, directing us to sheets of unedited Latin from every period. Within minutes, participants were shocked into an awareness of their ignorance. Even the most experienced Latinists among the participants were overwhelmed. Reginald was often on his feet, demonstrating the “whole Latin language” in a single sentence. He was demanding, lighthearted, at times ruthless, but always tireless in his effort to help students grow both in their knowledge of the language and their appreciation of the people who wrote it. Under Reginald’s watchful eye, texts became a living tradition. Persons long dead came forth from the grave.

Rare private moments with Reginald were especially important to me. I was not a graduate student or a Latin teacher. I was not in Rome for credit or to adore a venerable teacher. I wanted to learn Latin, at least well enough to read the Vulgate Bible and theologians of the Church. I asked Reginald how long it took to learn Latin. He told me. “I wouldn’t say this to my students, but it takes a good 10 years to learn Latin.” I asked him how long it took him to be able to sightread almost anything. He said, “Twenty years!” Then he commented, “Patrick, if you want to learn Latin, you will have to spend the rest of your life in your dictionary.” In Christian terminology, this is called a word of wisdom: 10 years, 20 years, the rest of your life. I took it to heart.

Class convened three times a day, six days a week. On Sundays, Reginald hosted optional day trips to places where we read Latin texts in situ. During these trips, Horace, Cicero, and Julius Caesar became living beings. St. Augustine, St. Monica, and St. Thomas Aquinas leapt from the page. As we stood in Ostia, Reginald read St. Augustine’s account of his mother’s (Monica) death. At moments he stopped and wept with real emotion. He wanted us to feel and know, to read, learn, mark, and inwardly digest. He wanted to change our lives.

When I returned in 2002, Reginald was slowing down. The decline was more evident in 2006. In 2008 he broke his femur on a day trip with his students and, after developing further health complications, was sent back to Milwaukee in 2009 to recover, where he remained and continued to teach until his death. Since first meeting him, I sent him a Christmas and Easter greeting every year, always in Latin. He always replied. In 2008, when my 15-year-old daughter, Hannah, died in a car accident, Reginald wrote one of the most beautiful notes I have ever received. I continued to see his kindness and goodness, and, notwithstanding his more notable faults, I saw a venerable priest, monk, teacher, and devoted friend.

Complaining one day about the state of the Church, Reginald said to me, “The older I get, the more I’m sick of the whole thing.” We sat for a moment in silence. Then I said, “Yes, I know, but I still find the Eucharist profoundly meaningful.” He jumped to full attention and said, “Are you kidding? The Eucharist is everything!!” In a way typical of Reginald, he bounced from one extreme to another, from faithless despair to absolute faith in the real presence of Christ in consecrated bread and wine. The Eucharist is a mystery, the Church believes, in which the very life of Christ flows into the Church collectively and all her members individually, encompassing, in principle, humanity in all times and all places. And because humanity lives in Christ, every person in every age is in some mysterious sense – alive.

In this manner, we learned to read St. Augustine and Cicero, St. Jerome, and Horace. We read the words of real living human beings. Similarly, I live my life now, mostly because of Reginald’s instruction, in the life of the Church encompassing the past and present. Every day, I take up the Liturgia Horarum to find, invariably, a pearl of great price, voices of the dead, alive and utterly present.

Exaggerating only slightly, Reginald Foster singlehandedly helped me discover that the Christian tradition and Christian humanism live on because of real flesh-and-blood human beings.

Fr. Patrick Twomey is a retired priest of the Diocese of Fond du Lac.  In retirement, he serves as supply priest for two missions and a summer chapel and is also a frequent contributor to The Living Church


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