Keeping latin alive

Father Reginald Foster, OCD, was the chief Latinist for four popes from 1969 to 2008. The priest recently offered a one-week seminar in advanced Latin, “The Lights and Delights of the Latin Language,” from May 19 to 23 at St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison.

Father Reginald Foster, OCD, was the chief Latinist for four popes from 1969 to 2008. The priest recently offered a one-week seminar in advanced Latin, “The Lights and Delights of the Latin Language,” from May 19 to 23 at St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison.

One of the foremost latinists in the world comes to Benedictine College.

by Joe Bollig

There’s a scene in “The Untouchables” when G-man Elliot Ness explains to the tough, Irish cop Malone why he had to kill a gangster.

“He’s as dead as Julius Caesar,” agrees Malone.

Yes, Julius Caesar is dead.

And so, one would think, is his language: Latin.

But not quite. For a language that has been taking its licks since a barbarian horde breached the Rhine River frontier in 406 A.D., Latin keeps twitching.

Go tell Reginaldus

Latin, of course, was used long after the fall of Rome by the Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council of 1962-65, in fact, was conducted in Latin — although the next council is unlikely to be.

That’s because as a result of that council, Mass in the vernacular became the norm — or the ordinary rite. The Mass in Latin is now the extraordinary form.

Which puts the final nail in Latin’s coffin, wouldn’t you say?

But try telling that to Father Reginald Foster, OCD, known affectionately by his students as “Reginaldus.”

Father Reggie, or just Reggie, will turn 75 in November and now lives in an assisted living center for senior citizens in a suburb of Milwaukee.

From 1969 until 2008, when a fall led to serious health problems and a return to the United States in 2009, Father Reginald was the chief Latinist for four popes. He also taught at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome from 1975 to 2004, during both the regular academic year and an intense summer learning session.

He became known as a bit of a maverick — not only for his teaching methods, but for his preference for workman’s clothes over clerical dress, and for his propensity to speak his mind and go off script.

He became known, in short, as a bit of a character, Vatican-style.

Ready, set — translate!

After retiring and moving back to the States and the recovery of his health, Father Reggie began to offer his summer program for advanced Latin students in Milwaukee.

And thanks to the efforts of his former student and St. Benedict’s Abbey monk Father Daniel McCarthy, OSB, a taste of the Father Reginald experience was brought to the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

Father Reggie offered a one-week seminar in advanced Latin, “The Lights and Delights of the Latin Language,” from May 19 to 23 at St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison.

He also conducted a half-day reading session on May 24 at the Classics Department at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

Many people consider Father Reggie to be the foremost Latinist in the world — but he doesn’t care.

“I don’t know about that,” he said. “Who can judge that?”

“One, there’s no one to judge it,” he said. “Two, no one cares.”

He used to translate thousands of documents in Latin at his sparse, simple Vatican digs. But even in his “retirement,” he keeps getting calls from the home office.

“I’ve been doing the pope’s tweets in Latin for a whole year,” he said.

“They call me on this phone right here. Maybe I’ll get a call right now.”

“They call me and give me five or six tweets in Italian and say, ‘Could you have these ready for tomorrow afternoon?’” he continued. “‘I say, ‘Fine, tomorrow morning.’

“I scribble them out, and they call back. Then they go around the world.”

No, the pope doesn’t write his own tweets. Some guy in the papal social communications office combs through the pope’s discourses to get ideas to fit the pithy, 140-character format.

A good length, said Father Reggie, because popes like to “blah-blah-blah.”

He likes writing the Latin tweets because it gives him a chance to practice his Latin. More precious to him, however, is the opportunity to interact with his students.

Meet me at the forum — er, abbey

The lucky few who were able to attend the intensive week at St. Benedict’s Abbey read from the correspondence of Pope Gregory the Great (590 to 604), and the Roman statesman Cicero (106 to 43 B.C.).

They would read passages — individually and as a group — answering Father Reggie’s questions as best they could . . . and posing questions to him in turn. It was as close to a living Latin experience as one could get, short of a spin through a time machine. The mixed group included teachers, students and abbey monks.

One letter they read was a request from Pope Gregory to the bishop of Jerusalem for help in tracking down a misbehaving Roman deacon on the lam; he requested that the miscreant be sent back to Rome in chains.
And the students discovered something very important. Even Gregory and Cicero made mistakes in their Latin — a consolation for struggling Latin students everywhere.

Father Daniel is not only facilitating workshops like the one held at the abbey for Father Reggie, however.

He is working with the Latinist to help preserve his unique teaching method.

“In 2005, we started publishing commentaries on Latin prayers,” said Father Daniel, who began studying under Father Reggie in 1999. “I wrote them, but I always consulted Reggie on the meaning of the Latin.”

In the summer of 2009, he approached Father Reggie in Milwaukee and proposed they work together to produce a series of books to teach Latin the Father Reggie way.

“My contribution is to preserve Reggie’s voice and present it in a way that’s very clear to understand,” said Father Daniel.

There will be five books by the project’s completion. The first three are called:  “Ossa Latinitatis Sola: The Mere Bones of Latin,” “Ossium Carnes Multae: The Bones’ Meats Abundant,” and “Os praesens Ciceronis episturlaris: The Immediate Mouth of Cicero in His Letters.”

The series is not available for sale yet by the publisher, The Catholic University of America. But a smaller collaborative work about the collects of the Roman Missal, a one-chapter skeleton of essential elements of Father Reggie’s method, is available through the St. Benedict Abbey gift shop.

Thanks to dedicated students like Father Daniel, therefore, the not-quite-dead-yet language of Latin will twitch on.

While for his part, Father Reggie stands by, ready to help the “home office” fulfill its mandate to “spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth.”
In her ancient tongue, and 140 characters or less.

About the author

Joe Bollig

Joe has been with The Leaven since 1993. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s degree in journalism. Before entering print journalism he worked in commercial radio. He has worked for the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press and Sun Publications in Overland Park. During his journalistic career he has covered beats including police, fire, business, features, general assignment and religion. While at The Leaven he has been a writer, photographer and videographer. He has won or shared several Catholic Press Association awards, as well as Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara awards for mission coverage. He graduated with a certification in catechesis from a two-year distance learning program offered by the Maryvale Institute for Catechesis, Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education at Old Oscott, Great Barr, in Birmingham, England.

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