Anyone who ever called Latin a “dead language” had not encountered Fr. Reginald Foster, OCD.
Fr. Foster, a Milwaukee native and Carmelite who spent four decades as a Latinist at the Vatican Secretariat of State, devoted his life to the ancient tongue of Cicero, Tertullian and Caesar, believing the language to be every bit as vital today as it was in the time of Christ.
Fr. Foster died shortly after midnight on Dec. 25, 2020, at St. Anne’s Home in Milwaukee. He was 81.
In a statement, Fr. Michael Berry, OCD, Provincial Superior of the Washington Province of Discalced Carmelite Friars, called Fr. Foster “an original” whose “personal genius and extraordinary intelligence were truly awe-inspiring.”
“Foster didn’t just have us reading Latin – we would go out into the streets of Rome and into little towns all over Italy, with bottles of wine in our backpacks, reading, reciting and singing Latin,” said John Kuhner, a student of Fr. Foster who is working on a biography of his former teacher.
“I never understood Latin quite the way I do now until I took his class,” said Evan Williams, who studied with Fr. Foster during his free summer Latin Intensive Course that the Carmelite offered after his retirement. “He lived and breathed it.”
Fr. Foster was born Nov. 14, 1939, to Gordon and Margaret (Fleischmann) Foster on Milwaukee’s northwest side, and was baptized at St. Catherine Parish on Center Street in early 1940. He attended Saint Francis Minor Seminary in Milwaukee and St. Joseph’s Minor Seminary in Peterborough, New Hampshire, before entering the Discalced Carmelite novitiate at Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1958, making his first profession of vows Aug. 15, 1959. He returned to Wisconsin to complete philosophy studies at Holy Hill from 1959-62.
In September 1962, he went to Rome to study theology at the Teresianum, the Order’s International College. Fr. Foster was ordained a priest April 17, 1966, but his graduate studies were interrupted in 1969, when his proficiency in Latin earned him the attention of the Vatican Secretariat of State. He was asked to become one of the Pope’s two principal Latinists, responsible for translating the papal documents that make up the lifeblood of the Church.
Fr. Foster became noted for his simple clothing, frank manner and indefatigable work ethic. In 1974, he began teaching Latin, an endeavor that would become his life’s greatest passion. He taught for nearly 30 years at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and in 1985, began a Latin summer school. Whenever possible, his courses were offered for free and always incorporated what he called “real Latin” — straight from primary sources throughout the ages.
Fr. Foster became renowned for his view of Latin, which dispelled the notion that it was a dusty and fragile relic of antiquity in favor of seeing the language as robust and totally essential to the identity and mission of the Roman Catholic Church. Believing that spoken Latin was crucial to the modern Church, he advocated tirelessly for its use and devoted himself to educating a new generation of Latinists who took his courses — or “experiences,” as he called them.
“He was the first person I had ever heard actually speak the language,” recalled Kuhner. “Speaking languages makes them easier to learn – which is why, as he said, ‘Every bum and prostitute in ancient Rome could speak Latin.’”
That ready candor and quick wit made him something of a novelty at the Vatican, especially when it came to the media — but some of Fr. Foster’s students lament that many profiles and tributes of their late teacher omit the sense of reverence that he had, particularly for the priesthood and the Eucharist.
“One day, we were translating the text of ‘Veni Creator Spiritus,’” recalled Williams, referring to a hymn that was included in Fr. Foster’s ordination Mass in 1966. “When we finished, he was already crying and he told us that every time he thinks about the day he was ordained, he would weep because of the beauty of his ordination and how humbled he was by the priesthood.”
Following a grave illness and heart trouble, Fr. Foster returned to his native Wisconsin in 2009, but he continued teaching during his convalescence at St. Clare’s Terrace and later at St. Anne’s Home. Even in the latest months of the pandemic, he continued teaching virtually for several hours each day to students throughout the world.
Due to the pandemic, Fr. Foster’s funeral Mass and burial at Holy Hill will be held privately. A memorial Mass and celebration of life is expected at a later date.
Fr. Foster always believed that Latin was living and ageless, and in many ways it is his death that proves that theory best of all: Latin, “the dead language” is outliving him at an impressive pace. His students are perpetuating his educational philosophies all over the world, through groups like the North American Institute of Living Latin Studies (SALVI) and the Paideia Institute, which offers “Living Latin” courses in cities such as Rome, Paris and New York City.
“Much of my life – my teaching career, my work for the Paideia Institute, my time as president of SALVI, even my wife, who is a Foster alum as well – is due in great part to him,” said Kuhner. “He was the most dedicated and passionate teacher I have ever known. And I’m not alone. He had this kind of impact on hundreds of people.”
“I definitely incorporate some of his techniques in class,” said Williams.“I try to put real living Latin in the mouths of my students so that it’s not this totally arcane stuff from a book — so that they see what Latin is like when it’s in action, not just when it’s written on a page.”