On December 25, shortly after midnight, while Catholics all over the Midwest were attending midnight mass, Fr. Reginald Thomas Foster, O.C.D., passed away in a Milwaukee nursing home, just a few miles from where he had been born 81 years before. He had earlier tested positive for COVID-19. On his long circular journey back to his origin, the man who would become the world’s foremost authority on the Latin language, as well as Latinist to four popes over four decades, led one of this era’s most interesting and unusual Catholic lives and inspired thousands to love and study Latin.
He was a teenage prodigy, a grammar school valedictorian who entered St. Francis seminary in Milwaukee when he was thirteen and proceeded to achieve the highest grade point average in the school’s history. By the age of sixteen he was exchanging Latin letters with soon-to-be-Cardinal Antonio Bacci, the pope’s chief Latinist. At the age of thirty, in 1969, he had Bacci’s job. A few months later, after learning to write the kind of Latin considered suitable for a pope, Foster was given his own office, just a few doors down from the pope’s private apartment in the Vatican palace.
“I remember the first time I ever did a full papal document on my own,” Foster recalled during one of our many conversations. “I came in for work and Giovanni Coppa ushered me into a room with a typewriter.” Coppa, an official in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, had a side job as Foster’s official minder. “He told me to write a telegram to the president of Uganda—you know, at the time, Idi Amin!—and he told me the pope would sign it.” Amin had just seized power in his January 1971 coup d’etat. “I said, ‘Idi Amin? Isn’t that rather sensitive?’ And Coppa said, ‘Oh no, not at all . . . Just imagine you’re the pope, and write whatever comes to mind!’ So Coppa closed the door, and I sat down, and I imagined I was pope, and wrote the letter to Idi Amin. When I handed it in I was shaking. And it was sent the next morning, just like that.”
In 1974 he was asked to teach a Latin class at the Augustinianum, the Pontifical Patristic Institute in Rome, as many seminarians were finding it impossible to master their Latin. In 1977 he moved his classes to the Gregorian University, where for thirty years he would teach an astounding ten university courses every year, to hundreds of students per annum. Every week he wrote a homework assignment he called a ludus, which would take hours for students to complete, and every week he corrected them all. During the summers he taught an eight-week course that met seven days a week for six to eight hours per day. Each year he tossed his old assignments and readings and created entirely new ones. His workload was staggering, but he never complained about it. It was entirely self-chosen. He already had a full-time job working for the Vatican; he taught simply because he wanted to. “I believe in the beauty of Latin; I've given my life to it, and I want to share it with you,” he said.
Foster had begun as a devout Midwestern altar boy, and long marination in the realities of Vatican life took its toll on him. “When I was a kid, when we had parties on Saturday nights, or on Christmas Eve, someone would come around ringing a little bell five minutes before midnight. It was like last call, because you couldn’t eat or drink anything after midnight if you wanted to receive communion the next day. That was the way we lived. And then to come to Rome and see how some of the clergy lived, and the things they did—it was very difficult.”
Foster lived an ascetic life. He slept on a bare tile floor in his cell. He had only two sets of clothes. He designed his own habit, a blue worksuit of the sort his plumber father and grandfather might have worn. It was a symbol of his working-class approach. But it was also a symbol of his isolation at the Vatican. His way of life never caught on with anyone else. And by the time he reached his mandatory retirement age of 70 and was sent back to Milwaukee, it was easy to catch him on a bad day, when alcohol—which had become his constant companion—would open a flood of bitterness and anger and bile.
He would especially direct his anger at people he felt should be better, priests and Latin teachers in particular. These jeremiads were at times frightening. They were also very funny.
“So this priest comes up and tells me, ‘Oh we still have Latin in our parish.’ And I say, yeah, what? ‘We sing the Kyrie.’ Friend, if that’s your idea of Latin then you may as well take the gas pipe now!”
“‘Classics Conference'? I went to a ‘Classics Conference.’ It was an education. It was an education in what not to do.”
“I read this thing where they said ‘Oh we’re doing Latin because it’s good for our English.’ Like people who play the piano to cure arthritis. Listen, Mozart does not exist to cure your arthritis, I’m sorry.”
“Everyone’s talking this way—preachers, it’s horrible. And I told the students the other day we were reading St. Augustine they were almost in tears it’s so beautiful. I said well if you have nothing to say, just translate St. Augustine from the pulpit and sit down and SHUT UP!”
“Oh, the K.G.B. and the Gestapo thought they were smart, but they all learned from the Church.”
In a church gift shop he said, “If Jesus was here, he’d take a blow torch to everything!” When told about Vatican prelates getting paid in rare Vatican-issued euros and reselling them at high prices to collectors, he deadpanned, “Jesus of Nazareth would love this.” He never went ten minutes without saying something quotable, and often, as with the words of a great comedian, it was something simultaneously funny, insightful, and painful. Being around him was uniquely bracing and refreshingly real. After reading the riot act to a group of Advanced Placement Latin teachers, one of them quipped, “We thought we were going to get Mr. Chips, and we got ‘Terminator II.’”
But he was a man of endless contradictions. There was a well of positivity in him, a passionate love for God’s creation, which especially began to flow whenever he was near the Latin language and the people who loved it. It was his constant consolation and his daily pleasure. And through that love he touched thousands of lives. After breaking his femur on a class trip with students, he returned to Milwaukee. He spent his last eleven years in a nursing home, unable to walk but mentally sharp. With Fr. Daniel McCarthy he published a book on Latin grammar, Ossa Latinitatis Sola, a sequel to which, the Ossium Carnes Multae, comes out next month. And he never stopped teaching. Just four days before his death, he was chatting normally with friends and answering students’ Latin questions via FaceTime.
His teaching was part of a larger, truly inspiring quest for real Christian love. He knew all the people who worked at all the shops he frequented, and treated them with just as much honor as he would treat the pope. In fact, he had tremendous problems with authority, and so ended up treating them with more honor than he did the pope. Many people who met him only a single time have stories about how he went out of his way to help them. And for those who had been bonded to him by a shared love of Latin, he was a loyal, loving friend. The writers and artists of the past seemed to be equally his friends. He loved them in a way we could see, the way we love our living friends who happen to be far away. “If Cicero’s not in heaven,” he once said, “I—am—leaving!” And on another occasion: “I always say, when I become pope, Quintilian’s gonna be canonized first place. Second place, Haydn.”
How could such purpose and passion and love not have an effect on the world, and not have value in God’s sight? Remittuntur ei peccata multa, said Jesus of one of his saints, quia dilexit multum. “For him many sins are forgiven, for he loved much.”
John Byron Kuhner is editor of In Medias Res, the Paideia Institute’s online journal. He is working on a biography of Fr. Foster, for which he is seeking a publisher.
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