This past Monday I read with sadness of the passing of Reggie Foster. The name may not be familiar to many, but Reginald Foster was one of the great Latinist of the past half century. Father Foster was born in Milwaukee in 1939 and died of COVID in an assisted living facility in the early morning hours of Christmas day in that same city. For decades this Carmelite monk had translated anything that came into the Office of Latin Letters of the Vatican Secretariat of State, toiling at a bare desk in a modest space for four decades stretching from 1969-2009. Foster—or Reggie as he was known to generations of Latin enthusiasts—was much more than that. A man of great intellectual capacity with a strong body constitution and an incredible capacity for work, for years he also taught as many as ten classes each academic year at the Pontifical Gregorian University to all levels of learners. His students included the lowest beginners to the most advanced trying to take that final step to mastery.
I myself had not known who Father Foster was until this past fall. Early this year, for reasons still unknown to me, I felt an urge and urgency to begin studying Latin. I started in earnest in early summer and when the busy fall semester began I found the time by studying from 6:00 – 7:30 am each morning before I began the workday. Foster’s name and life’s work came to my knowledge around September when I read Ann Patty’s poignant memoir “Living with a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin.” After reading that book I began the inevitable deeper dive into Foster, including a JSTOR search where I found several pieces of longform journalism about the man. Apparently someone is well along the way on a biography at the current moment.
What made Foster so respected and admired was his commitment to the language itself. He had little patience for anyone who saw Latin as a means of “self-improvement,” improving SAT scores, or any faddish motives that diminished the language itself. That’s why people came from around the world to study under him. Foster’s students admired and respected the man greatly, but his bosses at the Vatican and at the Gregorian University often found the outspoken priest difficult to rein in. The university let him go eventually because, well . . . he was telling students not pay for the courses. When anyone showed up he was always happy to have them if they took the work seriously. He spoke often and loudly also when he saw things in the Vatican that he believed were silly, ridiculous, or just plain wrong. His superiors did not like that, but he was just too good at his job as a Latin translator to let go. If an encyclical or other document had to go out quickly for release, and with assurance that there would be mistakes, the task inevitably fell to Father Foster. The final denouement came when he gave an outspoken on-camera interview to Bill Maher—standing in front of the Vatican—that appeared in Maher’s 2008 documentary “Religulous.” None of that meant Foster had lost his Faith, his love for the Vatican, or for the Discalced Carmelite itself. Far from it. He almost certainly would have gotten fired, but because he was so close to retirement his bosses let it go and he held on for the few months he remaining.
Foster returned to Milwaukee after his many decades in Rome. Health issues eventually confined him to a wheelchair and the retirement facility. Still he continued teaching classes, again almost always for free, to anyone who took the work seriously. There are many lessons to take from the life and experience of Reginald Thomas Foster: his belief in committing to and mastering difficult tasks is one of them; his work ethic and intellectual rigor are others. He found beauty in simple things and led an ascetic life dedicated to the search for truth and meaning. Though I never met him, I’m glad I learned who he was while he still alive. What is more, I will try in my own modest way to live up to his ideals.