Reginald Thomas Foster
14 November 1939
Reginald "Reggie" Foster (born November 14, 1939) is an American Catholic priest and friar of the Order of Discalced Carmelites. From 1970 until his retirement in 2009, he worked in the Latin Letters section of the Secretariat of State in the Vatican, formerly known as Briefs to Princes. He is an expert in Latin literature and an influential teacher of Latin, including 30 years at the Gregorian University in Rome and free summer courses that he has continued after returning to Milwaukee.
Foster grew up in a family of plumbers (his father, brothers, and uncles were plumbers), and entered seminary at 13; he has said that he wanted three things: "to be a priest, to be a Carmelite, and to do Latin".
In 1962, Foster went to Rome to study. In 1970, at the recommendation of Carlo Egger and despite the objections of the Procurator General of his Order, he succeeded Monsignor Amleto Tondini in the Latin Letters Office (until Vatican II known as Secretarius Brevium ad Principes or Briefs to Princes), the first American to be one of the Papal Latin secretaries. He worked there for forty years, returning to Milwaukee in 2009 upon his retirement.
In addition to his full-time work as a Papal secretary, Foster also served as a priest, tutored students, and had a weekly program on Vatican Radio, The Latin Lover. Starting in 1977, he taught ten Latin courses a year at the Gregorian University in Rome. In 1985, responding to student requests, he added an eight-week summer school with classes meeting seven days a week. The summer school was free; the university fired him in 2004 for allowing too many students to take his classes there without paying. As a result, in November 2006 Foster founded his own free Academia Romae Latinitatis, also known as the Istituto Ganganelli, which as of 2007 was housed at Piazza Venezia in Rome.
In 2008 Foster collapsed in class and had to be hospitalized; he was flown back to the United States, where he received further treatment in a nursing home in Greenfield, Wisconsin, initially on hiatus from his position; he resumed giving free Latin classes at the University of Milwaukee; as of March 2017 he was teaching in his nursing home.
Foster lived in Rome in an ascetic manner, sleeping on the floor under a thin blanket, giving away all gifts except books. Instead of wearing the clerical garb, which he believed no longer corresponded to the dress of poor people, he instead donned blue pants and shirts from Sears, with plain black sneakers and a blue polyester windbreaker in cold weather. The Swiss Guards called him il benzinaio (the gas-station attendant), and there were complaints about his appearance.
Foster is an expert in Latin literature, especially Cicero, and is an internationally recognized authority on the Latin language. He teaches Latin as a living language and has influenced many Latinists; Nancy Llewellyn was inspired by Foster to found Septentrionale Americanum Latinitatis Vivae Institutum (SALVI), the North American Institute of Living Latin Studies, in 1997, and two former students, Jason Pedicone and Eric Hewett, in 2010 revived his summer school in Rome as Living Latin in Rome, a program for college students, and have founded a non-profit organization, the Paideia Institute, which now also sponsors courses in other countries and in Greek, as well as elementary-school programs in the US. Foster headed the effort to produce a modern Latin dictionary, Lexicon Recentis Latinitatis, published in 1992-1997. After retiring, he published The Mere Bones of Latin (Ossa Latinitatis Sola) in 2016; a second volume is forthcoming.
Foster is a strict teacher, a "brash curmudgeon" to his students, warning them "if you make one stupid mistake, you're out!", and may assign a translation of a bawdy text to a pious sister, and a text from St. Augustine or Pope St. Leo the Great to an atheist or a Jew. A former student has quoted him dismissing theory and warning his students: "I don't care about your garbage literary theory! ... If you don't know what time of day it is, or what your name is, or where you are, don't try Latin because it will smear you on the wall like an oil spot."
Foster's pedagogy is entirely unorthodox. He eschews the memorization of paradigms--to the point of forbidding students from memorizing lists of grammatical forms and vocabulary. His method involves incrementally mastering the structure and vocabulary of the language by breaking down the grammar into tiny, discrete concepts that can be immediately grasped and recognized by most students with little additional explanation. For example, how to say "and" in Latin; or the 2nd person plural perfect form of a certain class of verbs and its meaning. Then, using chrestomathies of diverse Latin texts compiled by himself, Foster invites students to search for and identify the grammatical form under consideration. In this way, from day one students are exposed to genuine Latin literature rather than dry paradigms and tedious, rudimentary constructions. Finally, each lesson is reinforced through protracted homework assignments that often require many hours to complete.
Key to Foster's pedagogy and success is his visceral and infectious love for the Latin language, "a precious thing here on Planet Earth," as he liked to say. Even in classes of over 100 students, Foster learns the names of his students and follows each one's progress with care, publicly praising and upbraiding them in order to motivate them to learn.
Foster has condemned what he sees as a decline in Latin teaching; his effort to revive the language is the subject of a chapter in Alexander Stille's book The Future of the Past, where he is described as "a one-man Audubon Society for the Latin language, determined to save it from extinction." However, he is against returning to the Latin liturgy, saying that it "makes the Vatican look a bit medieval". He believes that a better example would be for Benedict XVI to announce that he will read Latin in his Vatican quarters.
Foster's position gave him more freedom to speak out than most priests, and he was sought out by journalists. He once responded to a question about Latin as a "sacred language": "In the first century every prostitute in Rome spoke it fluently--and much better than most people in the Roman Curia", and he was misquoted by the Minnesota Star Tribune as saying: "I like to say mass in the nude". He is one of the subjects of Michael Sheridan's Romans, published in 1995. In 2008, shortly before his retirement, Foster was interviewed outside the Vatican by Bill Maher in the documentary film Religulous, and agreed with statements about the Vatican being "at odds with the message of Jesus", leading to complaints.