Reginald Foster, Vatican Latinist Who Tweeted in the Language, Dies at 81

Reginald Foster, a former plumber’s apprentice from Wisconsin who, in four decades as an official Latinist of the Vatican, dreamed in Latin, cursed in Latin, banked in Latin and ultimately tweeted in Latin, died on Christmas Day at a nursing home in Milwaukee. He was LXXXI.

His death was confirmed by the Vatican. He had tested positive for the coronavirus two weeks ago, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.

A Roman Catholic priest who was considered the foremost Latinist in Rome and, quite possibly, the world, Father Foster was attached to the Office of Latin Letters of the Vatican Secretariat of State from 1969 until his retirement in 2009. By virtue of his longevity and his almost preternatural facility with the language, he was by the end of his tenure the de facto head of that office, which comprises a team of half a dozen translators.

If, having read this far, you are expecting a monastic ascetic, you will be blissfully disappointed. Father Foster was indeed a monk — a member of the Discalced Carmelite order — but he was a monk who looked like a stevedore, dressed like a janitor, swore like a sailor (usually in Latin) and spoke Latin with the riverine fluency of a Roman orator.

He served four popes — Paul VI, John Paul I and II, and Benedict XVI — composing original documents in Latin, which remains the Vatican’s official language, and translating their speeches and other writings into Latin from a series of papal languages. (He was also fluent in Italian, German and Greek.)

To the news media, for whom he was a lively perennial subject, Father Foster was the Latin King. To Vatican Radio, which broadcast a regular, highly discursive segment (in English) featuring him, he was the Latin Lover.

To the fanatically devoted, if gently frazzled, students who flocked to Rome to study with him, Father Foster was a taskmaster fondly known as Reginaldus.

“You will be picked on to answer questions,” he told The Sunday Telegraph of London in 2007, describing his pedagogy. “If you mess up, the Pope will make you disappear. He can do that, you know.”

To nearly everyone who met him, he was a knight-errant, evangelizing nobly, if quixotically, for the language he considered his mother tongue.

“You cannot understand St. Augustine in English,” Father Foster told The Telegraph, with characteristic righteous authority. “He thought in Latin. It is like listening to Mozart through a jukebox.”

Father Foster was unabashedly bibulous (from the Latin bibēre, “to drink”); combustible (< combūstibilis); dyspeptic (a Greek word, but indisputably apposite); cacophonous (his was a partly silent order, a state of affairs he more than made up for outside the monastery); undiplomatic (in interviews, he had all manner of advice for his exalted bosses, none of it solicited); and more than a trifle insurrectionist (in the privacy of his monastery room, he told The Minneapolis Star Tribune in 1998, he liked to say Mass attired as he was the day he was born).

“I’m a nudist,” he said. “If God doesn’t like that — sorry.”

The Vatican, at any rate, found it could not do without him. When there was an encyclical to be translated; a congratulatory letter to a cardinal or bishop to be written; a contemporary term, like “microchip,” that sang out for a Latin equivalent (he chose “assula minutula electrica”: “tiny amber wood chip”); or, after John Paul II approved a no-smoking ordinance in Vatican City, a sign to be posted (proposed wording: “Vetatur Fumare”), it turned again and again to Father Foster.

Even in retirement — he resettled in Milwaukee in 2009 — Father Foster continued to prepare the 140-character missives that flew from the Latin Twitter account of Benedict, @Pontifex_ln.

Although Latin has not been used in everyday discourse for well over a millennium, reports of its death were, for Father Foster, greatly exaggerated. As he saw it, the language, essential as air, was meant to be spoken through modern life’s quotidian course: when writing a postcard, visiting a pizza parlor or using an automated teller machine.

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He had long since reprogrammed Vatican City’s A.T.M.s, in fact, to offer a Latin-language option. “Inserito scidulum quaeso faciundam ut cognoscas rationem,” the machines said, meaning, roughly, “Please insert the small card so that you get to know the procedure to be done.”

Besotted with Latin from early adolescence, Father Foster found declining delightful and conjugating congenial. To him, the ubiquitous paradigms of noun-endings (declensions) and verb-endings (conjugations) possessed all the crystalline beauty of a Bach fugue.

But to many students, he knew, those paradigms formed a tightening web that strangled ardor.

Clad in his favorite professional attire, a blue jumpsuit from J. C. Penney (“This is the kind of thing that workers in America wear,” he said) with a piece of chalk in one hand and a wineglass — sometimes the whole bottle — in the other, Father Foster immersed his pupils in the living, breathing organism, rife with splendid oratory, gripping prose and more than a few period dirty jokes, that was Latin.

“You do not need to be mentally excellent to know Latin,” he said in the Telegraph interview. “Prostitutes, beggars and pimps in Rome spoke Latin, so there must be some hope for us.”

In 2006, however, he was dismissed from Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, where he had taught for decades, because of his longstanding refusal to charge his students tuition. Father Foster continued the class, speakeasy-style, in a series of off-campus locations.

To his students, who included clergy and laypeople of all faiths (“You don’t have to be Catholic to love Latin,” he liked to say), he put paid at top volume to any lingering doubts about the relevance of his subject.

“IT’S OUT OF THIS WORLD!” Father Foster bellowed in a class described in the book “The Future of the Past” (2002), in which the journalist Alexander Stille describes the fate of history in the postmodern age. “LATIN IS SIMPLY THE GREATEST THING THAT EVER HAPPENED!” Father Foster said, according to the book, which devotes a chapter to him.

If things had gone according to expectation, Father Foster would have been a plumber.

Reginald Thomas Foster was born in Milwaukee on Nov. 14, 1939. His father was a plumber, as was his grandfather, and as a boy, Reggie assisted his father in his work. A shy, bookish, ceaselessly curious child, he knew very early, he later said, that he wanted to be a priest. From the age of 13, when he declined his first noun, spinning out its endings like a silver thread, he knew he wanted to be a Latinist as well.

In 1955, at 15, he entered a Carmelite training seminary in New Hampshire, formally joining the order in 1959. He moved to Rome for theological study in 1962 and was ordained as a priest in 1966.

By then, the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) had spelled the beginning of the end for ecclesiastical Latin. In an effort to keep the church relevant to 20th-century followers, Vatican II held that Mass should be celebrated in local languages worldwide.

Though Father Foster endorsed many of the reforms, when it came to Latin he was a one-man redoubt — never mind that his stance could ruffle church feathers.

“They’re so obsessed with sex around here,” he said in the Star Tribune interview, describing Vatican leadership. “This whole abortion thing.”

The point, he continued, was that the church could far better spend its time exposing people to Latin. To that end, he proposed in The Telegraph, “Instead of a siesta,” the pope “should announce that from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. every day he will read Latin at the Vatican.”

This was not to say that Father Foster advocated a sweeping doctrinal return to the past, as some Latin-language conservatives did.

“The problem with Latin in the church is the polarization in the church,” he told The Newcastle Herald, an Australian newspaper, in 2004. “Some people say, ‘We want Latin, because when we had Latin everything was wonderful.’ That’s a load of baloney.”

Information on Father Foster’s survivors was not immediately available.

With Daniel P. McCarthy, he wrote an instructional book, “Ossa Latinitatis Sola ad Mentem Reginaldi Rationemque,” (“The Mere Bones of Latin According to the Thought and System of Reginald”) published in 2016.

In his later years, Father Foster could be heard waxing autumnal about the language he held so dear. Though he commended the Latin of the four popes for whom he worked, he was far less sanguine about its future in the church as a whole.

“I’m not optimistic,” he told The Telegraph in 2007. “The young priests and bishops are not studying it.”

Increasingly, he explained, congratulatory letters to cardinals, written by him in impeccable Latin, were being returned to his office with requests for translation.

Philologically faithful to the last, Father Foster declined.

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