“The most influential Latin teacher in the last half-century is Reggie Foster,” says Dr. Nancy Llewellyn, professor of Latin at Wyoming Catholic College. “That’s not just my opinion—that’s a fact. For decades, he had the power to change lives like no other teacher in our field. I saw him for an hour in Rome in 1985 and that one hour completely changed my life. His approach was completely different from every other Latin teacher out there, and it was totally transformative.”
A humanist par excellence, Latin for Foster was not something to be dissected by linguistic analysis or serve as the raw data for a theory of gender or poetics: it was a language, a medium of human connection. I first met Foster in 1995, at his summer school, and couldn’t get enough: I returned seven times. No one on Earth was reading as much Latin as he and his students were, but he was more like an old-school newspaper editor than an academic: he wanted the. But for that you actually had to know Latin, and know it well. Foster was ruthless about ignorance, and equally ruthless about anything that to him looked like mere academic posturing. “I don’t care about your garbage literary theory!” he barked at his students one day. “I can tell in about ten seconds if you know the Latin or if you are making it all up.” “Latin is the best thing that ever happened to humanity. It leaves you zero room for nonsense. You don’t have to be a genius. But it requires laser-sharp concentration and total maturity. 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.” The number of Foster’s students runs into the thousands, and many of them are now themselves some of the most dedicated teachers in the field. “When I was in college I asked people, ‘Hey, we all know Latin is a language. Does anybody actually speak it anymore?’ And they told me there was one guy, some guy at the Vatican, who still spoke the language, and that was Fr. Foster,” says Dr. Michael Fontaine, a professor of Classics at Cornell University. “I said to myself, ‘I have to study with this guy.’ And that changed everything for me.” Dr. Paul Gwynne, professor of Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the American University of Rome, said of Foster, “He is not just the best Latin teacher I’ve ever seen, he’s simply the best teacher I’ve ever seen. Studying Latin with the Pope’s apostolic secretary, for whom the language is alive, using the city of Rome as a classroom . . . it changed my whole outlook on life, really.”
Time seems to bend around Foster, and past and present intertwine. When I wrote to Fr. Antonio Salvi, the current head of the Vatican’s Latin department, for comment about Foster, he responded entirely in Latin, beginning with four words that sounded like an old soldier praising Cato—“Probus vir, parvo contentus.” An upright man. Content with little. And in many ways Foster’s resembles the life of a medieval saint: at the age of six, he would play priest, ripping up old sheets as vestments. He entered seminary at thirteen. He said he wanted only three things in life: to be a priest, to be a Carmelite, and to do Latin. He has spent his entire life in great personal poverty. His cell had no mattress: he slept on the tile floor with a thin blanket. His clothes were notorious in Rome: believing that the religious habit no longer reflected the simple garb of the people as it once had, he gave up his cassock and bought his clothes at Sears: blue pants and a blue shirt, with brandless black sneakers. When it was cold he added a zip-up blue polyester jacket. The Vatican’s Swiss guards called him “il benzinaio,” the gas-station attendant. Reporting for work at the Vatican, he looked like someone called to fix one of the washing-machines in the laundry room. His outfit was more like something his own father, a plumber in Milwaukee, would have worn. When people would give him gifts, he would give them to the poor. He owned almost nothing, and his Vatican office was legendarily spare: a typewriter, pens and paper, one chair, one desk, and a Latin dictionary. Nothing mattered to him except Latin.
But through the Latin language and his work, Foster might just as well have been living during the Italian Renaissance. He made two exceptions to his no-gifts policy: books, because he loved them, and music, because he could not resist. He covered all his books in brown packing paper, and treated them as precious relics. The solitary pleasures of his cell were the words of Cicero and Leo Magnus, and the music of Handel and Haydn. And outside his cell he reveled in the artistic treasures of Rome. He would show visitors around the Vatican with evident pride, to Raphael’s loggia, a private balcony overlooking Bernini’s colonnade, or the Pauline Chapel (like the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo, but closed to the public and reserved only for Vatican employees)."