Fr. Richard Cipolla remembers Fr. Reginald Foster OCD for the Catholic Herald. Fr. Foster — the Vatican’s chief Latinist for forty years, and one of the world’s great characters — exchanged time for eternity on Christmas Day, 2020. -Ed.
Those who love the Latin language were saddened to hear of the death of Father Reginald Foster on Christmas Day. It was heartening to see the many laudatory obituaries in the press and letters from those who knew Reginaldus, as he was known to his students.
Ever since I heard of his death, I knew that I had to write something myself about this remarkable man, whose influence on me was greater than he knew. It is not an exaggeration to say that the two summers I studied with Reginaldus in Rome changed my life. It was not only the Latin that I learned in those weeks under the hot Roman sun.
It was also being taught by this unique man, a mixture of ‘60’s rebelliousness, harshness, a profane veneer — all this — but coming through this formidable exterior was a genuine love for his students, for his vocation as a Carmelite priest, and above all for the Latin language: a love so powerful that one would have to be a stone not to become an amator Latinitatis under his influence.
I arrived for the first summer session in Rome as a Catholic priest who had taught science and math for many years at both the prep school and college levels, but I always harbored the hope that somehow and someday I would be able to teach Latin. My love of Latin came from my days at Classical High School in Providence, Rhode Island. One day, a friend who knew my fondness for Latin informed me of an opening to teach Latin at a prep school in Greenwich, Connecticut. I decided to take advantage of this opportunity.
I signed up for Reginaldus’ Rome summer course — which he called the Experience — to brush up on my Latin and to see if I could learn some teaching techniques from this man who had become a legend as a Latin scholar and teacher.
I remember meeting him for the first time in a group of some forty people, mostly young, but also including a good number of middle-aged people like me. He, a Carmelite priest, appeared in his version of glory: a worker’s outfit — nondescript short sleeve shirt and pants, and worker’s boots, which was a contrast to my impeccable black suit, Roman collar, and tasseled black loafers. He was carrying a small bottle of what looked like wine and was in fact wine. He explained the basic structure of the course and the division of the students into Juniores and Seniores.
He told us to choose what group we thought we would fit into based on our study of Latin. Then he said: “If you are here to have a vacation in Rome, I am telling you right now: Go home! I can’t be bothered with kids from the best schools who think they know Latin and are here for the pizza and wine. Most of you here think you know Latin. Well—you don’t. I don’t care at all if you leave or stay. Up to you. I really don’t care.”
A few did leave that day, either put off by what he said or frightened by this man’s demeanor. More left after the first week.
Then those who stayed, like me, began a Latin course like no one of us had ever imagined could exist. It was not a course. It really was an experience.
Before I encountered Reginaldus, I thought I knew Latin. I found out I knew very little. The first part of that summer he deconstructed me—which involved some pain—and then reconstructed me so that I not only significantly improved my Latin skills, but for the first time truly fell in love with Latin.
Let me give you an example of Reginaldus’ teaching method.
We would be reading some obscure text that he had xeroxed (not always clear) and thrown at us to translate together in class. When there was a pause in the translation, we knew what was coming. The dreaded drill. We all kept our heads down pretending to be absorbed in the text, hoping that he would not call on us.
“You,” he shouted, “the one who dresses up like a priest every day like an idiot in this summer heat, I forgot your name, what’s your name?”
“Ricardus,” I answered in dread. “OK, hot shot, look at that verb in the fourth line of the page we are reading: tell me everything you know about it.” I answered: “Third person plural, imperfect subjunctive passive.” Next question: “Why is it in the subjunctive?” Pause, mind racing. Couldn’t be sure why it was in the subjunctive, said to myself: I will choose something sort of obscure to impress him.
“Relative clause of characteristic” I boldly asserted. “What the hell is a relative clause of characteristic?” he shot back. “THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A RELATIVE CLAUSE OF CHARACTERISTIC! Stupid people who write Latin textbooks invent these things because THEY DON’T KNOW LATIN!”
I swallowed hard and was thankful that my hot-seat experience was over for today. But I was wrong. I was still on his hook. He then proceeded to ask me how the form of the verb would change if it were in the context of an indirect statement. I somehow managed to answer that correctly. But he was not satisfied. On he went asking me questions—until I failed to answer correctly. Then he uttered what sounded like a grunt, and went back to translation.
That process of deconstruction was not pleasant. But it was in the reconstruction under Reginaldus that followed that I began to understand Latin not as a puzzle to be solved but as a living language whose beauty was not always easy to unlock, but the act of unlocking was part of the beauty. It was the discovery of that difficult beauty that enabled me to teach Latin for many years to the most gifted students in my school and to enjoy the wonderful fruit of seeing my students understand and come to love the tough beauty that is the Latin language. They will never forget the lacrimae rerum, the tears of things, of Aeneas.
My second summer with Reginaldus was an experience of great happiness.
We developed a real relationship that transcended his 1960s post-Vatican II spirit and my own deeply traditional faith, a relationship that I believe was amicitia, friendship.
It was during that second summer that I became one of the members of Sub Arboribus. Reginaldus invited a small group of the Seniores to read Latin “under the trees” in the early evening after the last class. We would get something to eat and then meet him on the grounds of his monastery on the Janiculum Hill. He would bring a jug of wine, and we would bring our copies of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. There in the twilight we would take turns declaiming these fantastical mythical tales in glorious dactylic hexameter. I remember my fluency surprised me and gave me great delight—and this was not mainly because of the wine.
Reginaldus would organize field trips to sites that are important to Latinitas such as Horace’s farm and St. Thomas Aquinas’ birthplace. The buses that he hired for these excursions were old and beat up. Not much comfort. Reginaldus handed out texts on these trips, texts in Latin poetry meant to be sung. And he led us in these songs. Who else but Reginaldus would know enough about the various meters of Latin poetry, so that we could sing these poems with his direction. The melodies were mostly from the Monastic Breviary, which chant melodies he had learned from singing the Office in his monastery. And so we sang one of Horace’s Odes to the melody of a Vespers hymn that was written in the Sapphic Strophe meter. Quite an—I must use the word again—experience.
But there was one field trip that for me was in its way a life-changing experience that deepened my faith, my understanding of beauty and the power of Latin.
He brought us to Ostia, which was in ancient times the seaport for Rome at the mouth of the Tiber. It was there that St. Augustine and his mother, St. Monica, staying at a hostel in Ostia, had a mystical experience while standing at a window. The intensity and beauty of this experience Augustine describes in Book IX of his Confessions. The area where the hostel was, near the sea, has long since been filled in by the silt of many centuries, so that the place where the hostel stood is now a grassy field with no water in sight. And there we sat and read together this passage from the Confessions. Reginaldus finished the passage himself.
When he finished, he stood up and pointed up and over some small buildings. And he said: “It was there—there! That’s where this happened when they heard the silence!” And then there was silence. And we sat there for a few minutes in that silence, in that place, on that day.
Some years after that I took a group of my own students to Ostia, and we sat in that field and read from the Confessions the passage telling of that mystical experience which the son and his mother experienced so many centuries ago. I read the last part myself to my students. Then I stood up and pointed up and over, and I said to my students: “It was there—there! That’s where this happened when they heard the silence.” And there was silence.
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