Reginald Foster, RIP.

Stu Clayton sent me Margalit Fox’s NY Times obituary of a remarkable Latinist; it begins:

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.)

As you can see, the obit itself is pleasingly written; a couple more samples:

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). [...]

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. […]

“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.”

The obit is behind a paywall; fortunately, Trevor Joyce sent a couple of links that are free to all comers: Fr. John Zuhlsdorf’s blogpost R.I.P. – Fr. Reginald Foster, OCD, which has some touching personal reminiscences, and a three-minute video Senior Vatican Priest – Father Reginald Foster – interviewed by Bill Maher, in which Foster is very cheeky indeed, to Maher’s delight. Foster has been mentioned here before, in 2004 (“Latin’s loudest advocate in the modern world”) and 2017 (“I have to say, Foster’s insistence on ‘total philological mastery’ sounds off-putting to me”). Stu has ordered Foster’s 2016 book Ossa Latinitatis Sola ad Mentem Reginaldi Rationemque (“The Mere Bones of Latin According to the Thought and System of Reginald”); I trust he will give us a report in good time.


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    It’s not quite as long but the obit from his hometown paper back in Milwaukee plays up the local-boy-who-made-good-off-in-the-big-city angle in a way I enjoyed.

  2. A TV show about him here. There are a bunch of videos of him speaking Latin; the ones I could find are all recent, and he speaks haltingly, I imagine at least in part because of his health. His pronunciation is ecclesiastical, rather than classical.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    Father Foster was unabashedly bibulous (from the Latin bibēre, “to drink”)

    Bibĕre, of course. I don’t know what the world is coming to. Hodierni iuvenes …

  4. “discalced” is such a good word. (though so is “borves”, i suppose)

  5. Stu Clayton says

    bläck fööss !

  6. I can see the ad campaign: “This summer, encalc yourself with Nike”.

    [“Cut, cut, cut!!! Who came up with this?? Tell Creative to get something on my desk that kids will understand. By 3 pm, or somebody’s getting fired.”]

  7. Yes, some great quotes there. And this is an amazing story:

    “I remember the first time I ever did a full papal document on my own,” Foster recalled during one of our many conversations. “I came in for work and Giovanni Coppa ushered me into a room with a typewriter.” Coppa, an official in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, had a side job as Foster’s official minder. “He told me to write a telegram to the president of Uganda—you know, at the time, Idi Amin!—and he told me the pope would sign it.” Amin had just seized power in his January 1971 coup d’etat. “I said, ‘Idi Amin? Isn’t that rather sensitive?’ And Coppa said, ‘Oh no, not at all…Just imagine you’re the pope, and write whatever comes to mind!’ So Coppa closed the door, and I sat down, and I imagined I was pope, and wrote the letter to Idi Amin. When I handed it in I was shaking. And it was sent the next morning, just like that.”

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    “I read this thing where they said ‘Oh we’re doing Latin because it’s good for our English.’ Like people who play the piano to cure arthritis. Listen, Mozart does not exist to cure your arthritis, I’m sorry.”

  9. Whoa. I took a glance at his book, Ossa Latinitatis sola ad mentem Reginaldi rationemque : The Mere Bones of Latin according to the thought and system of Reginald. This is like no other grammar I have seen, introductory or scholarly. This is no “poeta videt puellam” kind of book. I should get a copy.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    On the other hand, Foster would probably not have been impressed by Kuhner’s:

    How could such purpose and passion and love not have an effect on the world, and not have value in God’s sight? Remittuntur ei peccata multa, said Jesus of one of his saints, quia dilexit multum. “For him many sins are forgiven, for he loved much.”

    (Hint: it’s Luke, 7:47. Misgendered much?)

    [Kuhner’s interpretation of the verse is also at variance with Catholic doctrine. And this on a site which exists “to confront the ideology of secularism.” Kids today …]

  11. Dear Idi Amin,

    Please stop killing your political enemies and eating their livers.


    The Pope

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    Now I want to see the Latin text of the Papal letter to Idi Amin.

    [EDIT: David L has just provided a translation. Thanks!]

  13. You may enjoy Sylvia Poggioli’s memorial piece for Foster from today’s All Things Considered.

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    Disappointingly, Discalced Carmelites do in fact appear to wear shoes.

    On the other hand, if you’re a Discalced Carmelite you get to put OCD after your name.

  15. You may enjoy Sylvia Poggioli’s memorial piece for Foster from today’s All Things Considered.

    We just heard it on the radio — it’s great to hear his exclamatory voice.

  16. J.W. Brewer says

    I’m thinking that the set “Ugandans with good reading knowledge of Latin” circa 1971 probably overlapped substantially with “Ugandans likely to find themselves crosswise with the new government if they haven’t already prudently gone into exile.” Imagine being the one that Amin’s thugs had been given standing orders to treat gently, just in case a telegram came in from the Vatican and a translation was required.

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    I imagine that Amin would have been more likely to pay attention to a firmly expressed fatwa than a Papal letter. Now Bokassa, on the other hand …

    Inquit Vicipaedia (sadly, there is, as yet, no Latin version of the page):

    Bokassa remained in the CAR for the rest of his life. In 1996, as his health declined, he proclaimed himself the 13th Apostle and claimed to have secret meetings with the Pope.

    I would imagine that they had much to discuss.

  18. There’s a weirdly ecclesiastical ring to this sentence found elsewhere on Vicipaedia: “France severed ties with Bokassa, and began to plan his excommunication when the emperor began working with Muammar Gaddafi.” Presumably the Libyan fellow was viewed as a heresiarch of some sort?

  19. @DE: that is disappointing. can we not even trust a holy order to match its label these days?

  20. Quaerite, et non invenietis. Maybe courtesy telegrams don’t count as letters.

  21. David Eddyshaw says

    Presumably the Libyan fellow was viewed as a heresiarch of some sort?

    One suspects Circumcellion tendencies.

  22. David Marjanović says

    This is like no other grammar I have seen, introductory or scholarly.

    “Latin will be learned immediately.”
    (p. 32)

    Presumably the Libyan fellow was viewed as a heresiarch of some sort?

    He did import the sola scriptura approach…

  23. Stu Clayton says

    I am in receipt of an email in German from the British publisher/distributor of Bare Bones, to the effect that it may be February before the book is delivered – a month later than announced by Amazon. The text is syntactically AOK, but contains some words strangely out of place, as if plucked from a dictionary. I think they are blaming “a shift in inventory” and Brexit complications.

    They ask whether I want to cancel the order as a result. This set me off internally – do they cater to princesses? How often do you need a book IMMEDIATELY, especially on such a subject ? I didn’t order a crate of fresh turkey eggs for Boxing Day brunch. Cur quis non prandeat hoc est ? as the man said.

    I fear that civilization has moved beyond hodierni juvenes, now the veteres want to get in on the act.

  24. Stu Clayton says


    Heading off suspicion of anti-clericalism in the last sentence:

    # The term “Circumcellions” may have been coined or mocked by critics who referred to them as “circum cellas euntes”, they go around larders, because “they roved about among the peasants, living on those they sought to indoctrinate.”[1]. The concept of a clergy who are supported by parishioners is of course not at all unique to the Circumcellions. #

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