Let us now enter the inner sanctum of the Vatican. Walk past the Swiss Guards, up the marble stairways of the Apostolic Palace, through corridors adorned with wondrous Renaissance frescoes rarely glimpsed by outsiders, to a hushed spot near the residence of the pope himself.
There, in a small office, toils a plumber's son from Milwaukee with a shaved head, rascally sense of humor and fondness for janitor outfits that look as if they came from a J.C. Penney cut-rate market. (Which they did.)
He is a Carmelite priest, but do not address him as father. The name's Reggie, as he is known to admirers around the world. Or perhaps Reginaldus. Part ecclesiastical oddball, part inspirational educator, the Reverend Reginald Foster is a master classicist who has devoted his life to saving Latin from extinction. Not just quill-on-parchment Latin. Conversational Latin language of Cicero, wellspring of Western civilization and, at one time, mother tongue of the Roman Catholic Church.
It still is, technically, but in his 35 years as one of the Vatican's leading Latin translators, Foster has watched its role in the church wither.
Church documents continue to be issued in Latin, but fewer and fewer priests know the language well, if at all. Foster believes that Pope John Paul II and church leaders no longer value Latin, and as a result are spurning two millenniums of tradition. Without Latin, how can anyone truly grasp St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas and Erasmus, not to mention Descartes and Newton?
Foster, 64, has immersed himself in Latin since he was a teenager at a Carmelite seminary in New Hampshire. He dreams in Latin and considers it his first language.
As one of a handful of Vatican Latinists, he writes and translates a daily regimen of documents weighty and banal, from encyclicals to a recent congratulatory letter issued by the pope. Most translations are into Latin from Italian, the Vatican's real lingua franca.
Foster prizes simplicity, and his office is as spare as his work clothes, which he buys when visiting relatives in the United States. There are a table, a few books and a banzai tree. And a bottle of vermouth, which he occasionally swigs while working. Across the hall is his manual typewriter.
Foster's antics and candor have long exasperated his bosses, but he is apparently too valuable to be cast out. He does not shy from criticizing the pope, who, he said, "uses Latin less than anyone in history."
"The use of Latin in this pontificate has gone right down the drain," he added.
It is Foster's outside work - teaching classes in Rome to clergy and laity - that has garnered him much of his acclaim.
Alternately abrasive and endearing, he brings the language to life by drawing upon works of titans like Ovid and Virgil, not grammar primers. Classics professors around the world send him students.
"You people have to learn these things, and pass on this flame of Latin," he exhorts his students at the Pontifical Gregorian University. To those who complain about the language's difficulty, he retorts, "Every prostitute and bum in Rome knew Latin." [more]