Just down the hall from the pope's apartment and office in the Apostolic Palace, Carmelite Father Reginald Foster eyeballs processions of Latin words like Caesar reviewing the vaunted 10th Legion before a crucial battle.
This Wisconsin native, plumber's son and graduate of Milwaukee's former St. Anne Parish grade school has come a long way from the world of beer, brats and bubblers.
But not so far that he doesn't still routinely wear plain blue work shirts and pants from J.C. Penney.
He is the pope's senior Latinist, a gifted and demanding linguist who did the lion's share of the translation when Pope Benedict XVI followed tradition and delivered the first formal speech as pontiff in Latin to the cardinals on the morning after being elected.
Known as Father Reggie to some friends and students, he also is an internationally renowned Latin teacher and a fluent speaker of complex, Ciceronian Latin, not to mention a world-class curmudgeon and quirky critic of the temporal and spiritual universes around him. His sometimes intemperate outbursts of personal opinions apparently are offset by an expertise that has enabled him to survive and to serve four popes over 36 years.
This is how Foster reacted when Karol Wojtyla began signing papal documents in Latin as "Joannes Paulus II" instead of "Ioannes Paulus II" after being elected pope 26 years ago. He quickly pointed out to a papal adviser that there is no letter "J" in Latin.
"I said, 'By the way, friend, there's no J,' " Foster recalled. "And the answer kind of came back that the pope said, 'Well, now there is.' Well, fine, fine. He's the boss. And if you look at his tomb, the J is gone. One of my brethren said, 'Well he enjoyed his J for 26 years, and now it's gone.' His tombstone has 'I.' "
Mortals who dare to call Latin a dead language can expect a volley of, "Well, you're just brain dead. Why don't you just go and talk about chipmunks or hamsters?" One should "dismiss them, ditch them, throw them out" because Latin is "the whole Western world, all of literature, all of language."
His appearances on a weekly Vatican Radio segment dubbed "The Latin Lover" are legendary among some seminarians at the Pontifical North American College, partly because of his reputation for political incorrectness and unpredictability. Computer users can hear Foster tell the story of Rome's founding, burst into liturgical song in Latin, and react to Benedict XVI's first speech on archived shows at www.105live.vatican radio.org/en_latin.html.
Ides of March field trips
Yet, he also is a monk with a ready smile and a willingness to help visitors to Rome and the students from around the world who take his Latin classes at the Pontifical Gregorian University or his free Latin-immersion course in the summers. He makes the subject come alive through conversation and by doing such things as taking students on the Ides of March - the anniversary of Julius Caesar's assassination - to the site of the stabbing.
This also is the same Father Reggie Foster who didn't hesitate to interrupt the pope's calligraphers with a special request last month as they rushed to complete the final documents of John Paul's papacy before the new pope was elected. He needed to personalize a sterling silver plaque of the Holy Family that he was sending to the now 89-year-old School Sister of Notre Dame who taught him in seventh and eighth grade in Milwaukee. It was to honor her 70th anniversary of professing vows in her religious community.
That plaque now sits on a shelf in the room of Sister Ladisla Gogowski in Resurrection Life Center, a nursing care facility in Chicago. The paper attached to its back bears her name, notes her anniversary and years of service as a sister, and includes the words "Rome, Italy, April 17, 2005."
Rush for translation
"Well, I'll hear about that forever. Maybe not that long, because I don't have that many years (left)," Foster, 65, said during an interview in a Roman restaurant next to Vatican City three days before the conclave began. "The fact is, I shouldn't have done it, because they wanted to finish the pontificate, which I thought was total madness. I mean, because they want all the documents that John Paul II did finished by today."
Foster still has a brother, sister and other blood relatives in the Milwaukee area. But on his annual return trips to the Midwest each August, he also goes to see Gogowski.
"He always says I'm the one that's responsible for his having the job he's got," said Gogowski.
"You wouldn't know him now, compared to what he was when he was a kid in school. He wasn't very outgoing when he was a kid, but he loved (English) grammar, and that's what put him into that Latin translation. He would stay after school sometimes and say, 'Was there anything you taught the kids today that you didn't teach all the way through, that there's more to it?' "
Patrick Harvey, 40, a lawyer from Washington, D.C., who was interviewed in St. Peter's Square in Rome after John Paul II's death, studied Latin with Foster years ago and recalled him as "very dynamic," "very respected," "the best Latin teacher I ever had," someone who has been speaking Latin since the age of 14.
Regarded as the best
"He's reputed to be the best Latin teacher in the world," Harvey said. "Instead of teaching grammatical forms . . . he teaches it as a living language.
"Really good classical scholars will invite him to meetings because he's terribly respected. He's read everything. It's hard to find somebody who's read more Latin than he has, not only the classical works, but also medieval. . . . He can quote Cicero. He can also speak as Cicero did."
Bob Kaster, Kennedy Foundation professor of Latin language and literature at Princeton University, has never met Foster but is aware that Foster has an international reputation. At least two dozen students whom Kaster has taught at Princeton and at the University of Chicago have taken Foster's summer immersion program, for which applicants must take an admissions test.
"I think I can say without exception it's been a really transformative experience for all of them, both in terms of improving their skill with the language, but also being led by someone not just of obvious skill, but of real charisma," Kaster said.
The use of Latin has declined in the church, but Latin's popularity as an academic course is huge, Foster said. Only about a third of the 150 people who take his classes at the Gregorian University are clerics. The others are among a growing number of philosophers, art historians, classical scholars, Latin teachers and others who see its value, he said.
Lived at Holy Hill
Foster, who entered the seminary after eighth grade, said he studied at Milwaukee's St. Francis Seminary, went to a Carmelite seminary in New Hampshire, studied and was ordained in Rome, was at the monastery at Holy Hill in Washington County for about a year, and then returned to Rome to study at Salesian Pontifical University.
He became a papal Latinist when the pope's Latinist had a heart attack. "They said, 'We need someone to do this work (for Pope Paul VI) because it's piling up.' And one of my teachers said, 'I think I know the man you're looking for.' "
He's translated everything from encyclicals to the appointments of bishops into Latin. But though he works right down the hall, he rarely sees the pope.
The last time he was with John Paul II was in January 1982 after employees in the palace complained that they hadn't met the pope since his election in 1978. In response, the pope had them in for lunch in groups of 10 each day for a week or two.
"We have had very little personal contact with him," Foster said. "That's how the system works. That's no state secret. His apartment is right down the hall from me, but I never got chummy or friendly with him. No one does with any pope. We don't go over to the desk and say, 'JP, I have this idea.' "
Perhaps that's fortuitous for Foster, who says popes should ride buses instead of limousines, and who thinks the church needs to be more open to women and more willing to address other contemporary issues.
"I think we need a revolution in the church, but no one seems to agree," he said.