When I was studying in Rome in the early 1980s, I attended every class that was on offer from Fr Reginald Foster OCD. Originally from Milwaukee, his lifetime passion is the Latin Language and he was the best teacher of anything that I ever had the good fortune to study under. Reggie is an eccentric character who expresses himself strongly in English and even more strongly in Latin. He works for the Secretariat of State producing official documents in Latin and, famously, doing things like writing the script for the ATM at the Vatican Bank.

Theologically, he is something of a liberal and he has no great enthusiasm for Mass in Latin except with his students when he also preaches in Latin. However, he could be scathing about the moral standards of seminarians and could not abide any insensitive display of ecclesiastical grandeur. He was known to shake his fist in the street if a Monsignore passed by in what he thought was too luxurious a car.

His retort to the charge that Latin is too difficult for people to learn nowadays was that "every prostitute and street-vendor in Rome knew Latin". However, he is scathing about any attempt to "get the general sense", demonstrating with simple examples that "either you know it or you don't". On one occasion, a student from the NAC was not sure what a particular word was doing in the sentence and opined that it was just floating. The reply was "NOTHING floats in Latin". In sum, he opined sagely, "You can't learn Latin with your thumb in your mouth and your mind in neutral."

To say he was indiscreet about his work would be an understatement. He expressed himself freely and vigorously on the style (and sometimes the content) of Pope John Paul's encyclicals. One one occasion, he was telephoned by the curator of public works of the Vatican. They had been cleaning the obelisk in St Peter's Square and had found an inscription "P.F.C." on it. The curator asked him if he could look up some reference works and see if he could find what the initials stood for. Without hesitating, he said "Well it just might be your job - Publicae Fabricae Curator - and slammed the phone down.

A pet hate of his was the revision of the hymns of the Breviary. The hymn for Advent which used to begin Creator Alme Siderum reads, in the new version, Conditor Alme Siderum (traditional English version begins "Dear maker of the starry skies"). He got us to look up in the dictionary the two verbs condo-ere (to create) and condio-ire (to spice or pickle). The derivatives of these (both spelt "conditor") would have a short and a long "i" respectively. He then sang "Conditor alme siderum" according to the usual tone for the hymn (it obviously has a long "i") and said "So now we have to sing 'Dear pickler of the starry skies'".

His classes were divided into the first to fifth "experiences" of the Latin Language. The "second experience" was conversational Latin in which he used examples from the plays of Terence and Plautus as well as some of Cicero's letters. While three of us were sitting in the garden of the English College in Rome on a hot afternoon in June, a student dived into the swimming tank with a loud splash. Reggie immediately cried out "Quis urinatus est?", urinor meaning "to dive".

My memories of those great days of sanity and relief from the tedium of the Greg include a trip round the 12 obelisks of Rome, reading the inscriptions and learning the history of their various journeys; a visit to the Museum of Roman Civilisation at EUR where all the exhibits are casts - but some of originals that were destroyed during the war; and a visit to the Capitol and the Forum. Actually, after 4 hours, we only got as far as the top of the Clivus Capitolinus, reading through pages and pages of Livy, Cicero, Tacitus and others.

I usually visit Rome once or twice a year and try to call in on him when I am there. He is easy to find - 20 years on, same time, same aula, similar enthusiastic students. I usually reel off some verse or saying that I learnt by heart then and never forgot. One time, a young American seminarian looked in awe and said "Was he one of your students all that time ago? Are you going to give him a test?" With a dismissive wave of the hand his mildly contemptuous respose was "Nah, he just stands there and recites it on his own."

He has a regular 5 minute slot on Vatican Radio in which he is interviewed by Veronica Scarisbrick who has a clipped English accent and totally straight manner which is a foil to his irreverent comments in gravelly American. Here is an archive of the programmes.

I'm also delighted to see a page Learn Latin with Reginald Foster attempting to give some of his material online. It isn't the same - you have to be there to get it but it would be great nostalgia for any other alumni. The page also has a good collection of links to Latin resources.

A profoundly grateful hat tip to the American Papist for these links.

If you are studying with Reggie in Rome at the moment, tell him Timotheus Reginaldo salutem plurimam dicat, optatque illum semper bene valere. Make the most of your time learning Latin with him - you will be grateful all your life. Here's a verse from Ovid to take to class. I bet he starts joining in before you've got halfway through the first line.
Dum vires annique sinunt, tolerate labores;
Iam veniet tacito curva senecta pede.

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