Report on Fr. Reginald Foster

A couple weeks back I was in Milwaukee and I went to visit the famed Latinist, Fr. Reginald Foster, OCD.     He has been recovering from a long and what was a very life-threatening illness.  Fr. Foster has made simply amazing progress and it is possible that he will return to Rome.

Fr. Foster is not able to get around a bit with walker and he has physical therapy every day.  The staff there clearly thinks he is great, as do other people staying there and families who visit them.  He had, as he always did, STACKS of letters received and also answered, waiting to be mailed.  His characteristic colored pens were lined up next to the stack, of course.

One of the things Fr. Foster told me is that his superiors at the Teresianum, the HQ of the Carmelites on the Gianicolo, want him to have space there, at the institute, so that he can teach Latin.   This is GREAT news for students of Latin everywhere.  I hope this comes to pass.

Fr. Foster told me by phone today that there is an article about him in the Archdiocesan newspaper of Milwaukee, The Catholic Herald.  It is by CNS Rome correspondent John Thavis.

Recovering Milwaukee priest leaves hole in Latin office in the Vatican

Written by John Thavis, Catholic News Service Friday, 18 September 2009 09:30

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – The Vatican’s Latin letters office has been struggling lately with a big hole in its roster – U.S. Father Reginald Foster, considered by many the world’s finest Latinist, has been away for more than a year.

Father Foster, a 69-year-old Carmelite and one of the Vatican’s most colorful characters, [we need not limit that to the Vatican!] is recuperating from health issues in his native Milwaukee. He said in a phone interview in September that he’s slowly getting better and hopes to return to Rome, but doesn’t know when that will happen.

For now, the baton has been provisionally passed to another American, Father Daniel Gallagher, a Michigan native who was once one of Father Foster’s best students. He has been working half-time in the Latin office since June.

"Of course, I’m not anywhere near worthy to stand in for him. But then again, nobody is. He’s one of a kind," Father Gallagher said. People in the office are still anxiously awaiting Father Foster’s return, he added.

When Father Gallagher began filling in for Father Foster, he found his office furnished as sparsely as a monastic cell – a phone on the floor, a photo of the pope on the wall and a Lewis and Short Latin dictionary on the desk. Father Gallagher said he’s left that pretty much unchanged.

Father Foster came to Rome to study in the 1960s and was summoned to the Vatican in 1969 when word of his academic achievement spread. By then, the office once known as Secretary for Briefs to Princes had been renamed more prosaically as the Latin Language Department of the First Section of the Secretariat of State. No longer headed by a cardinal, it had lost some of its luster, but it remained the real communications hub at the Vatican.

Over the last four decades, even as Latin declined as the common language of the church, the Latin section has continued to translate and publish virtually everything that comes off the pen of the pope and much more – everything from congratulatory letters to papal bulls. Father Foster did much of the heavy lifting, but he never really adopted the Roman Curia style. For one thing, he showed up for work in a trademark blue workman’s outfit, purchased annually at J.C. Penney.

Today, the office’s seven Latinists have a steady stream of work, and sometimes they fall behind. When Pope Benedict XVI’s latest encyclical, "Charity in Truth," was published in July, for the first time in memory no Latin text was released. The Latin team was still working on the document, and the Latin version was published only at the end of August – after it had been sent by DHL to Father Foster for corrections.

Although it was reported that the delay in the Latin translation slowed down the encyclical’s release, insiders say that wasn’t the case. That in itself confirmed what everyone at the Vatican has known for some time: that although the Latin version of documents is still considered "definitive," it is not being used as the basic text for translations into other languages. That role has been taken over by Italian or English.

Pope Benedict has spoken about the importance of Latin in the church, and the Vatican is committed to keeping its Latin letters section. But church officials know that a renaissance in Latin depends largely on teachers, and that’s where Father Foster has been especially missed in Rome.

Father Foster began teaching in 1973, and his were not ordinary classes. Known as "Reggie" to his students, his approach was to throw them into the language and let them swim, disdaining grammatical textbooks, tests and rote memorization. His Latin was a living language, and he reminded anyone within earshot: "Latin is not reserved for experts! Every bum and prostitute in ancient Rome spoke Latin!"

Father Foster’s method was unorthodox in other ways. He would announce to his increasingly large classes at the beginning of the academic year that if any students were there only to fulfill an academic requirement, he’d sign whatever piece of paper they needed and they could leave. He didn’t want them wasting valuable space in his classroom.

Nor was he bothered that a good percentage of his students were not registering and paying for his classes at the Pontifical Gregorian University. That led the Gregorian to bid goodbye to Father Foster and his small army of students in 2006. Undaunted, the Carmelite found a benefactor and a headquarters for a new Latin academy in central Rome. Meanwhile, his summer classes held "sub arboribus" (under the trees) drew Latin teachers from all over the world.  [And I was among them from the early ’80’s on!]

Father Foster’s serious health problems began when he broke his thighbone in 2008. After a fitful recovery, he was hospitalized with an infection early in 2009 and had heart surgery. He returned to Milwaukee last spring, where he has been in physical rehabilitation.

His students have suffered his absence, waiting for news and hoping for his return. Carmelite superiors, meanwhile, have offered to host his international academy at the Teresianum theological faculty in Rome, which is also Father Foster’s residence. That’s something Father Foster wants to happen, the sooner the better.

"I’m very excited about that. My dream is to get back and start teaching again," he said.


I am sure you, with me, will say a prayer for Fr. Foster’s continued recovery.

Nulli secundus!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Mary Ann says:

    Thank you for posting this article FrZ…offering prayers for Fr. Foster.

  2. RichR says:


    Has it ever crossed your mind to do something similar to Fr. Foster WRT teaching Latin?

  3. Tom in NY says:

    Ad salutem quam primum!Felicitationes et salutationes optimo perito. Vi et virtute ad officium praeteriret.
    Salutationes RP Foster et omnibus.

  4. Olim, Dom. Gallager erat magister apud nos, ibi in seminario nostro!

  5. Raphaela says:

    “Latinitate Aestiva” interfui anno peracto; aliis cum discipulis in auditorio praestolor P. Reginaldo dum in via cecidit et femur fregit. Ex eo tempore continuo pro eo orabam.

    Mary Ann: Salve! Me enim puto te novisse…

  6. Rose in NE says:

    Will certainly remember Fr. Foster in my prayers.

    My son is a third year Latin student at his public high school. He loves it! There are actually two Latin teachers at his school. It’s a very popular program. Sadly, the Catholic high schools near us don’t offer Latin.

    Over the summer we happened to run into Archbishop Raymond Burke at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Wisconsin. My son was wearing his Latin Club sweatshirt. + Burke commented on it and told him that Latin is an important language and to be sure to keep studying it. The kid was grinning ear to ear! I bet he’d love to study with someone like Fr. Foster.

  7. Mitchell NY says:

    Latin is quite popular with young people today and with internet technology is easier than ever to learn and study. If the Church passes up on this opportunity to advance Latin in Mass and the Church as a whole it would be a shame. Imagine a public school with 2 Latin teachers and not a one to be found in a Catholic School. This is disgraceful. Prayers for Father Foster and the Latin language.

  8. robtbrown says:

    From what he told me on the phone a few weeks ago, the health problems might have started with an infection in his lower leg. I remember him having it in the early 90′–and doing nothing about it. The infection took off with the broken leg.

    He’s sui generis and truly one of the good souls.

  9. lucapi says:

    Excuse me, Father, but why you and other “traditional Catholic” people are so fond of a Carmelite who does non wear his abit (he is not the only one, “purtroppo”)?

  10. robtbrown says:

    Excuse me, Father, but why you and other “traditional Catholic” people are so fond of a Carmelite who does non wear his abit (he is not the only one, “purtroppo”)?
    Comment by lucapi

    I’ll answer only for myself.

    1. Re the habit: He once told me that the other Carms at the Teresianum wear the habit in class and in chapel, then take it off to go to restaurants. He wears his “habit” all the time.

    2. Make no mistake, I want priests and religious to wear the habit or cassock. I have found, however, that it is less an indicator than I had previously thought. I have known habit/cassock wearers who are virulently opposed to Latin liturgy and weak on doctrine. And there have been others who favored Latin liturgy and were strong on doctrine who aren’t so devoted to the habit/cassock.

    3. Fr Foster is a complex fellow. Like many of his generation he is still disgusted by the By-the-Numbers formation he received. On the other hand, he doesn’t think much of the present situation.

    4. My impression of him is that he is a very bright man whose theology formation was not worth much. His description of the method used by the profs has left me shaking my head. Some from that generation with intellectual interests did a lot of theological study on their own (some good, some not so good). He turned his attention to Latin.

    5. He absolutely loves St Augustine and St Leo the Great. Although a bit of a contrarian, he is a really good guy, very funny, and a magnificent teacher.

  11. Deimater says:

    From the photo, it would appear that Father Foster is wearing a white stole over an ordinary blue shirt. In all my days of seeing priests in every kind of attire, I don’t think I’ve come across that combination yet.

  12. Steve_Vornov says:

    Fr. Foster turned the tables on Bill Maher. You can watch the clip on Utube.

  13. pattif says:

    This is fabulous news. I have this dream of acquiring enough proficiency in Latin to be able to attend Fr. Foster’s summer school. If he is able to return to teaching, it would be something to aim for.

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