A legendary living Latinist

Over at Laudator Temporis Acti, which I check every day, there is a great post about legendary Latinist Fr Reginald Foster, OCD, who for decades worked in the Holy See’s office of Latin Letters writing official documents in the Church’s language.  Fr Foster also taught Latin at the Gregorian University for all comers, from beginners to the well-experienced… until the Jesuits threw him out… to their eternal shame.  HERE

The following, which Foster delivered at the beginning session of each year, is absolutely true, as Reggie’s students will raucously attest.

One of the Greatest Things That Ever Happened

Alexander Stille, “Latin Fanatic: A Profile of Father Reginald Foster,” American Scholar 63.4 (Autumn, 1994) 497-526 (at 499):

“You don’t have to be all that intelligent, but Latin takes a little bit of toughness,” he growls. “I hope you are all here voluntarily. I don’t like the idea that some of you have been pushed into this classroom by some requirement,” a word he pronounces with the utmost scorn and distaste. “Because if that’s the case, I’d like to push you right back out. If you have to take Latin and don’t want to, there is a list here, and you can just put your name on it and leave. And I will give you a passing grade for the year. I’m interested in teaching Latin to people who want to learn. So, if you don’t like me or you don’t like Latin, then you can leave and that will be that. Got it? If you want to learn Latin, we’ll learn Latin. I don’t care if you are registered. You can sit here for five years and not be registered. I don’t know how much they’re charging downstairs — I think it’s too much.”


“Why do you want to study Latin? The question is, Why don’t people want to study Latin?” he asks the class in a loud rhetorical shout, pacing back and forth in front of the blackboard. “If you don’t know Latin, you know nothing! I had my first experience of Latin forty years ago, and I have not been bored by Latin for ten minutes in these forty years. Latin is one of the greatest things that ever happened in human history.”

When Foster begins to shift into high gear, he picks up in speed and volume, like a high-performance car moving into overdrive. “If you don’t know Latin, you’re sitting out there on the sidelines — don’t worry, most of the world is out there with you. But if you want to see what’s going on in this whole stream of two thousand years’ worth of gorgeous literature, then you need Latin.”

Id. (at 500):

“People are not told what Latin is all about,” Foster says. “They are just told to memorize all the forms, the conjugations and declensions. Latin has nothing to do with memorization. Every bum and prostitute in ancient Rome spoke Latin and they didn’t learn it by memorization. Got it?”

With help, Foster is publishing volumes which describe – if that’s possible in a book – his approach to Latin.  The first volume is out.  I believe the next volume will contain his renowned home work sheets, his ludi domestici.   I don’t care how good your Latin was, those sheets gave you a work out!  They made Ivy League profs break down like little girls.


Ossa Latinitatis Sola

Fr. Foster is now in Milwaukee where he still teaches Latin to interested students during the summer.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in ¡Hagan lío!, Just Too Cool and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. FranzJosf says:

    Yes. What is it about the study of the classics? For those who are receptive to the lessons, all of humanity is there. I remember, I think, of Fr. Z say that Chaucer may have been the last man who knew everything. [Perhaps Erasmus.] Chaucer certainly studied Ovid and Vergil. Rush Limbaugh says of Victor Davis Hanson: “He knows everything about everything.” Who is VDH? A classics scholar at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. A friend of mine described his famous classics professor Donald Kagan this way: “He knows everything about everything.” Uncanny. Three people who do not know each other, describing three different people in the same way. Common denominator? Latin. (And a little Greek, too.) Somehow, the classics open eyes to worlds unknown. Amazing.

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  2. CandS says:

    You can find the whole article here:

  3. monnica says:

    Sounds like fun!

    I took Latin classes but I never really learned it. I’m still on the sidelines. But every word I do have is like gold in the bank. And now I’m beginning to give that basic vocabulary to my children. Word by word. Brick by brick. Gold brick by gold brick.

    Even the rudiments of Latin help you enter the Tridentine Mass as something that, by God’s sheer mercy, truly belongs to you.

  4. Imrahil says:

    And when you mastered the classics, you’ll be able to read Mediaeval and Church Latin.

    And when I say “read”, I do not, at least here, mean “decompose, translate and write down as a homework”. I mean, well, read.

  5. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    About Reggie. Yup.

  6. Benedict Joseph says:

    This man need be cloned!
    There could never be enough of him.

  7. PatriciusOenus says:

    In the tradition of Fr. Foster’s recommendations to “use Latin”, I would like to invite Catholic Latinists interested in speaking (or learning to speak) Latin to discuss the life of the Church today and perennial questions of faith to Sermo Fidelium (“Talk of the Faithful”), a Latin language retreat at a gorgeous venue: http://www.wethersfieldgarden.org/sermo_fidelium.html

  8. MissBee says:

    Fr. Foster will also join a group of Latin-interested for drinks at a bar in Bay View. Lucky them!
    I tried very hard to find a teacher in College (’89-’93) who would give me at least one semester of independent study in Latin. None of the staff were interested, or even willing to refer to someone who might be able to help. In those times, surely one of the profs. knew of someone.

  9. jeffc says:

    I’ve never met Fr. Foster, I’ve known Fr. Daniel McCarthy, OSB, for decades, and between what I know of him personally and of Fr. Foster, I’m sure the book is excellent and I cannot wait to be able to afford a copy of this text. My Latin is decent, but I’d love for it to be better and I’m sure this text will be most useful in that regard. According to an interview I saw with Fr. Daniel on EWTN last month, the second book will indeed be based on the worksheets.

  10. kekeak2008 says:

    What an amazing priest and Latinist. My appreciation for Latin has grown tremendously over the years. How right he is, when he says “you’re on the sidelines” if you don’t know Latin. A treasure-trove of wisdom and beauty is locked away from us who don’t know the language. How insidious the Devil was in convincing us that Latin was not necessary or even harmful to our understanding and spreading of the Faith. It saddens me to think of all the bishops and priests who are deprived of the wonderful patrimony of our Catholic faith and rites.

    How divided we have become with our vernacular masses, as we all corral ourselves into our individual cultural and linguistic groups. To quote St John XXIII, “Since ‘every Church must assemble round the Roman Church,’ and since the Supreme Pontiffs have ‘true episcopal power, ordinary and immediate, over each and every Church and each and every Pastor, as well as over the faithful’ of every rite and language, it seems particularly desirable that the instrument of mutual communication be uniform and universal, especially between the Apostolic See and the Churches which use the same Latin rite. When, therefore, the Roman Pontiffs wish to instruct the Catholic world, or when the Congregations of the Roman Curia handle matters or draw up decrees which concern the whole body of the faithful, they invariably make use of Latin, for this is a maternal voice acceptable to countless nations.”

    Latin is the necessary lens to view the entirety of Western civilization. May schools like Thomas Aquinas College and Wyoming Catholic College continue to multiply and flourish.

  11. FrPJ says:

    Ah Reggie! How we loved your growling rants at university bureaucracy, “Those ANIMALS in the Segreteria” as much as your reverence for such beautiful Latin as the works of Pius II Piccolomini. And your belief that red wine kills germs!

  12. MariaKap says:

    Is that book something that a total beginner could pick up and attempt?

  13. frjim4321 says:

    Great guy, and a “heck” (can I say h**l here?) of a sense of humor.

    God bless him and give him many more years~!

  14. Noelle says:

    I believe it was Dante whom Fr. Z once described as the last guy who knew everything.

  15. DavidR says:

    I know nothing of Latin; my only experience was one semester in 10th grade in 1963. I purchased the Ossa Latinitas book, but expect it will be beyond my 69 year old brain cells ability.

    However, since I retired at the end of February, I’ll give it a shot.

    And no, I don’t attend the TLM, but would like to do so.

  16. Hans says:

    Fr. Foster is now in Milwaukee where he still teaches Latin to interested students during the summer.

    Where in Milwaukee? Milwaukee is much easier to get to from here than Rome …

    They used to do a weekly program on Vatican Radio with Fr. Foster that was wonderful for those of us who are linguistic laggards.

  17. QuietContemplative says:

    I took Latin in highschool and jr. high. I sort of enjoyed it back then. A lot has fallen out of the back of my head at this point (it’s been a minute since gradeschool) but I remember chaffing when I started to hear Church Latin pronounced (recent convert, ie less than a decade) versus what I was taught was “proper” pronunciation for classical Latin. Can anyone here, including you, Fr. Z, comment as to the differences?

  18. NoraLee9 says:

    David, that Ossa Latinitas book has helped me as a Latin Teacher. I teach to a small group of adults in our TLM chapel. I am only 12 years your junior and I have a student in her 80’s. That book is incredible.
    You should grab a missal and try the TLM. It is authentic Catholicism. I think you’ll love it.

  19. Grant M says:

    Ah Latin! We go way back. In 1970 I was due to enter High School and elected to do French but not Latin. We were a non-practising Anglican family. All I knew about Latin was that it was a strange archaic language, which even the Catholic Church was discarding. However the school viewed my academic record and put me in a Latin class. That was Providence, looking ahead, of course, knowing 31 years later I would be a new convert serving the only Latin Mass in my city outside the SSPX chapel, and I would need preparation.

    I took to the language instantly. Even the paradigms fascinated me…insula, insula, insulam, insulae, insulae, insula…

    Unfortunately I only had the opportunity to take the Latin for three years, concluding by reading Caesar’s invasion of Britain. After that, I continued my Latin studies alone, sporadically over the years, looking through second-hand bookshops for Edwardian school editions of Virgil, etc. What a difference the internet makes. The other day I was reading the introduction to Helen Waddell’s anthology of the Desert Father Fathers. She quotes some verses by Paulinus of Nola on monasticism. In one minute on my tablet I was able to locate the Latin original at thelatinlibrary.com

    So now my Latin is more or less “up to” the Mass, the Divine Office and the Vulgate. At the moment I’m reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses, since you get a succession of cracking good stories in relatively “easy” Latin.

    So, having previously urged everyone to learn enough Italian to at least crib one’s way through the Commedia, I now urge everyone to learn enough Latin to at least relish the left-hand pages of your Latin Missals. It’s a treasure house. Father Z has shown on this website what a treasure the traditional Latin Collects alone are.

  20. Grant M says:

    QuietContemplative: I learnt a fine classical pronunciation in High School in the 70’s. However at the beginning of this century I entered the Catholic Church, and about the same time, joined a community choir. Now I have become used to the Italian style of pronouncing Church Latin, after years of serving the EF, assisting at sung Masses, singing (in concert) mass settings by Mozart et al, and occasionally singing Credo 3 or Gregorian Mass 8, 9, 11 or 17 at the OF.

    Now my tendency is to use the church pronunciation when reciting classical verse. So “Incipe parve puer, risu cognoscere matrem” tends to become “Inchipe parve puer, risu conyoshere matrem” rather than “Inkipe parwe puer, risu cog-noskere matrem” and “iam nova progenies caelo demittitur alto” becomes “yam nova projenies chelo demittitur alto” rather than “yam nowa proghenies kailo demittitur alto”. Then I correct myself, and make sure to use the classical pronunciation, except I still pronounce the classical consonantal U as V rather than W.

Comments are closed.