December 29, 2020
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Fr. Reginald Foster is a name that most individuals in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee would likely not recognize. A Discalced Carmelite (Holy Hill), he spent most of his priestly life in Rome working for the Church in the Secretariate of State Office. He was the official translator of the works of the Popes who he served. Without a doubt, Fr. Foster was one of, if not the greatest Latinist of this era. American students in Rome, both priests and seminarians, sought to study Latin at the feet of this master. I have often said that if you were an artist during the Renaissance, you would attempt to study with the greatest of the greats, a Michelangelo or DaVinci. Foster was the greatest of the greats when it came to the Latin language.
Fr. Foster defied traditional definitions of how a religious, or even a Vatican official, should act or even what one wears. Fr. Foster’s daily garb was grey pants and a short coat. He looked more like a gasoline station attendant than a curial official, and he could often be irreverent in his expressions. His students referred to him as “Reggie.” This was not a term of disrespect, but deep affection. The classes that he offered were referred to as “experiences.” During my day, he offered them at the Gregorian University, and all of his different levels of experiences were filled to capacity. During the academic year, he taught hundreds of students, in addition to the daily work he performed at the Vatican. He would give pensum domesticum (homework), which consisted of translating classical writers, Church Fathers, or a liturgical text. He would correct each work and comment on the translations. We are talking of hundreds of daily homework sheets in Latin and he did this for four decades.
I had Fr. Foster for four years in my days as a postgraduate student (1979-1983). He not only taught the language, but he also lived it. Few teachers are the subject that they teach, rather than simply teachers of the subject. Reggie did not teach Latin, he was Latin. There are many stories about his academic prowess that you might think were fictitious until you experienced them firsthand. Once, a visiting professor from Austria came to observe Fr. Foster and his teaching methodology. There were 20 lines from Cicero on the blackboard. Fr. Foster began to analyze the text. The visiting professor commented on another beautiful statement by Cicero later in this work and, without hesitancy or a text before him, Fr. Foster recognized the quote and recited the next 20 lines in Latin from memory. Even the Austrian Professor was amazed. Stories about his ability were numerous, each one more incredible than the next.
Because of health, Fr. Foster returned to Milwaukee a little over ten years ago, spending most of his time in rehab and assisted nursing homes. Despite this transition, he continued to translate for the Vatican and the Holy Father. With his brilliance, Fr. Foster could have chosen a multitude of professions and excelled in any of them, but he chose to be a priest and serve the Church, and he chose to do it as a Carmelite. A legion of his students, most of who will never be Latin scholars, possess an appreciation and understanding of the language because of his efforts. I would add that they also understand the Church they serve with greater clarity. Latin has lost a champion, and the world has lost a faithful priest.
Reggie died moments past midnight on Christmas. I cannot help but wonder if the prologue of St. John’s Gospel (1:14) was presented to him at that moment by an archangel in the language that he loved: “Verbum caro factum est” (the Word was made flesh). I say to Reggie, “requiescat in pace” (rest in peace.) I envision heaven with echoes of the Latin language gloriously shouted as Reggie seeks out Cicero, Virgil, Jerome, Augustine and others, just to chat. Now, he is face to face with the source of all language, God, who is Love, and we must speak His language to LOVE ONE ANOTHER.
Most Reverend Jerome E. Listecki
Archbishop of Milwaukee