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Reginald Foster, World's Renowned Latinist, Dies At 81

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

One of the world's most renowned experts on the Latin language died on Christmas Day in Milwaukee. For four decades at the Vatican, Father Reginald Foster translated papal speeches into Latin. He also made it his mission to instill passion in his students for the lingua franca of the Roman Empire. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has this remembrance.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Reginald Foster was born in Milwaukee, the son of a plumber. He became a Carmelite monk and went on to serve four popes as the Vatican's foremost Latinist until he retired in 2009. In 1998, I joined him on a field trip to the seaside villa of the Roman orator Cicero, where he gave a toast to the master of rhetorical speech and to all lovers of Latin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REGINALD FOSTER: (Speaking Latin).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Speaking Latin).

POGGIOLI: Students came from all over the world to attend Foster's classes at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University. Daniel Gallagher studied with Foster for five years and later succeeded him at the Vatican's Latin office. He now teaches classics at Cornell. Gallagher says Foster's teaching style was unique because he threw out all the textbooks.

DANIEL GALLAGHER: He insisted that Latin be taught and learned with real Latin texts. And from Day 1, you had your nose in Ovid and Cicero.

POGGIOLI: The Gregorian fired Foster in 2006 for allowing students to attend for free, so his classes moved to Roman cafes. There was nothing stuffy about the man Vatican Radio called the Latin lover. His students called him Reginaldus, but he insisted on Reggie. He refused to wear a Roman collar and was always attired in blue polyester overalls from J.C. Penney. At the Vatican, says Gallagher, Foster was perceived as a Latin genius.

GALLAGHER: But he didn't want anything to do with the Vatican culture. So he was viewed as a little bit rebellious, I suppose, but still with an enormous amount of respect.

POGGIOLI: Foster had no patience for those who say the language of dead white European males is difficult. He'd point out that every bum and prostitute in ancient Rome was fluent. And when I asked him over a bottle of wine at a restaurant why a young person today should study Latin, he exploded.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FOSTER: It's everything. What are you talking about? This is what life is about. This is what culture is about, what the formation of your mind is about - got it? - what ideas are about, what the continuity of the human race - you know, with contact with brothers and sisters who lived 2,000 years ago. This is what this is all about.

POGGIOLI: Foster was highly critical of the conservative wing of the Catholic Church, which bewails the abandonment of the use of Latin in the mass. And he insisted the language is anything but conservative.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FOSTER: If you're interested in Latin, it's like being interested in Mozart or Bach. I listened to "St. Matthew's Passion" these past couple of days. (Singing in Latin). It's glorious. This is not conservative. This is eternal. It's eternal. Got the idea?

POGGIOLI: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Foster died two weeks after testing positive for the coronavirus. The great Latinist was 81.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

(SOUNDBITE OF LELE MARCHITELLI'S "CARDINALS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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