The Continuing Fascination of Fr. Reginald Foster

John Kuhner |
Reginald Foster in 2001. (Photo by John Piazza)
Reginald Foster in 2001. (Photo by John Piazza)

As I’ve traveled through the Latinosphere, I’ve been amazed at just how many people have been working — for millennia now — to keep the Classics alive. For fifteen hundred years, Latin has been no one’s lingua materna, and yet it persists. This is due to effort and care, on the part of unnumbered millions: home school mothers, history teachers, Latin instructors, textbook writers, playwrights, movie producers, students, artists, university professors, philanthropists, and so many others. So many textbooks have been written, so many editions produced, so many schools founded, so many novels and paintings — it is both impressive and overwhelming. Most of us who are involved toil in obscurity. No one is going to take any particular interest in us: we enjoy this thing we love, and share it with our friends. Some small portion of our students will become the teachers, and take up our work someday. This is our happiness.

And yet every now and again, someone appears who is special. I can’t explain the causa causans, but some people have got it — that special something that casts a spell of fascination on others. In the Latinosphere that person has been Reginald Foster. In the early 80s, he attracted the notice of Vatican reporter Nino Lo Bello; E.J. Dionne wrote the first profile of Foster in the New York Times in 1986; Maureen Cleave, the celebrity journalist who supposedly inspired the song “Norwegian Wood,” decided to switch from Rock’n’Roll to do a profile of Foster for the Guardian in 1991. She wasn’t alone. There had been an avalanche of articles about Foster, from the Los Angeles Times to the Economist to the Daily Telegraph to Newsweek. This doesn’t happen to normal Latin teachers.

More than thirty years later, Foster is in a nursing home and not the Latin volcano he once was. But the press still can’t get enough of him. Two new reviews of the Ossa Latinitatis appeared this summer: Paul Gwynne notes for the Bryn Mawr Classical Review how the Ossa fall short of the live, direct experience of Foster’s classes (which is hard to argue with); and Paul Mankowski in First Things has created another vigorous prose portrait of Reginaldus (“a one-man Panzer battalion”) and his tome (“this 830-page cinderblock”). We figured that here at In Medias Res it’s about time to re-issue Michael Fontaine’s 2016 review of the Ossa, which gives a strong sense of the continued importance of Reginaldus’s work.

I visited Reginaldus in July, where I had the honor of sitting in on his classes — still going on, in the basement of his nursing home — and we read Ovid’s Amores together. There is no better person to love Latin with. We oohed and aahed over Ovid’s verse, and he returned to one of his old refrains: “This is reverence for God’s creation,” he said of Ovid. “We’re the pagans, not him. We’re the ones who don’t appreciate the gift.”

This year marks ten years since Reginaldus taught his last classes in Rome. His work has been taken up by a whole generation of new workers, people who will almost certainly never get profiled in the Guardian, but that doesn’t mean our work is unimportant. Reginaldus’s example inspires SALVI, which has been working to bring its Latin-immersion programming to the entire country (including events this fall in California and Oklahoma), and he is the spiritual grandfather of all Paideia’s activities, which continue to grow and flourish. This summer saw the launch of Paideia’s Press, with its first publication being a Festschrift in honor of Reginaldus (the “Fosterschrift”).

Reginaldus’s health was not great when I visited him; as with many old people, every time I see him there seems to be some new health problem, a sign that time will win out in the end. He won’t be with us forever. But I know that he feels a great deal of satisfaction in his rebus gestis Latinis, and in his students. He knows that many of us understand that the Humanities, and Latin in particular, are about a reverence for the human story, and about keeping alive the flame that has been handed down to us — an appreciation, in short, of the gift.


Sign up to receive email updates about new articles

John Kuhner

John Byron Kuhner is the former president of SALVI, the North American Institute of Living Latin Studies, and editor of In Medias Res.


Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.