The Reginaldus Biography Project: An Update

John Kuhner |
Reginald Foster in 1972, winning second prize for Latin composition at the Certamen Capitolinum, in the Sala degli Orazi e Curiazi, Musei Capitolini, Rome.
Reginald Foster in 1972, winning second prize for Latin composition at the Certamen Capitolinum, in the Sala degli Orazi e Curiazi, Musei Capitolini, Rome.

My main work the past few months has been writing a biography of the late Fr. Reginald Foster. Foster was an extraordinary Latinist who served as a papal writer for almost forty years. He was also the inspiration for a whole group of Latinists, of whom I am one. I have found writing the full story of his life one of the most intellectually interesting and exciting projects I’ve ever done. It will serve as a kind of update on the whole project to explain why this is the case.

One of the questions that I had coming into the project was “How does a person like Reginaldus happen?” Most people like things. We like our lives, we like our spouses, we like our hobbies, we (if we are lucky) like our jobs. Reginaldus was consumed with passion: for Rome, for Italy, for art, and especially for Latin. John Thavis, in his (wonderful) book The Vatican Diaries (which contains a full chapter about Reginaldus), describes a little hole in a wall of the Apostolic Palace facing onto the Belvedere Courtyard. Most people would never notice it. Others, if you pointed it out to them, would shrug. But Reginaldus could talk your ear off about that hole in the wall — “Right there, about a foot and a half from the top of a drainpipe — that’s the birthplace of the Gregorian calendar!” He could tell you the whole story of the old Roman calendar, how messed up it had become, Cicero talking about the “ultimus annus confusionis,” and how Julius Caesar reformed it, but how Caesar’s calendar was off by a few minutes, and then how pope Gregory XIII’s team of astronomers — using a beam of light passing through that hole by the drainpipe — created the more accurate calendar we use today, which was promulgated by Gregory’s bull Inter Gravissimas. Reginaldus could quote the bull from memory: “Tollimus autem et abolemus omnino vetus kalendarium!” he would bellow. From here he could go into how the Orthodox still use the Julian calendar, how Christianity is divided, how sad and wrong this all is, and treat the whole thing as something obvious, not something that showed how knowledgeable he was, but something that was the common possession of humanity. And all this from what was literally a hole in the wall in the Vatican.

This was not an isolated incident or his one singular interest. He could brew up this kind of passion from almost any pile of rubble in Italy. It was an ethos, a way of interacting with the world that took the life he found in books seriously, and attempted every day to root it in the world he saw around him. One of the things that fascinates me is the question, What creates people like this? What creates passion in a world that mostly just shrugs its shoulders and doesn’t notice or care?

For these kinds of questions I’ve found very good answers. Because of Reginaldus’s prodigious memory and his continual sense of gratitude to his teachers, I have been able to find all kinds of information about his education, and about the mentors who appreciated his obvious intellectual talent and were willing to impart some direction to it. There was Conrad Fliess, a Carmelite who thought of Church Latin as the greatest expression of the Church’s true and eternal character; there was Peter-Thomas Rohrbach, who wanted to find the truth underneath much pious Christian hagiography, and who wanted passionate Christian devotion in place of bourgeois clerical respectability; there was Carlo Egger, whose Latin job was a plum post after his sensitive diplomatic work with the German occupying government of Italy during World War II. Through their works and Reginaldus’s stories, much of the personality of these men surfaces, and their influence on Reginaldus becomes clear.

What has also emerged is how, for all his ultimate cynicism about much of it, the energy and mystique that is contained in the word “Vatican” operated on Reginaldus throughout his life. Early on it was the source of so much of his passion. Its venerability opened his ears to every story about every little hole in the wall in the place. And knowledge of the Vatican — which he acquired — ultimately leads you into the mystery of glorious, fascinating, wicked humanity, a confrontation with the all-too-human characters of the halls of the Apostolic palace. As I write the story I can see how his immersion in all that Vatican history shifted his focus from the venerability of the place to its wickedness, and then, in a kind of miracle of his spiritual powers, there was a period where the place came into focus for him as an emblem of the whole problem of Humanity — and, importantly, the Humanities. The wickedness and the venerability lived side by side. Neither canceled the other out.

In many ways this is the source of all intellectual excitement, a vision of the good which is whole enough to sustain a knowledge of how much evil there is in it. I can feel it as I’m writing about Reginaldus and his daily confrontation with the fact of Rome, the Vatican, Latin, the Roman Empire, and historical Christianity (all present the same problem, really). When he first started working at the Vatican, he was incredibly excited just about coming to work every day, and wandering the Apostolic Palace whenever he got the chance. But his office was a little cell at the summit of the Borgia Tower. I use the word “cell” advisedly: apparently it had once been a prison for the pope’s political enemies. The excitement of going to see the Raphaels and Michelangelos and feeling that he was doing the work of St. Peter’s successor lived side by side with knowing that prisoners had clutched and scratched at the walls that surrounded him, walls that were so close he could stretch out his arms and touch two of them at once.

One other thing has been a real revelation to me. When Reginaldus arrived at the Vatican in 1969, there were three great Latinists still alive there: Hamletus Tondini, Iosephus Del Ton, and Cardinal Antonius Bacci. All of them published books of their own Latin, and all of them are worth reading. In fact I think Reginaldus, for various personal and probably political reasons, discounted just how marvellous they all were as Latin writers. And there were many other intellectual eminences in Rome and the Curia at the time. It was a whole Latin subculture, where people would speak, write, and read Latin, as a passion of theirs. They could always use Italian as the language of daily life. Latin was for dipping into eternity. This was the way they lived. It became Reginaldus’s destiny to become the person most responsible for passing on a knowledge of that subculture to the next generation. Many things that Reginaldus did, like going to ancient sites with texts in hand, he inherited from those Vatican Latinists of the 1960s. Authors like Cyprian and Leo Magnus and Martial — almost unread by others — were the favorites of that subculture. And Reginaldus in later years would almost forget his debt to those men because he had internalized it all so much. His knowledge of Bacci’s work in particular, and his sensitivity to its allusiveness, was extraordinary. In telling Reginaldus’s story I find that I have uncovered a whole Latin world, a world that absolutely stupefied and amazed him when he arrived as a Midwestern altar boy in the 1960s.

Another aspect of the story that has interested me is how the 1960s resemble our own times in terms of their chaos and potential destructiveness. But an interesting difference in the 1960s is the element of hope — Reginaldus was in St. Peter’s Square for the torchlight procession to St. Peter’s on the first night of the Vatican Council, and saw John XXIII at the window there. They had a sense that the old things were passing away, even then. But they also had a sense that there was a chance that they could be replaced by something better and truer. That ideal never quite left Reginaldus, but it suffered a great deal in the half-century that was to follow. It’s yet another reason why his story is so interesting: his is the story of an idealist who works for decades for a major political figure in a highly political place.

Many of us feel a sense of loyalty to Reginaldus as a teacher. What is emerging is that his story is also interesting in itself, and worth contemplating at length. I’m excited to get a chance to share it with the wider world. I’m presuming I’ll have the whole thing written this summer.

John Byron Kuhner is editor of In Medias Res.


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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.


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