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Former Vatican Latinist to visit St. Kate's Sept. 20

Former Vatican Latinist Father Reginald Foster will visit St. Catherine University this week.
Former Vatican Latinist Father Reginald Foster will visit St. Catherine University this week.
Father Daniel McCarthy, OSB

World-renowned Latinist Father Reginald Foster will be on campus this Friday to share his insights on “how language study helps with learning, life, spirituality and reality.”

A joint project by the Department of Classical Studies and Department of Theology, Father Foster’s presentation is 7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 20 in the Recital Hall in the Music Building next to The O'Shaughnessy on the St. Paul campus. The event is free and open to the public.

“He’s the most fluent human being on the planet in Latin right now. This is someone worth seeing,” says Bill McDonough, associate professor of theology at St. Catherine University and one of the event organizers.

Father Foster is a Discalced Carmelite who spent 40 years as one of the Latinists in the Vatican’s Office of Latin Letters. While an extended illness brought him back to his hometown, Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 2009, he has hardly slowed down. The in-demand Latinist teaches on-going Latin courses in West Milwaukee and travels nationally for presentations and Latin intensive courses (most recently at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina).

A team of Latinists who studied with Father Foster keep up the blog, Latinitatis Corpus, devoted to the knowledge, use and appreciation of Latin. Father Foster also regularly translates the Pope’s tweet into Latin.

“They call me from the Vatican every few days to translate the tweets,” he says. Father Foster sometimes uses the tweets as an assignment for his students.

For these and countless other reasons, Father Foster scoffs at the idea that Latin is a dead language.

“Latin is the foundation of all the Western world and we’re still using Latin every day whether we like it or not. I’m not only talking about the vocabulary, but so many of our ideas and concepts are all really from Latin,” he says. “People ask me to defend Latin. Defend Latin? It’s almost like saying, ‘What is the importance of Mozart?’ You don’t defend Mozart. He’s beyond defending.”

Father Foster plans to bring along some ancient texts to discuss during the presentation. 

“In these texts, if you look at ideas that were being spread at 90 BC, 200 BC, — how people talked, what they felt like, their emotions, their reactions — they are not different from us today. I don’t care if you put on a space suit or a bikini or nothing, we haven’t changed one single bit since Adam and Eve.”

There will be opportunity for audience engagement and discussion, and the ultimate idea that Foster hopes to get across is the fundamental role Latin plays in our language and culture.

“He’s a wildly popular teacher with a pedagogy like no one else. He is someone who understands where students are at and where to take them, and adjusts his instruction accordingly,” says McDonough, who studied under Foster for three years in Rome.

Father Foster is also not above pushing students outside of their comfort zones.

“He’ll have the agnostic translate psalms and the devout conservative translate bawdy medieval songs. But it’s all for the love of Latin and language,” says McDonough.

Few people are as singularly devoted to their vocation. This week, Father Foster is celebrating his 60th year of studying Latin, 45 of those years spent teaching.

“I’m 74, but I’m certainly not retiring. As long as I’m breathing, I’m teaching Latin. Although, I don’t like the word ‘teaching’ — you share Latin with people,” he says.

Readers will have a chance Friday to share a Latin experience with arguably the most knowledgeable Latinist on the planet.

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Sep. 18, 2013 by Sharon Rolenc

See also: Catholic Identity, Liberal Arts