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Latinist defends language in talk

Kim Abeel | Friday, August 25, 2006

Latin is very much alive, said Father Reginald Foster in a Thursday discussion at Notre Dame that emphasized the importance of continuing to preserve the language.

“Latin is not dead and it never will be,” he said. “If it does die, it is no one’s fault but our own.”

Foster’s passion is spreading the joy of Latin, and he will teach Latin to just about anyone who wants to learn it. The Rome-based priest prefers to be called “Reggie” and is known to students and scholars around the world as one of the most dynamic and most gifted Latinists of his time.

Throughout his talk, which drew more than 200 students, faculty and alumni from across the nation, Foster compared the perseverance of Latin to that of classical music.

“Latin is no deader than Bach’s canons or Handel’s concertos – and they’re not dead,” he said. “And it’s our fault if we lose either of these things – not the fault of the early Latin writers or of Handel.”

While Foster agreed that Latin is demanding and cannot be learned in a weekend or even a week, he said more needs to – and can – be done in secular and religiously affiliated schools to teach people Latin and to promote the language’s significance.

Foster and his colleagues are convinced Latin will not die because “simply too much of Western civilization is based upon it,” referring to present-day cultures, history and languages.

M. Cathleen Kaveny, Notre Dame law and theology professor and a colleague of Foster’s, said there is a “tremendous untapped interest” in Latin at the University.

“I think it’s important that Latin is not looked at as the study of a dead language, especially for us as Catholics who claim to still be communicating with some of these people who were writing in only Latin,” Kaveny said.

Kaveny said she thinks people are interested in studying Latin, and much can be done to encourage students to continue exploring the language, such as sponsorship programs for students who would like to study more in-depth or on-site.

“Latin is not just Cicero or the Mass,” she said. “It touches every aspect of daily culture – humor, low culture, Augustine, Benedict XVI and Plautus. It’s something that we need to continue to pursue.”

Foster lives in Rome and works at the Department of Latin Letters of the Secretariat of State at the Vatican. He has been there for 37 years, including nine years with Paul VI and the entirety of John Paul II’s papacy. He now works with Pope Benedict XVI.

At his Carmelite monastery on the Janiculum Hill, Foster wakes every morning at 3:40 a.m. – just in time to turn on the radio and catch the nighttime news in his hometown of Milwaukee.

After Morning Prayer and Mass in Latin, Foster prepares for the day’s work, which for him is anything but a minor undertaking. He works with documents and translations and carries out Vatican correspondence in the mornings, and then after lunch makes his way across the city to the Pontifical Gregorian University where he has been teaching Latin for more than 30 years.

Even at the age of 67, Foster continues.

The Department of Classics, the Medieval Institute, the Department of Theology and the Law School sponsored Foster’s discussion.