Just down the hall from the pope's apartment and office in the Apostolic Palace, Carmelite Father Reginald Foster eyeballs processions of...

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Just down the hall from the pope’s apartment and office in the Apostolic Palace, Carmelite Father Reginald Foster eyeballs processions of Latin words like Caesar reviewing the vaunted 10th Legion before a crucial battle.

This Wisconsin native, a plumber’s son, has come a long way. But not so far that he doesn’t still routinely wear plain blue work shirts and pants from J.C. Penney.

He is the pope’s senior Latinist, a gifted and demanding linguist who did the lion’s share of the translation when Pope Benedict XVI followed tradition and delivered his first formal speech as pontiff in Latin.

He also is an internationally renowned Latin teacher and a fluent speaker of complex, Ciceronian Latin, not to mention a world-class curmudgeon. His sometimes intemperate outbursts of personal opinions apparently are offset by an expertise that has enabled him to survive and to serve four popes over 36 years.

This is how Foster reacted when Karol Wojtyla began signing his name as “Joannes Paulus II,” instead of “Ioannes Paulus II,” after being elected pope 26 years ago. He quickly pointed out to a papal adviser that there is no “J” in Latin.

“I said, ‘By the way, friend, there’s no J,’ ” Foster recalled. “And the answer kind of came back that the pope said, ‘Well, now there is.’ Well, fine, fine. He’s the boss. And if you look at his tomb, the J is gone. One of my brethren said, ‘Well, he enjoyed his J for 26 years, and now it’s gone.’ His tombstone has ‘I.’ “

Call Latin a dead language and you get a volley of, “Well, you’re just brain dead. Why don’t you just go and talk about chipmunks or hamsters?” One should “dismiss them, ditch them, throw them out” because Latin is “the whole Western world, all of literature, all of language.”

His cameo appearances on a weekly Vatican Radio segment dubbed “The Latin Lover” are legendary at the Pontifical North American College, partly because of his reputation for political incorrectness and unpredictability. Computer users can hear Foster tell the story of Rome’s founding, burst into liturgical song in Latin, and react to Benedict XVI’s first speech on archived shows at www.105live.vaticanradio.org/en_latin.html.

Yet, he also is a monk with a ready smile and a willingness to help visitors to Rome and the students from around the world who take his Latin classes at the Pontifical Gregorian University or his free Latin-immersion course in the summers. This also is the same Father Reggie Foster who didn’t hesitate to interrupt the pope’s calligraphers with a special request as they rushed to complete the final documents of John Paul’s papacy before the new pope was elected. He needed to personalize a sterling silver plaque of the Holy Family that he was sending to the now-89-year-old nun who taught him in the seventh and eighth grades. It was to honor her 70th anniversary of professing religious vows.

That plaque now sits on a shelf in the room of Sister Ladisla Gogowski in a nursing-care facility in Chicago.

“Well, I’ll hear about that forever. Maybe not that long, because I don’t have that many years [left],” said Foster, 65, during an interview. “The fact is, I shouldn’t have done it because they wanted to finish the pontificate, which I thought was total madness.”

Patrick Harvey, 40, a lawyer from Washington, D.C., studied Latin with Foster years ago and recalled him as “very dynamic,” “very respected,” “the best Latin teacher I ever had.”

“He’s reputed to be the best Latin teacher in the world,” Harvey said. “Instead of teaching grammatical forms … he teaches it as a living language.

“Really good classical scholars will invite him to meetings because he’s terribly respected. He’s read everything. It’s hard to find somebody who’s read more Latin than he has, not only the classical works, but also medieval. … He can quote Cicero. He can also speak as Cicero did.”

The use of Latin has declined in the church, but Latin’s popularity as an academic course is huge, Foster said. Only about a third of the 150 people who take his classes at the Gregorian University are clerics. The others are philosophers, art historians, classical scholars, Latin teachers and others who see its value, he said.

Foster became a papal Latinist when the pope’s Latinist had a heart attack. “They said, ‘We need someone to do this work [for Pope Paul VI] because it’s piling up.’ And one of my teachers said, ‘I think I know the man you’re looking for.”‘

He’s translated everything from encyclicals to the appointments of bishops into Latin. But though he works right down the hall, he rarely sees the pope.

The last time he was with John Paul II was in January 1982 after employees in the palace complained that they hadn’t met the pope since his election in 1978. The pope had them in for lunch in groups of 10 each day for a week or two.

“We have had very little personal contact with him,” Foster said. “That’s how the system works. That’s no state secret. His apartment is right down the hall from me, but I never got chummy or friendly with him. No one does with any pope. We don’t go over to the desk and say, ‘J.P., I have this idea.’ It just doesn’t work that way. I think it should work that way, but it just doesn’t happen. It’s like working in the State Department in Washington and never seeing the president.”

Perhaps that’s fortuitous for Foster, who says popes should ride buses instead of limousines, and who thinks the church needs to be more open to women and more willing to address other contemporary issues.

“I think we need a revolution in the church, but no one seems to agree,” he said.