RIP – Fr. Reginald Foster, OCD

Reginald Foster in 2001. (Photo by John Piazza)

I was probably Fr. Foster’s worst student. It’s been almost 20 years now since I took his summer class, and I still think he let me in the class as a favor to a mutual friend. But I learned an immense amount from him, and not all of it was about Latin.

Others have written about the tremendous loss marked by Reggie’s death (see here, here, and here). (And see more about his life more generally here. And get a taste of his teaching here.) I wanted to tell two stories, mainly so that I can keep the memories vivid. Those memories are vivid in my mind even though I took his class 20 years ago now in the summer of 2001. And the people I shared them with–Chris, Mary Lou (“Maria Louisa,” as Reggie called her), and others–are people I still think of fondly.

Twenty years ago, I was a young and eager seminarian and my Archbishop sent me to Rome for the summer to study Latin. He was a Classics scholar in his own right, having a PhD in it and genuinely wanting to support any seminarian who expressed an interest in Latin or Greek. So off I went, alone, to the Eternal City. I knew a priest studying there, and a few seminarians at the North American College (NAC), but it was summer and people were quickly getting ready to head the opposite direction. Two priest friends picked me up at the airport, took me to the convent I was staying at, and took me to dinner (with an obligatory walk through St. Peter’s square). They both had taken Reggie’s classes, one of them for several years. And they both warned me that he might seem a bit off-putting to a young seminarian. But I had several days before class started, I was in Rome, and it was glorious.

The class was made up largely of Classics majors from Ivy League schools and high school or college Latin teachers. I sat in the back. My table consisted of me, a seminarian from the NAC, an attorney who chose to study Latin on a sabbatical, and a law professor who found her second wind and was studying for a PhD in Medieval English. An eclectic bunch.

Reggie’s style was engaging and provocative. And to a young seminarian who had certain perceptions and idyllic views about the priesthood, he was scandalous. I could not believe some of the things he would say, or perhaps the way he would say them. I thought it was a huge missed opportunity in evangelization for a group that was probably made up of 90% non- or former-Catholics.

Reggie had a Question Box at the front of the classroom for anyone to submit any question on the materials or whatever else. You did not need to put your name or anything. It was meant to promote learning for everyone–even those too timid to ask a stupid question in class and get shot down by his quick tongue (which I must say, I grew to appreciate). So I asked a question that went something like this: “Why did you ever become a Carmelite?”

All the Carmelites I had met in life were reserved, contemplative, and only spoke of virtuous things. Reggie was bombastic, loud, and when asked what religion he adhered to, said, “Zoroastrianism.” Generally, Reggie would take a few minutes before the second or third session of the class began and he would answer the questions. He read mine, and knowing exactly its source, looked up at me in the back of the room and gave his famous response, “Buh.”

He didn’t answer the question until weeks later. We were reading some passage about the reform of the Carmelites by some historian. The passage talked about how bold St. Teresa of Avila was, how she would tell people exactly what they needed to hear and not care about how she looked or what people thought of her. She had zeal for the Lord and expressed it in her own way, even if it was out of the norm for the time. After reading through the passage in class, Reggie stopped, looked up at me from his seat, pointed and said, “That’s why!” It was fantastic.

My second vivid memory of the summer was on our “All-Day Thomas Aquinas Tour” as he called it. Our class ran six days a week, Monday through Saturday. On Sundays, however, you could opt to go with Reggie on a tour. One tour was the obelisk tour in Rome. Once we went to see examples of Mussolini’s architecture outside of Rome. Another time, we went to Ostia Antica and read passages of the Confessions where St. Augustine talks about St. Monica’s death. The way Reggie read and spoke made it feel like you were right there with Augustine sitting in the room as Monica lay dying with the water off in the distance. I’m glad I went on those trips.

But the All-Day Thomas Aquinas Tour was my favorite. We traveled first to Monte Cassino, then some other areas around there, and ended our day at Fossa Nova, in the then-Cistercian abbey where Thomas Aquinas died.

By Fczarnowski – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26762408

After we viewed the actual room where St. Thomas died (in a back guest house, upstairs), we came back to the main church. It was the end of the day, and there were no more tourists. One of the sheets Reggie had prepared for us that day was of Aquinas’s poetry, and he included the Pange Lingua. And as we all stood in the middle of the church looking at the altar (pictured above), he began to sing. As he sang, Reggie’s eyes filled with tears, and one fell down his cheek. He was not embarrassed or self-conscious. He was wrapped up in a Love that only few people get to experience.

By that time, our class had been going for about seven weeks and I had come to appreciate Reggie’s style and character. But at that moment, with him standing and singing before his Lord, I think I saw who Reggie truly was.

1 Pange, lingua, gloriosi
Corporis mysterium,
Sanguinisque pretiosi,
Quem in mundi pretium.
Fructus ventris generosi
Rex effudit gentium.

2 Nobis datus, nobis natus
Ex intacta Virgine,
Et in mundo conversatus,
Sparso verbi semine,
Sui moras incolatus
Miro clausit ordine.

3 In supremae nocte coenae,
Recumbens cum fratribus,
Observata lege plene
Cibis in legalibus,
Cibum turbae duodenae
Se dat suis manibus.

4 Verbum caro, panem verum
Verbo carnem efficit:
Fitque sanguis Christi merum,
Et si sensus deficit,
Ad firmandum cor sincerum
Sola fides sufficit.

5 Tantum ergo sacramentum
Veneremur cernui:
Et antiquum documentum
Novo cedat ritui;
Praestet fides supplementum
Sensuum defectui.

6 Genitori, Genitoque
Laus et jubilatio,
Salus, honor, virtus quoque
Sit et benedictio:
Procedenti ab utroque
Compar sit laudatio.
Amen.

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