The Idler: Aestiva Romae Latinitas

Certain kinds of letters strike fear into human hearts. Dear John letters and IRS letters certainly come to mind. For students in the Medieval Institute at Notre Dame the infamous “Latin letter” could be added to that category. Last spring, I received one.

“I am sorry to inform you that you have failed your Latin examination. If you are to have any chance of passing the exam in the future, I suggest that you seriously redouble your efforts.” That was the chilling central message of the letter. Chilling because if you are anything like I was, the study of Latin draws one toward nostalgic feelings for the dentist’s chair or a place at traffic court. My studied opinion after three years of Latin study (two as an undergraduate, and one as a graduate student) was that nothing, short of Chinese water torture or reading the National Catholic Reporter, could compare to the difficulty, tedium, and outright pain of having to translate 40 or 50 lines of, say, Augustine’s De Civitate Dei, by 8:00 a.m. the following morning.

Now, however, I am a new man. I do not mean at all to imply that now Cicero’s De Oratore is to me as TV Guide is to most. No, although my Latinity has improved, I realize now as ever that I’ve got miles to go. The change has come rather from the transformation of Latin from a dead language to a lingua vivens mihi.

The “Latin Summer Experience,” as it is called, began with 20-some eager scholars meeting in front of the Pontifical Institute of Spirituality in Rome. These students came not only from prestigious schools in the United States such as Princeton, UCLA, and North Carolina, but also from England and Germany. Many of those participating in the course were high school or college Latin teachers themselves, while others were graduate students preparing to do research requiring the use of Latin. There we met Reginald Foster, a Carmelite priest, who would be our guide for the next eight weeks.

Class began that day, as always, with a quiz from “Reginaldus.” (In fact, he never gives actual quizzes or tests. Rather, at any moment in class, a student’s knowledge is challenged by question or outright demand.)

“How do you say ‘you can buy false teeth from us within the hour’ in Latin? quanto citius, eo melius!

“Well, let’s see … potestis … emere a nobis intra unam horem….

The pauses in Reginald’s class are never long for he rescues students from their dismay before too much embarrassment.

Factos dentes!” he belts out, with a smile. Reginald’s voice has about three volumes represented by the 8, 9, and 10 indicators on the knob of a stereo.

With that, we began the eight weeks. His own description of the course reads, “Not any sort of crash-course but rather a complete and immediate, practical and concrete experience of the entire Latin language and all Latin literature of 2200 years through natural, total, no-pressure immersion into precision Latin understanding and composing, first-sight reading and speaking, plus on-the-spot historical reliving from genuine Latin literary sources.” And so it was, for three to six hours a day and six days a week.

A constant throughout this entire time was an indigo blue, quasi-plumber’s suit Foster wears unceasingly. He takes joy in the myth surrounding it. “It’s from J.C. Penney’s,” he crowed. “I’ve been ordering the exact same suit for over 20 years!” That he ever would have chosen the polyester outfit to begin with was remarkable. That J.C. Penney’s still offered said suit was astounding. But that in the 20 years of his ordering the mythical garment, he had neglected to order a larger size to accommodate his expanding figure, was absolutely out of the realm of the real. (Actually, Foster is remarkably fit, probably due to his rapid pace of walking, often the most efficient means of travel in Rome.) In any case, his suit made him easy to spot in the crowded plaza of the Vatican.

We had plenty to keep us busy even aside from the delights of Rome. The plethora of texts used in class not only expanded my horizons in terms of the rich diversity of Latin literature, but also broadened my appreciation and understanding of Western culture. As anyone who is (or is trying to be) a specialist in a field knows, a depth of knowledge often comes at the expense of a width. (How sad it is to be like one poor graduate student who asked Reginald innocently, “Why does this dove always keep appearing in depictions of Jesus?”)

Armed only with our green Bible (Gildersleeve and Lodge’s Grammar) and our blue Bible (Lewis & Short’s Latin Dictionary), we delved into Latin texts from every period. We read classical Latin from Nepos, Quintilina, Gellius, Lucretius, Phaedrus, Cicero, Caesar, Martial, Plautus, and Petronius. We read patristic and medieval Latin from the Vulgate, Cyprian, Ambrose, Augustine, Leo the Great, Maximus, Abelard, Innocent III, and Thomas Aquinas, and renaissance Latin from Erasmus, Luther, Thomas Moore, Bembus, Pontanus, and Comenius. Thomas Pekkanen who broadcasts the news in Latin from Sweden and John Paul II represented, among others, the modern use of Latin.

Foster himself produces a great deal of modern Latin as one of the official Latinists for the Vatican. In his office, just down the corridor from the private apartments of the Pope, he and a select team of others translate various encyclical letters and ecclesial texts from the vernacular, usually Italian, into Latin. His handiwork can also be seen on various commemorative plaques around Vatican City. In addition, he teaches Latin to students at the Gregorian University.

If that were not enough, Reginaldus also rather excels as a tour guide. Nearly each Sunday of the summer experience, he led any and all who would care to go on trips in and around Rome. For instance, we read accounts of Caesar’s death on the very spot on which he was killed, set in context by the letters of Cicero and Caesar himself. At Ostia Antiqua, where Monica and Augustine shared a mystical vision of the joys of beatitude, the corresponding selections of the Confessions were read. Among other wonders, we visited the Papal summer residence, Castle Gondolfo, and had an insiders tour of the Vatican apartments where, among other wonders, some of Raphael’s work remains secreted from public view.

Another highlight of the summer was known as sub arboribus or under the trees. Behind the Carmelite monastery, under the trees, four nights a week, we read together or had conversations omnino latine. As we shared cookies and good Italian wine, the sun grew dim and the ancient language of Caesars and Pontiffs lived anew amid the distant noises of the city and local soccer matches. O beata vita!

I received another letter from the Director of the Medieval Institute recently. With characteristic brevity it reads in full: “I am delighted to inform you that you have passed the recent Latin examination. You are now in a strong position to prepare for a future dissertation in the Medieval Institute.” An evaluator of the examination remarked to me: “Your Latinity has made a quantum leap.” Quid dicas? Nihil sed Deo et Reginaldo gratias.


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