Last rites for a dying language: For centuries Church Latin was the lingua franca of prayer and power. Michael Sheridan talks to an American in the Vatican who refuses to write its epitaph

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The Pope's private lift whirrs upwards and its wood-panelled doors slide open to reveal a loggia frescoed by Raphael. The door to the pontifical apartment stands barred by a solitary Swiss Guard. With the indifferent air of any commuter arriving for work, Father Reginald Foster, the Papal Latinist, heads for his own bare office around the corner, passing an automatic cash dispenser thoughtfully provided by the Vatican Bank for the use of its clerical customers. On his table lie two pencils, a Latin dictionary and a sheaf of plain white paper. The tools of the Latin translator are few.

This is the sanctuary of a dying art: 'It's like classical music,' observes the priest. 'It's almost like some day no one's going to be able to play Handel's harpsichord suites.'

For more than 1,000 years after the Roman world expired, Latin was studied as a perfected relic, frozen in content and form around the time when the last acknowledged classical writers produced their works. When Edward Gibbon wrote his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire two centuries ago, he first immersed himself in the surviving texts left by historians, poets, orators and philosophers. It was a task akin to making oneself thoroughly acquainted with all the objects in a museum.

The second form in which the 'noble tongue' survived was, by contrast, dynamic. The Latin language, its polished epithets and formal, lapidary sentences, continued in use through the ministry of the Church, whose working language of ritual and bureaucracy it remained until the 1960s. In theory it was a dead language. In practice it was adopted and modified for daily use within the walls of the Vatican, even for conversation, and for the preparation of formal diplomatic documents and letters.

All that vanished with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Preserved for a millennium, the tradition has dwindled to the brink of extinction in the last three decades of the 20th century. Failure to replenish the ranks of Latin scholars who once crowded the seminaries meant that very few young priests could carry out their functions in the tongue that had been the church's lingua franca since the dim age of the martyrs.

Now Father Foster, an excitable, burly and balding American in his mid-fifties, remains as its unlikely champion. In the mornings he walks across St Peter's Square and up in the Pope's lift to toil over the translation of encyclicals, documents and letters, often written by committee in Italian or Polish. Father Foster's careful renditions go into the archives, never to be seen again. In the afternoon, he abandons this labour of Sisyphus and stalks over to the Gregorian University, where he bullies awestruck seminarians into volunteering for the study of dry and difficult texts. If the Church awarded prizes for the practice of evangelistic fervour, Father Foster's irascible stream of rhetoric and abuse would qualify him for sainthood.

'All this obsession with sexuality and all this other stuff they're obsessed with - this whole nonsense]' he barks. 'They' are the austere individuals around the pontiff who determine the present focus of Catholic morality from the Holy Office. 'Get down to culture and humanity and education and all these glorious things,' he pleads, 'but they're frittering away their lives, and this whole beautiful thing is falling apart] I think it's simply a tragedy among other tragedies. An intelligent and enlightened place for Latin would be the cure for so many foolish things we're doing.'

Divine in nature, he believes, the Latin language stands for integrity of thought and clear expression of purpose. 'I always tell the students Latin is as solid and enduring as the Colosseum. Now there's nothing beautiful there. It's very impressive, the Colosseum, but it's total functionality. It's like an instrument. You use it. And even when the Romans tried to be funny, their jokes were not so funny at all. You can always hear the legions walking in Latin.'

Only at the very apex of the Catholic Church today can Latin fluency be guaranteed. 'Certainly the Pope can handle it,' says Father Foster, who has descended from his Vatican eyrie to sit at sunset on the plinth below Caligula's obelisk in St Peter's Square. 'But most of these encyclicals are written by a commission in Italian. This drivels on and on, and then they come and say 'You're supposed to put this into Latin'.' He snorts in derision.

That is why, for one so enthusiastic, Father Foster seems alarmingly prone to sudden lapses into melancholy. 'I came here 30 years ago and for five years every single one of my theology classes was in Latin and we took it for granted that everyone could express himself. Not a trace of this is left. Not a trace. In 1967, they said 'We're going to do this in Italian'. Now the students come up almost begging on their knees and say to me: 'Couldn't we do a little bit of Latin?' '

Mellifluous, caressing, languid, forgiving, theatrical and drawn-out, Italian does not conform to the stern requirements of the Latinist. 'It doesn't have what I would call guts,' says Father Foster dismissively. 'It's very milky, creamy and nice.' As for Polish . . .

'All these verbose encyclicals - if you were to write the original in Latin, they would be one-fourth - one-tenth - of their length and you'd say much more.'

His suggestion has gone unheard. John Paul II, a pontiff not noted for his sense of humour, may have found his patience rather tested by such helpful advice. Indeed, it is hard to escape the sensation that Father Foster's joy in the Latin language can sometimes outweigh conventional priestly reserve.

'Why, just the other day we were reading some Plautus, where the mother is accusing her daughter of being a prostitute]' he said with evident delight. 'And the daughter says 'This is my business, how am I supposed to make money?'. And, of course, it's very noble] She says 'I'm not criticising people who don't live like I do and not praising people who do live like I do, but is quaestus mihi est - this is my job]'

'Even one of the students said, 'My] How noble and serene the whole thing is]'. Glorious, simply glorious]'. A few pilgrims had paused to listen to this oration, delivered at a volume suitable for the lecture room and with apparent disregard for any members of the Holy Office who might be passing by.

His love of Latin, it seems, has not caused him to adopt the prejudices of generations of Christians fed by the historians Tacitus and Suetonius. 'Our dear Caligula and Nero have been blackened forever by those guys,' says Father Foster in all earnest. 'I don't think they were that bad at all.' He consoles himself by reading the letters of Cicero every evening, considers the poet Martial 'a doll' and he is perhaps the only living person who can truthfully say that he regrets the fact that we possess only one-sixth of the known works of Livy.

He tells his students that it takes about 15 years of work to master Latin, and he issues them this credo: 'No one should take Latin merely for meaningless academic credit, to fill one's scholastic requirements, out of a vague curiosity, as a sideline, adventure or experimental optional course, to satisfy one's mother, bishop, dean, wife, father, friend, husband, rector, relatives, provincial or children, as a half-baked project to abandon at will or as one of a hundred other daily concerns.'

The arrival of one enthusiast is eagerly awaited. 'Ah, Hume, our beloved Hume,' says Father Foster in great good humour. 'Cardinal Hume says that when he retires he's coming down and he's going to do Latin in my class. These are cultured people,' he adds. Yet these pleasant reflections last hardly a minute before the Dark Ages return. 'But there are hundreds of people, even younger bishops, who just can't handle this. What are you going to do? You can't just martyr them]'

He rises from the plinth of the late lamented Caligula's obelisk and wanders off through the colonnades, back through the gate pierced in the walls of the Vatican City. Cicero, no doubt, awaits.

Reginald Foster is one of the characters in 'Romans', by Michael Sheridan, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at pounds 18.99.

(Photograph omitted)

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