Eastern Israel is one of the strange, miraculous places. Heading east from Jerusalem on the Jericho Road, all is dust and stone; your eyes squint in the glare of the yellow-white desert. But cutting through the middle of that rainless desert, just as you come into view of the high treeless sunlit hills of Jordan, is a linear oasis, a belt of trees and farms that stretches off into the distance: the Jordan River. You can barely see the river — there’s not much to it, but it soaks the ground and makes the desert green. Something even more miraculous lies north, where, hemmed in by hills on both sides, you come to the Sea of Galilee. The sapphire blue of the water is like nothing else in the desert, and it enchants the eye whenever you see it. It will even reconcile you to the fact that Hebrew makes no distinctions between lakes and the ocean: in such a dry land the lake seems impossibly large and unfathomably deep, and it has all the color of the sea.
Capernaum sits on the sea’s northern shore. The fame of this little fishing village comes from the fact that Jesus preached there, and it appears to have been the home of Peter, James, John, Andrew and Matthew. Today there is an archaeological zone and not much else. The excavations are much like other excavations; you pay the fee, walk through the gate, and look at the dusty foundations of things that are no longer there. The town seems to have been poorer than most, built of uncut black stone without mortar. Little quadrangular rock lines are all that remains of what once were human dwellings. Like other archaeological sites, however, this one has one spectacular building, the synagogue, a second century edifice of gleaming white limestone, brought from a far-distant quarry, and shaped into capitals and columns and reliefs.
And then, in a corner of the archaeological area, right by the sea, is what appears to be a UFO a hundred feet in diameter, or a monster mutant crab coming out of the lake. It’s a modern church, built in 1990 by Catholics.
In fact the property is owned by the Catholic Church, who bought the property in the late 1800s. Excavations, mostly under the directorship of a pair of Franciscan priests, Vendelin von Bendin and Gaudenzio Orfali, began shortly thereafter. The excavations turned up something interesting: one of the town’s nondescript hovels received extensive amplification in the late first century, renovation in the fourth century, and in the fifth century an octagonal structure — a chapel, it appears — was built right on top of it. The excavators concluded that they had discovered a Christian worship site, and surmised it was the house of St. Peter. In 1990, wishing to give pilgrims something to do on-site, an octagonal church was built over the ruins of the 5th century octagonal structure, appearing to hover over it like a UFO. The modern building is a monstrosity, but it does have glass floors so you can see the supposed house of Peter right below. It gives you far better access to the ruins than you would have otherwise.
Still, there’s not much to do there, and on my visit to the place I found my wandering eyes had time to notice a large marble plaque on one of the pillars holding up the roof. It was in Latin. After I started reading it I called the friend I was travelling with over immediately. “Hey look at this!” I cried. “I think I know who wrote this Latin inscription!”
It doesn’t happen all that often, that you are traveling six thousand miles from home and unexpectedly find a marble plaque with a Latin inscription written by someone you know personally. But that’s the sort of thing that can happen if you knew Reginald Foster, the Carmelite priest who wrote Latin inscriptions for four different popes. There was no signature on it, and lots of people in the Church write Latin inscriptions. But as soon as I saw the Latin itself I had no doubt it was him:
COGNITIS SINGULIS INCEPTI HUIUS SACELLIQUE PARTIBUS FACERE HAUD POSSUMUS QUIN RELIGIOSAM ET DIUTURNAM CUSTODIAE TERRAE SANCTAE DILIGENTIAM HOC EXTRUENDO IN EGREGIO MONUMENTO SUMMI AESTIMEMUS AC SUMMOPERE DILAUDEMUS. STUDIORUM EXINDE ATQUE INVESTIGATIONUM SUPERIORUM PETRIANIS DE LOCIS FRUCTUS VIDENTUR HOC IN SACRO AEDIFICIO VELUT CORPORATI POSTEROSQUE IN ANNOS CONFIRMATI
The Latin is nigh-impossible, of course; that’s Reggie’s style. But if you sit with it you can figure it out. The Custodia Sanctae Terrae is the Catholic organization charged with maintaining pilgrim facilities in the Holy Land, called the Custody:
HAVING BEEN INFORMED OF THE DETAILS OF THIS EXCAVATION AND THE REMAINS OF THIS CHAPEL, WE CANNOT HELP BUT HAVE THE GREATEST RESPECT AND OFFER THE HIGHEST PRAISE FOR THE LONG HARD DEVOTIONAL WORK OF THE CUSTODY OF THE HOLY LAND IN EXCAVATING THIS REMARKABLE MONUMENT. THE FRUITS OF THE PREVIOUS STUDIES AND INVESTIGATIONS CONCERNING THESE PETRINE SITES ARE AS IF EMBODIED AND FORTIFIED FOR FUTURE YEARS IN THIS HOLY BUILDING.
Strolling over to the other side of the church I could read the second plaque, made to continue the first:
EIUSDEM IDEO HUIUS MONUMENTI PONDUS, AD FIDEM ROBORANDAM AC PIETATEM HOMINUM POSTHAC INNUMERABILIUM ILLUMINANDAM, FUGERE NON POTEST QUENQUAM, QUI FIRMA SANE TENETUR SPE FORE, DEO LARGIENTE UT ALIQUANDO ADSTANS VOBISCUM NON VENERETUR TANTUM PRISTINUM DOMUS PETRI INCOLAM, VERUM VISU TACTUQUE DIRECTO TOT EVANGELII EVENTA TOTQUE DICTA ET FACTA SERVATORIS DIVINI MEDITETUR AD EUNDEM LOCUM SACRUM SANCTUMQUE INCOLAM ATTINENTIA. — JOANNES PAULUS II
AND SO THE IMPORTANCE OF THIS MONUMENT, TO STRENGTHEN THE FAITH AND ENLIGHTEN THE DEVOTION OF INNUMERABLE FUTURE PEOPLE CANNOT ESCAPE A PERSON WHO IS HELD BY THE HOPE THAT SOMEDAY, GOD GRANTING, HE WILL STAND WITH YOU ALL NOT ONLY TO PAY HIS RESPECTS TO THE ORIGINAL OCCUPIER OF THE HOUSE OF PETER, BUT TO CONTEMPLATE BY SIGHT AND ACTUAL TOUCH SO MANY EVENTS OF THE GOSPEL AND SO MANY SAYINGS AND DEEDS OF THE DIVINE SAVIOR PERTAINING TO THIS SAME SACRED PLACE AND ITS HOLY INHABITANT. — JOHN PAUL II
It’s not the most consequential inscription, but it’s quite possible that it will be there in a thousand years, when perhaps the building itself is gone; inscriptions endure. The “J” in John Paul is something of a Vatican joke, and means that it is likely that the pope himself approved the final text. Andreas Widmer, a Swiss Guard at the Vatican who wrote a book about his experiences, described Reggie Foster as “a stubborn little man who insisted on wearing blue coveralls (purchased annually from J.C. Penney in Milwaukee, Wisconsin) instead of clerics, and battled John Paul endlessly over whether the correct spelling of the pope’s name began with a ‘J’ or an ‘I.’” John Paul liked “J” (for my writeup of this Curial comedy routine see here).
I brought pictures of the inscription to Reginaldus after I got back from my trip, and he confirmed that he had in fact written it. He seemed amazed that something he had written could have been set up a thousand miles away in Capernaum and somehow find its way to the eyes of someone he knew. He himself never went to Israel — in fact, with his monastic vow of personal poverty, I don’t think he was ever in any countries besides Italy and the United States. When I informed him that the Latin of the inscription was almost impossibly hard and I stood in front of the plaques for about ten minutes just figuring it all out, he got a bit sheepish. “Bah that’s not that hard… Listen nobody reads this stuff nowadays, if nobody cares about it, you may as well write something GLORIOUS!” But really I didn’t mind. I appreciated the fact that for Reginaldus an inscription was more than just speech frozen on marble: it was a chance to create a mystery, a puzzle that had to be unlocked, a way of expressing yourself that was more complex than normal speech. He would spend hours on these inscriptions, making them harder and harder. And reading them on the other end was like doing a crossword puzzle. You had to know things and still you had to use your brain.
Seeing that inscription made me wonder. There’s no date on the inscription, and it may have been installed when the church was built (1990), but John Paul II visited Capernaum in 2000, making it likely this plaque was put up to commemorate the papal visit. But John Paul II made 104 foreign trips, to 129 countries; he logged over a million miles, enough to go around the world forty times. How many other Latin inscriptions of his might be out there? As far as I know no one has ever written about or photographed this Capernaum inscription before; the Latin inscriptions of John Paul II have never been collected, either in a book or on the internet. Collecting them is a project I might take up; since I’m working on a biography of Reginald Foster, I’ve seen quite a few of these inscriptions, though I’m sure I don’t know of all of them. And there’s no way I’m ever going to go to all the countries John Paul II went to — my travel budget is a bit smaller than his. I encourage people, if they find Latin inscriptions of any kind, to put them up online (including here on In Medias Res) so others can find them. Publishing classical Latin inscriptions is considered one of the traditional ways to contribute to our understanding of the past; there’s no reason why we can’t do it for later Latin inscriptions as well.
John Byron Kuhner is editor of In Medias Res and is working on a biography of Fr. Reginald Foster. He can be contacted at email@example.com.