Languages can be the matter of miracles or the cause for bitter feuds. The Solemnity of Pentecost gives us an example of the miraculous possibility of language. When the Apostles went out to proclaim Christ risen from the dead, the people staying in Jerusalem could only shake their heads. Not only were they hearing an astonishing message about the Son of God made man, but they were also hearing it in their own tongues. It was a sign of God’s mighty deeds.
If there were two people who seemed to have the gift of tongues and a world stage on which to use them, it would have to be Saints John Paul II and Mother Teresa of Kolkata. John Paul’s facility with language was legendary. As they traversed the globe, they both took pains to speak to people in a language which was comprehensible to them. Usually it was the spoken word. Sometimes it relied on interpreters and gestures. But it was always the language of the heart.
That is the point of our use of language: speaking heart to heart.
Yet we also know too well that language can cause rancor. Canadians seem to have made a degree of peace with having the residents of Quebec maintain their French. But there are always simmering resentments. Our immigrants often carried with them to these shores stories of the suffering they endured when conquerors and colonizers suppressed their tribal or folk or national languages. Those who have settled here also feel pain when it seems their own languages are disappearing. My grandmother recited nursery rhymes in German, but in mid-life her New York parish started having readings and homilies in Polish. Now they are in Korean.
Then, of course, we have had our church disruptions. When Mass began to be celebrated in the vernacular, it was a wrenching adjustment for some. They found the Latin to be more reverent and majestic. We have the option now to celebrate Mass in Latin, either in the New Order or the Tridentine. It is a matter of respecting hearts.
During the Lenten and Easter season, we have had our Rite of Election, Chrism Mass, and Easter Vigil observed in many parishes and the cathedral with a mixture of English, Spanish, and Latin hymns, plus English and Spanish readings and prayers. Inevitably, there has been some grumbling.
Perhaps we can make a Pentecost resolution to respect the languages that speak to people’s hearts. In any given congregation, there will be more than one or two first languages. Perhaps too we can recall that the European language spoken by the very first Catholics in South Carolina was Spanish. They were at Santa Elena, now Parris Island. In the 16th century, we were part of La Florida, a land full of flowers. So perhaps, when we are faced with slightly bilingual liturgies, we can also recall that we are celebrating our history. After all, the first Catholic chapel was built in 1566 at Fort San Felipe, outside Beaufort. They didn’t call it St. Philip’s.
Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM, is the Secretary for Education and Faith Formation at the Diocese of Charleston. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.