Saturday, June 30, 2007

Can We Communicate Without Understanding?

In my early years as a missionary in South Africa I would be asked, occasionally, to hear the confessions of some Zulu Catholics in the beautiful city of Durban. I knew approximately 20 words in Zulu and my penitents knew slightly more in English. Yet somehow we both knew what was happening. We knew that this was a spiritual moment --- an encounter with Jesus. With the aid of a bi-lingual chart, showing, on one side, in English, the Commandments of God and the Church and, on the other side, “sins” written in Zulu, the penitent could point to the sin and I could easily understand its translation by consulting the chart. Even apart from the chart, we both understood and believed that once I, the priest, pronounced the words of absolution in Latin, [1] the soul was cleansed of any sin and reconciled to the love of the God in Whom we both passionately believed. The One they called Umzimkulu ( the One Who is above all others). We were communicating even if we didn’t understand each other’s language. This type of communication practically shouted a mutual belief that sins are forgiven even if the priest doesn’t get the exact drift of the confession or is a dullard or a cad. Evidently, there are methods of communication which do not require any understanding of words.

In fact, I was well prepared for such interaction by years of attending Mass in the huge Paulist church in New York City prior to Vatican II. Each Sunday, I attended Mass, usually, with at least 600 people. We worshipped almost in total silence except for the periodic ringing of a beautifully toned bell signaling various levels in the service. We all knew exactly the Liturgical “place” of the service. We all knew when to stand or sit or kneel. This was so even though the priest had his back to us facing God, almost as a Regimental commander leading his troops as he stood before a Divine Five Star General. Amazingly, while the Mass was said entirely in Latin with no microphones present on the altar, no one seemed lost. There were “Missals” available with English translations alongside the Latin text, in the fashion of the “Pony –trot” handbook many of us used while studying Greek or Latin. Mostly, however, we concentrated on what was “happening” on the altar. The bottom line was that we were deeply involved in worshipping the Lord without necessarily understanding the meaning of “suscipiat” or “juventutem”. The God message came through “loud and clear”. We were not there to be entertained. We were there to meet our basic obligation to the Lord. And, for the most part, it clearly succeeded. But without understanding the Liturgical words, we approached God with awe and respect.

Even though we were all poor and culturally limited, the sense of Community for my group was palpable. Perhaps, the community feeling stemmed from the common socio-economic poverty level of that period but more probably we were bonded by the Depression, World War II and the notion that the parish Church was the center of our universe. That “center” surfaced in the Mass which hardly any one intellectually understood but practically all deeply comprehended—Faith wise. We all knew and lived under the penumbra of the Great Truths: life and death and Salvation. Jesus and God’s grace. Mother Mary and her love for us. The Ever present second chance. The hope of eternal life exemplified in the dazzling array of saints who were just like us.

Even today when I meet an occasional dinosaur survivor of those days, I am impressed with the clarity, strength and beauty of his or her practical Faith. With them, there was (and is) little ambiguity about the Catholic way of life. Of course, it is inevitable that anyone from that era would almost automatically make comparisons. Today’s disarray and theological dissent within American Catholicism with its anger and power grabs is painful for those of us who knew the pre-Vatican community and unity. In spite of the use of the vernacular, there seems to be less Faith and unity than before. It is startling to learn that there is disagreement among Catholics about the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, for example. It is even more distressing to learn that even some priests doubt the efficacy of their own priesthood and question Christ’s presence under the form of bread and wine.

Of course, it is preferable, in my opinion, to understand what one is saying. I like saying Mass in English but would celebrate in Latin if asked to. I like saying the Divine Office in English whereby I learn more of the Scriptures daily, and savor the beautiful Psalms of David. One of the older priests after the introduction of the vernacular, remarked that saying his Office in English distracted him when he found out what he had been saying all those years in Latin.

Recently, Pope Benedict XVI has opened the door for the celebration of Mass in Latin. He should be applauded for his courage and vision in offering such diversity to those Catholics whose liturgical taste reaches for the graceful solemnity of the traditional ritual. The argument that Catholics, not understanding a strange language, will fall away from the Church, rings hollow in the light of the history of the last 40 years. The emptying of our Churches coincided with the use of words people could “understand.” The translations into English have often been banal, vulgar and even excessive. Some commentators have even suggested that an unhealthy familiarity has arisen to replace the sense of awe so valued in the Pre-Vatican II era. We have paid the price!

However, sometimes, understanding does lead to greater devotion (as in my own case). But, some Catholics, clergy and religious included, testify that sometimes the understanding leads to distraction and less devotion, less awe, less respect. In the instance of the puerile attempt to make the Sacrifice of the Mass attractive to young people, some zealots introduced what has been called “ghastly music” into the service. The inept twanging of poorly tuned guitars, the nasal rendition of modern hymnody and the clumsy positioning of these “pieces” into the Mass structure is dist- racting to many faithful Catholics who endure these cultural barbarisms only with their own insight into the meaning of the Mass. The glorious music of Palestrina and Mozart and Bach even if not understood by the Catholic, communicates a great message of God’s presence and Love to him. Communication without understanding again! But perhaps the Lord speaks to some via the leggy, adenoidal genre. Ah! The beauty of diversity!

How often in my life, when I have admitted my inability to understand much of Sacred Scripture, I have been urged to believe that the Lord speaks to me even though I do not understand! The Holy Spirit would instruct me through the very sacredness of the words I did not understand. Even if I am deaf and/or blind. Fair enough but why can not the same Holy Spirit speak likewise through the greatest form of worship possible, the Mass? As with my Zulu penitents, God speaks His own way through any medium He chooses. Can I find like minded questioners like myself among the Pentecostals and the “Gift of Tongues” folk? Or anyone who believes in meta-verbal communication? God speaks to us in many ways, a beautiful way is the Latin Mass. Good for Pope Benedict XVI!

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