Yesterday was a sort of first for me. I presided at my “first” Mass entirely in Spanish. I’ve done parts of the Eucharist and Rite of Baptism in Spanish, before, at my former parish of St. Stephen Catholic Church in Caseyville, IL. But, I had never spoken ALL the prayers, start to finish, in another language than English.
In our area of Clinton County, IL there is a sizable population of immigrants from Mexico. They have been settling here for many years finding work in various agricultural and service industries. Many speak English or are attempting to learn it, but there are always new folks arriving without English skills. Let’s be honest, it’s difficult to pick up a second language as an adult. I would struggle trying to learn something other than English at this point in my life. Their children, of course, learn English much faster. Many are born here. What I think is neat is that these youth are bi-lingual. How lucky they are to be able to communicate in both languages. I studied Spanish in High School, but never really became able to converse in it. Many folks in my parish in Trenton and around the county aren’t aware of how large the population of Spanish speaking neighbors has become in recent years.
We anglos better get used to the idea that Spanish has become a part of life in the United States and in the Catholic Church in our nation. According to an article in U.S. Catholic,
“Between 2000 and 2008 the number of U.S. Hispanics increased from 35 million to 46.9 million, a 34 percent jump. Their numbers will continue to increase at least until 2050, when the Census Bureau projects a count of 102.6 million. At that time, the bishops’ Subcommittee on Hispanic Affairs has estimated, 85 percent of U.S. Catholics will be Hispanic.” (c.f. “Journey to the Center of the Church” Wednesday, June 2, 2010, cited on the web-site of U.S. Catholic, a publication of The Claretians, http://www.uscatholic.org/church/2010/06/journey-center-church?page=0,1, accessed April 23, 2011. The article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75, No. 3, pages 27 – 31).
Already, if I remember correctly a statistic I read in the same publication quoted above (but can’t find to site), 50% of the Catholics in this country under 30 years of age speak Spanish at home, already! Some call this the “browning” of the church. I call it a wonderful experience of the diversity of The Body of Christ, “El Cuerpo de Christo.”
I know there is resistance among some in our parishes of southern Illinois to making the liturgy available in Spanish. I ran into that in Caseyville. And I sense that is the case in my present parish. “They’re in this country, they should speak English! Let them come to Mass in English.” But I can’t help wondering if I found myself in anther country for an extended stay or to live where English was not spoken, wouldn’t I long for an opportunity to pray in my “native” tongue where I was comfortable and didn’t have to constantly translate in my mind what was being said. To me, that translating gymnastics would be an obstacle to communicating with the God who brought be to birth and first spoke to me in a particular language through the love of my parents who taught me to speak and in a liturgy of the language of where I was born and raised. Ritual is more than words, yes. The Mass is the Mass in any language and a person can get “something” out of a Mass because the non-verbal symbols still speak the reality of Christ present and worshiped. But, would it be as full of an experience of “the mysteries.” This is one of the reasons the Constitution on Sacred Liturgy of Vatican Council II encouraged the use of the vernacular in the Roman Catholic Church (see article number 36 in the Constitution), to make the liturgy accessible to people.
Sure, eventually, I’d learn the local language and become comfortable in expressing myself in it. I had an aunt, Sister Folgence Rascher, CPpS, who spent over 25 years in Peru. When she would come back to the States for home visits, often she’d have to ask how to say something in English, since Spanish had become so much a part of her everyday and prayer language. In one sense, she became Peruvian, she identified with her adopted people. She was proud of her birth country, occasionally critical of it for the strong influence it had on Peruvian culture, but a woman of faith who knew in her heart that Jesus the Christ was savior of all people and in order for people to know Him, she had to first meet people where they were in their language and culture, not impose a way of communicating learned in a small farming community of north central Missouri where she was born. Sister Folgence was a kind of hero and inspiration to me. I figure a similar journey of enculturation and encounter with Christ is going on for those who come to our country looking for work, the human rights of freedom and dignity.
Those who have settled in this area of Clinton County, traveling from their place of birth in Mexico and points even further south, are my brothers and sisters in faith. If I happened to study Spanish in High School out of admiration for my Aunt Sister Folgence and am able to at least speak it from printed liturgical texts in a way that is comprehensible, then I have a responsibility to offer the sacraments in Spanish to them. I truly believe that God was at work back in those formative high school experiences at Mater Dei High School in Breese (just a few miles from where I live, today) preparing me to be a priest who could offer the sacraments to people in a language that would be a comfortable place to pray while they “sojourned in a foreign land” like the Israelites of old. I suspect Sister Fulgence is smiling down from Heaven at what her nephew is up to.
The actual experience of praying the Mass in Spanish was a bit of a challenge. I was pretty nervous. What if I can’t be understood? What if I make a mistake? I’ve been practicing for several months, off and on, once I learned that the priest who usually celebrates the Mass at St. Damian in Damiansville, IL was having serious health problems. He was becoming unavailable to preside. The coordinator of the Office of Hispanic Ministry in the Diocese of Belleville, Sister Cecilia Hellmann, ASC and the local coordinator our deanery hired to minister to the Hispanics in our area, Robert Rapp, were both encouraging me to get busy and practice. Bob reminded me before I processed to the altar, “Just remember. It’s God who’s doing this, not you! Don’t be afraid!” Good advice. He also helped me out by reading the Gospel and giving a “reflection” afterwards about the importance of not being afraid to witness to the faith. I didn’t understand everything in the comments to the folks, but I did catch that and that he used me as an example of trying new experiences to proclaim our belief in Jesus the Risen One. (The Gospel was the story of the appearance of Jesus to disciples after he had appeared to two others on the Road to Emmaus, Third Sunday of Easter, Cycle B. Jesus sends those disciples, who were originally fearful they were seeing a ghost, out to proclaim repentance to the whole world at the end of the pericope.)
I guess things went pretty well. Bob tells me that some of the folks didn’t believe it was my first time celebrating the Eucharist in Spanish! The practicing paid off, it seems. Bob did say I’ve got to work on my “H’s” and “J’s.” H is not pronounced in Spanish, and I have a habit of still pronouncing it. J’s are sounded out like an English H and the old English thinking brain keeps trying to say the english sound. Back to the practice! But the thing he said that I appreciated the most was that he had the sense I was “praying” the prayers instead of just pronouncing what was on the page as some priests have to do who don’t speak the language when leading Mass. He had the sense I knew what I was saying, putting emphasis and interpretation into the prayer. That, I hope, helped the congregation to pray. I know I was focusing more on correct pronunciation than praying, but I guess in time I’ll be praying more than concentrating on correct pronunciation. Heck, I’m still working on “Praying” the new English translation of the Roman Missal with all of its unfamiliar vocabulary and sentence construction! By the way, I can see where the Mexican Sacramentary (which we use for Spanish liturgy in the U.S.) does have places where it is much closer to the Latin original Missal than the previous English Sacramentary, thus exemplifying for me a few of the changes that were made in English. Yet, there’s a lot more “options” and “adaption” of the prayers, too, than we had in English. That’s another whole blog article.
Overall, it was a good experience. I did feel welcomed as the stranger, and thus like the Christ was when he walked that road to Emmaus with two disciples, able to provide for them an experience of his risen presence in the “Breaking of the Bread.” Yet, because the people I prayed with were not familiar to me, maybe I felt a bit like they do when they come to this country, disconnected from the culture and language, hoping to find their place in the community. That’s like anytime I’ve moved into a new parish, though. Faces will become familiar. I might even learn how to converse with the folks a bit. Hopefully, the Kingdom of God was made evident in this world. And, one day we’ll all experience the Lord Jesus gathering “people of every race, language and way of life in the one eternal banquet” of life (from the former translation in English of the Eucharistic Prayer II for Reconciliation).
Sounds like I’m going to do this on a regular basis, doesn’t it? The invitation to preside, again, has been offered. I’ve accepted. A new experience of ministry is taking shape.
Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, ruega por nosotros.
Sister Folgence, pray for me, assist me to carry on a bit of your ministry.