I’ve been studying French for many years now and I’m finally at the point where I could do okay in a French speaking country. I’m not really fluent, but as long as people don’t speak too fast, I can follow most conversations fairly well. At least I can order fish and not poison in a restaurant. (Poisson being fish and poison being poison in a Gallic mouth.)
Have you ever attended Mass celebrated in a language you don’t speak? It’s a very interesting and educating experience, one that can have a profound impact on your own reactions during Mass. It has on mine. Here are three things that I’ve noticed when I’ve been to Mass in another language.
Because the Mass is the Mass, I understood what was happening. I might not have been able to comprehend the words, but I knew from the gestures and construction of the prayers where we were. What I learned from this is that since I couldn’t get lost in the words, so to speak, I was freer to participate more completely in the actions. When it came time for the Creed, for example, instead of just reciting something I’ve said a thousand times before, I was forced to consider my own Credo of Belief, my own statement of Faith. When I went to receive communion, my focus was on what I was doing, not what the people and the choir were singing. Stripped of words, the physical action of the Mass took priority.
Next, those words I did recognize became more important. Because I’ve studied Latin, I can pick out a few things here and there in most Romance languages. But even when the language is totally unfamiliar, like Filipino or Polish, because I know the Mass, I can figure out the words for Christ, Lord, Jesus, God. Each time those words appear, they literally pop out of the sea of sound and resonate deep within my spirit. When my verbal prayer is reduced to single words, what better ones than those that call upon our God directly?
Finally, I began to understand just how much our own language shapes our understanding. We assume that everyone who goes to Mass has the exact same experience we do…and yes, in one sense that’s true. We all experience the mystery of the Eucharist, the power of confession, the message of the gospel. But in another sense, our language shapes our feeling about the mysteries. One small example. In English, we end the Our Father with the word “Amen.” Although the word in Hebrew means “so be it,” I don’t usually think of that when I say it. I just think of it as the last word in the prayer. However, in French, the last words of the Notre Pater are “Ainsi soit-il,” or “Thus it is.” While “Amen” and “Ainsi soit-il” are essentially the same, I know it would “feel” different to me to say, “But deliver us from evil. Thus it is,” than to say “But deliver us from evil. Amen.”
Attending Mass in a language other than my native English offers a window into another way of thinking about the Faith. It helps me appreciate both the personal aspects and the universal qualities of our church and it has made me reconsider the value of the Latin Mass as a worldwide standard, but that’s a topic for another column!