What is it like to pray in another language?
I’m afraid I can’t answer that question. Though I took Latin and German in high school and French in college, I have mastered none of them. Living in northern Manhattan, many of my neighbors speak Spanish, though they know not to try it on me. When we traveled to Spain, my wife did all the talking, having learned serviceable Spanish in medical school.
Every so often, however, I try to fend for myself. The occasion, almost always, is Mass. Our parish, once mostly Irish-American, is now dominated by immigrants from the Dominican Republic. Usually, we attend the English Mass on Sunday afternoon, but sometimes we find ourselves with no other option than to attend the Spanish liturgy. So there I am, on a Holy Thursday or holy day of obligation, seated in the back row trying to follow along.
For most of the Mass, I do just fine. The rhythms of the liturgy are so familiar to me that I rarely feel lost. During the Liturgy of the Word, I turn to the Missal to study the readings, and I open it again to read the Nicene Creed. My only weak moment is the homily, when even our Anglo pastor’s clearly enunciated Spanish is nearly impossible for me to understand. In those moments, I turn to the prayers printed on the back of the Missal or meditate on the Gospel reading.
Sadly, I don’t approach every liturgy with the same conscientious spirit. At an English Mass, where (in theory) I can grasp all that is said, I don’t feel the same obligation to be present and active. Too often, I drift into a reverie that has little to do with the celebration at hand. My desire to participate fully in the Spanish liturgy may be born of Catholic-schoolboy guilt. (Will the Mass “count” if I don’t understand a word of it?) But it has proven to be a useful discipline nonetheless.
Our attendance at the occasional Spanish Mass has also connected me to my community in ways that I did not expect. Our neighborhood is rather neatly divided along language lines. West of Broadway, the residents are mostly English speakers, and they tend to attend Mass at a shrine in the heart of their district. The Spanish speakers live to the east, and prefer Mass at the parish church. For various reasons, we prefer the parish church too, which has allowed us to witness a distinctive form of Catholic life.
The music is different, of course, though I like some hymns more than others. I am more taken by the fact that people actually sing. At the greeting of peace, the worshipers flash peace signs to the whole congregation, their smiles wide and welcoming.
My wife and I were most impressed by our first bilingual Holy Thursday liturgy. We arrived on time but still could not find a seat. Though we had to stand for over an hour, we found ourselves energized by the hundreds of people crammed into the church. Here were fellow Catholics I might never encounter in my corner of the neighborhood, and their mere presence gave me hope for the future of our faith community.
Now that we have a young daughter, we will soon have to move to a larger apartment. Will we continue to live in our community, and if we do will we send our daughter to the parish school? Or will we choose a neighborhood that has a better school and is more reflective of our socioeconomic background?
Whatever we decide, I hope we will still find time to take my daughter to Spanish Mass. She has recently started speaking, and to our delight she is mixing in Spanish words (agua, leche) with English ones. (My wife enjoys speaking some Spanish to her.) As she grows older, maybe we will try saying the Hail Mary or Our Father en español. I could use the practice.