Some years ago, I volunteered at the San Miguel school where for the past ten years the LaSallian Brothers have run a low-cost middle school in the center of Chicago’s most violent area, giving Latino children from low-income families the opportunity to receive a quality education. San Miguel is run out of an ancient parish building, all brick walls and tile floors. Classrooms are cavernous and musty, ripe with the scent of old chalk and cleaning agents. Windows dimmed with years of dust and grit overlook the school’s tiny parking lot, which is framed by a rusty chain-link fence. The dilapidated building sat unused for years until the Brothers moved in, and as time has passed, art classes have brightened it with murals and paintings. One such work of art is a ten-foot image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, painted in vibrant blues, greens, and yellows, watching lovingly over the main stairwell.
During my time at San Miguel, I went to daily Mass with the students and faculty. Their church is small and low-ceilinged, rich with years of incense and prayers, its atmosphere thick with memory. The priest who celebrated daily Mass was newly ordained and answered easily to the title of “Padre” or “Father.” Every day he said Mass in two languages, Spanish and English, calmly and fluidly switching between the two.
After several days of working at San Miguel and attending Mass there, I was struck by the unique beauty of the liturgy. Granted, I had sat through many hundreds of Masses as a congregation member and altar boy, but this one was different. I could not put my finger on it until we stood and held hands to recite the Lord’s Prayer and the words fell from the lips of several hundred people: Our Father, who art in heaven, santificado sea tu nombre. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, en la tierra como en el cielo. The way the students and faculty recited it tugged on my spirit in a new way. I could feel the past and present blend in each sentence, beginning in English and ending in Spanish like footfalls—the spiritual stride of children, daughters and sons of immigrants, part of this country and yet part of other countries, their Catholicism binding them to this church which was not part of either place.
Being citizens of an extremely young nation, we American Christians sometimes forget how ancient our faith is. We forget that our roots are in the Orient, in the streets of Nazareth and behind the walls of old Jerusalem. Sometimes it seems that in our collective American Christian subconscious, Jesus speaks English instead of Aramaic. But attending Mass that day at San Miguel and reciting the Our Father (or the Padre Nuestro, if you will) made it startlingly clear to me how our faith is intertwined not just with our native culture, but with the very words we speak. Christianity being the immigrant religion that it is, there is no better context in which to explore the blending of language and faith into prayer.
I remember how, as a small child, I would go to church on Saturday evenings with my grandma and watch her pray a decade of the Rosary after receiving Communion. At the time, I couldn’t make the connection between the Hail Marys my teachers recited before class and the Ave Marias my grandma prayed during church. Looking back at the experience years later, I still hesitate to claim that they are truly the same prayer. Instead they reveal two Marys, unique but complementary: an English Mary and a Latin Mary who, though different, both aid us in drawing closer to God.
Many years before penning his fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien was inventing languages as the cultural backdrop for his imaginary world of Middle Earth. No one knows how many hours he spent toying with sentence construction, verb tenses, and syntax, but the result was an astoundingly realistic and beautiful language called Sindarin. Staunch Roman Catholic that he was, Professor Tolkien couldn’t resist rendering the Hail Mary in his new language. It begins “Ai Meri, meleth-phant, hîr ah-le…” Tasting these strange words, one can’t help but wonder if Tolkien found another Mary, another facet in the gem of prayer and language.
Long before he became a priest, John Paul II was a college student studying linguistics and writing poetry at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, a bookish young man with a passionate love for Poland and her language. When he was elected pope in 1978, John Paul began his pontificate by addressing over 250,000 Italian pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square in their native tongue, something no pope had ever done. Ignoring the usual sonorous Latin blessing, he boldly proclaimed “Non temete! Be not afraid!” and instantly won the admiration of the whole of Italy. John Paul became in that moment a Pole and an Italian, crossing cultural boundaries by shaping language in prayer. He cemented the bond of friendship with the members of his new diocese by asking them for assistance: “I don’t know if I can make myself clear in your … our Italian language. If I make a mistake, you will correct me…” Showing himself to be a true son of the Church, John Paul reached out to touch all Christians that day, rejoicing in his faith in a new context—a truly “catholic” thing to do.
The word “catholic” comes from the Greek katholou, which means “according to the whole” or “universal.” But by no means does “catholic” imply that the church is the same everywhere. Instead, the many parishes and communities that make up the Catholic Church draw upon a universal Christ who is manifested through the lenses of language and culture. The Igbo people of Nigeria and the French-Canadian people of Québec worship two different faces of the same God who is, in essence, a mystery. He reveals Himself to us in many ways, according to our understanding. Like pieces in a puzzle, the ways in which cultures understand God add up until they are far, far greater than the sum of their parts. This truly universal experience of the divine—English, Spanish, Latin, and Italian—almost scrapes the surface of the Creator’s infinity.
After Mass in Chicago, we crowded into the main stairwell to head back up to class. Everyone else was laughing and talking loudly, but I stayed silent. I absently toyed with the Miraculous Medal around my neck, a small gold pendant engraved with the figure of the Virgin Mary who appeared to Sister Catherine Labouré in France almost two centuries ago. Turning the corner, the painted image of the Virgin of Guadalupe welcomed me back into San Miguel.
Compelled, I reached out with my other hand and touched the hem of her dress, feeling the smooth texture of the paint beneath my calloused fingertips. I accepted both Marys—the dark-skinned Mary of the Mexican barrios and the light-skinned Mary of the French convents. I was a Caucasian man in a sea of Latino children, immigrant children who knew better than I what it meant to be connected to many traditions, many homes. These children prayed to a God who knew all these things, a God who reveled in the sign of contradiction they were to the world, children who lived on violent streets, in poor neighborhoods, children who fought, apologized, argued, and prayed together. They were valiant children, courageous children, fighting their way towards heaven. Watching them clamber up the stairs to class, I prayed. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, en la tierra como en el cielo.