A “polyglot” is defined as “a person who knows and is able to use several languages.” I admit that I’m not one of them, and I’ve had several experiences in life to prove it.
One summer, while a seminarian, I spent several weeks in Vienna, Austria, studying German. In class one day the professor, a rather stern Austrian woman who spoke only German, asked me to stand and read a passage from our German language textbook. When I finished my recitation, she looked at me and said, “Jetz, Herr Tobin, bitte, lesen Sie auf Deutsch,” which roughly translated means, “Now, Mr. Tobin, please read it in German.” Ouch.
On another occasion, during a visit to Rome, I wandered into a neighborhood Trattoria for pranzo, that is, lunch. I entered, greeted the staff, exchanged pleasantries, and sat down using only my very best Italian. They brought me an English menu.
Perhaps the funniest example of my language skill occurred when, during the Great Jubilee Year 2000, while leading a pilgrimage to Rome, I had the wonderful privilege of celebrating Holy Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the beautiful Altar of the Chair, in the midst of about 3,000 pilgrims from all over the world.
Immediately before Mass began, however, the formidable sacristan at the Basilica informed us that since the pilgrims were from all over the world, the Mass would have to be said in Latin. I could, however, preach in English. Saying Mass in Latin was something I had never done before, but now my debut would take place in that glorious setting, in front of thousands of international pilgrims, with a good number of priests from all over the world concelebrating.
I did my best, proclaiming everything from the Missal in Latin, (including the rubrics, I think) and preached a brief homily in English. After Mass, while walking down the front steps of St. Peter’s, (something you could still do in those days,) a young priest from Africa approached me and said, “Your Grace, thank you for a beautiful Mass. Your Latin was excellent, and your English wasn’t bad either. What county are you from?”
The point of all of this? It’s a great blessing for Catholics, that wherever we find ourselves, we don’t have to worry too much about which language we use, for it’s our shared faith that unites us as the Church and inspires our mission to the world. In every church we enter, we should find a sign that reads: “Faith is spoken here.”
Something to think about: Have you ever had any interesting experiences with a different language?