Don’t laugh now. I know: I mentioned the following anecdote almost three months ago and am only now giving up the goods. It’s only a little story; I’ve had plenty of time to write it; it’s returned vividly to my mind nearly every week since it happened. But, eh, life happens; I do what I can do. Read what you can read.
So, weeks ago, I agreed to visit a monastery in central Táiwān with two close friends from my parish. Filipinos, they have lived in Táiwān nearly thirty years. During that time they have become third-order members of the Community of St. John, which was founded in the 1970s by the Dominican Father Dominique Philippe. Knowing I am discerning my vocation, and hearing I have interest in “getting away” now and then for spiritual retreats, we all got in the car to visit Fr. Francois and his little community. Mass began a little after we arrived. I braced myself for yet another Mass in Chinese – but then was thrown for a loop. Minute after minute, as I strained harder and harder to understand Fr. Francois, I was increasingly unnerved. I simply had no idea what Fr. Francois was saying! Stranger still, next to me my friend, Cisco (short for Francisco), was apparently not missing a beat; in fact, he leaned over every few moment to whisper (a translation? A question?) to his wife. All I could do was blink and go along by faith even more ineptly than usual. Was it simply Father’s theek Frawnsh aksent? Or was my Chinese really that bad? The strangest thing was that when another priest read the responsorial, I understood him much better, despite his admittedly very theek aksent.
Suddenly, perhaps registering my bafflement, and seeing Cisco’s whispered translations, Fr. Francois asked in what I knew was Taiwanese: “Lín tyā’wù bo?” Eureka. Fr. Francois had been reading and preaching in Taiwanese! (I never claimed to be smart.) After Mass things became a little clearer. Because Fr. Francois lives and serves in rural Táiwān, he decided to learn Taiwanese, and in fact, not to learn Mandarin. Cisco could understand him and speak back because his family was originally from the Fujian province of China, which is, if I’m not mistaken, more or less where the Taiwanese dialect (“Amoy”) originated. At lunch we ate with a Taiwanese, shall I say “solidarity”, group dedicated to raising public virtue and self-responsibility. Turning to his left, Fr. Francois spoke in Taiwanese; turning to us on his right, he alternated between bursts of Tagalog with Cisco and his wife and English with me. (Oh, yes, I also made feeble attempts to use what little French I had by then learned. Très pitoyable!)
After lunch, we gathered in an adjoining room for some singing and chitchat. There I heard hymns in French, Latin and Taiwanese and joined some in Mandarin and English. Once most of the people had left, while Fr. Francois talked with Cisco and his wife, I was able to talk with a French brother, whom, as a matter of fact, I had met months before after he and his community performed a splendid musical Christmas drama. We exchanged English, French, Chinese and even German tips as we discussed theology, history, vocation and the upcoming World Youth Day. Yes, he would be going too.
A little after this we made our last stop a few miles down the road at the convent. There I spoke with a couple French sisters and finished by talking briefly with an Argentinean sister – to whom, as a matter of fact, I already had an oblique connection. Months before she was studying at Providence and had joined us for a few Taizé services. On top of that, my godmother, Sister Regina, some months ago told me the case of a woman in Britain, who was, if I’m not mistaken the sister or law, or at least close friend, of the Argentinean sister I met in the convent. The woman in Britain had been attacked by a man while brining her child home; in fact, he stabbed her in the neck, paralyzing her from the wound down. Happily, though, Sister Regina told me this very case, as a sort of “cause for beatification”, was being entrusted to the prayers of the late and dear Pope John Paul II, who had died only a few weeks prior to my hearing this. Since hearing it, I have prayed fairly regularly for his intercession on behalf of that poor paralyzed woman. (Join me!) And then, there I was, standing in a convent speaking with the sister so closely, and yet so obliquely, connected to my formation as a new Catholic.
On the ride back, everything hit me at once in a kind of spiritual, cultural epiphany. So this is what it means to be Catholic! To ride with Filipino friends to a convent of a French religious order in rural Táiwān; to hear a Chinese Mass led mostly in Taiwanese by a French priest, while my Filipino friend used his Chinese heritage to translate for his wife into tagalong; to eat lunch with total strangers in the company of brethren, while practicing my Mandarin, Tagalog and French; to catch up with a brother I barely knew by talking about “deep things” and then to make plans to meet in Germany (alas, didn’t happen); to make the acquaintance of a sister from South America for whose friend I had already been praying, with the special assistance of a recently deceased Polish bishop of Rome; and, finally, to experience all this as a German-speaking Greek-American living in Táiwān, a land which had been occupied by the Dutch, Portuguese, Chinese and Americans; and all this because the teaching, example, death and resurrection of an ancient Jewish teacher from Nazareth had reached me through the witness and wisdom of two millennia of Greek, Roman, African, German, Russian, Filipino, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French, Lebanese, Scottish, Frisian, Chinese, Japanese, English and American believers.
Obviously, similar concatenations and relations could be concatenated and related in, probably, most any religious, or even secular, community. But, by and large, they never are. Why? Because, more than in any other affiliation, such concatenated relatedness is what it means to be a Catholic. We worship a God who is perfect relationship. We worship a Lord who has become related to us in every way, particularly in our sufferings and His. We worship a God who calls us to meet all people in all times, just as He met us in one Person at one Time. We worship in the multicultural, multigenerational and multidimensional unity of all the faithful, both alive and dead, both penitent and purified. As the saying goes: “The Catholic Church? Here comes everybody.” In the early days of feeling my way into the Church, I emailed a very prominent Catholic blogger (three guesses who he is) about my hopes, fears and incipient “connections” in the Church. I forget nearly everything he said but this: “The Catholic faith is extremely ecological.” I pondered that for some time. And then, three years later, I saw exactly what he meant on my way back from a convent in rural Táiwān.