BY DANIEL QUINNThis past summer, in response to Bishop Howard J. Hubbard's desire that we seminarians learn Spanish in order to be able to minister to our the Albany Diocese's growing Latino population, I studied Spanish at a language institute in Bolivia for six weeks.
I learned a few things there in addition to the language.
First, despite my years of classroom Spanish, I was unprepared to speak it all day, every day, as living in a Spanish-speaking country demanded. As a result, my time with other English-speaking students between classes was a wonderful break.
Outside of those brief respites, the frustration of being unable to communicate and of not being understood was a constant reminder of my poverty of language. I understand a little better, now, how refugees and immigrants feel when they are unable to communicate with the entire people of the country to which they have moved.
It gave me pause to reflect on God's coming to us: Jesus, the Word of God, the only-begotten Son of God, who is fully God Himself, willingly became a baby, unable to speak, unable to communicate.
Unfortunately, things didn't change much as He performed His mission. Even as an adult and able to speak, He was constantly misunderstood by the people He was teaching. (This is a predominant theme in the Gospel of John.)
Second, there are concepts in Spanish that do not have an equivalent expression in English (and vice versa). This required that I think in different ways.
For instance, in Spanish, the words "ser" and "estar" both mean "to be," but are used in different circumstances. "Ser" is used for more permanent things, such as, "She is tall;" "estar" is used for temporary things, such as, "He is sick."
However, the temporary "is," "estar," is used when talking about death: "He is dead." They have the concept that death is not permanent built right into their language! If only we could be reminded of our faith in the resurrection every time we talked about death.
Third, in order to proclaim the Gospel well, I must be able to communicate effectively. There have always been language and communication barriers between peoples. The primeval story of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9) provides an explanation for this problem, and the corresponding event that repairs the damage done at the Tower of Babel occurs at Pentecost (Acts 2).
It is only through God's power, given to the Church by the Holy Spirit, that people from every foreign land could hear God's word proclaimed to them in their own tongues. Similarly, we, the Church, in order to fulfill our call to preach and teach the Gospel to all, must be able to communicate with everyone.
We must make the Gospel accessible, without compromising its message, to those who are very young; to those who only speak Spanish, Russian, sign language and so on; to prisoners; to the rich and to the poor. Indeed, we must bring the Gospel to each person in the mode in which they need to hear it.
This is not to say that one person has to be able to do it all, but rather that the Church as a whole must be able to proclaim the Gospel in all the various ways that are needed.
We, as Church, are all recipients of the Holy Spirit by virtue of baptism and confirmation. How are each of us called to proclaim that same Gospel to different people - and how do we find that out?
We can only know through prayer, in conversation with God, whose first language, as St. John of the Cross said, is silence. Let's pray that through God's power at work in us, we may make Him known to the entire world through our words and our actions.
(Daniel Quinn is a seminarian studying for the priesthood for the Albany Diocese and a native of Holy Trinity parish in Johnstown.)