The owner of a small Italian restaurant in Berlin spoke very little English; my German was limited to just a handful of words and simple phrases. But I noticed the non-Germanic softness in his voice, and a little later I overheard him speaking Italian. So, when he came to take my order, I dropped a couple of Italian words (out of my very limited vocabulary) into the conversation, and the man smiled. A couple of minutes later he put a nice portion of bruschetta on the table, a traditional Italian starter that I hadn’t ordered. It was a very nice gesture! Although it hadn’t been my intention, my limited knowledge of the Italian language had been rewarded.
Every year, the first reading at Mass on Pentecost Sunday tells the story of the initial spectacular outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Among many dramatic signs, there was one that astonished the people who had gathered there from many different countries and provinces: they heard the Apostles ‘preaching in [their] own language about the marvels of God.’ In a literal sense, this scene referred to the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel. In that story their unharnessed, unstoppable and audacious pride pushed people to build a high tower, a tower reaching up to the skies, as a symbol of their dominance. That project ground to a halt when their single language became confused and rendered the people unable to communicate effectively. That story was an attempt to explain the variety of languages that exist. But in a metaphorical sense, both stories – the Tower of Babel and today’s outpouring of the Holy Spirit – tell of something to which we can relate.
The clue is in the meaning of the word ‘language’. By default, in the context of both stories, first of all we think of foreign languages, like English, German, Polish, French and so on. But I think there’s another meaning: the way we talk to each other while using the same language. This meaning is used in the phrase ‘mind your language’; the phrase used to correct one’s bad manners in the use of vocabulary or the spoken word. Personally, I think this meaning – the way we talk to each other – is far more important than the ability to speak foreign languages (although that’s useful too). Since round about the 1960s, Christianity has been challenged to find a new language, a modern way of communicating with modern people: a challenge we have mostly failed to meet. Across the board our churches have emptied, our congregations have aged dramatically, and we are gradually becoming a religious minority in this country. Somehow we assume that people should be able to understand the language of Christian signs, symbols, rites and celebrations because they were baptised and brought up in some kind of religious environment. But every now and again I meet and talk with people who have absolutely no clue about Christianity, whose understanding of the faith is either mistaken or non-existent. I don’t blame them. They don’t know ‘the language’ we use in the Church, as most of you wouldn’t understand me speaking to you in Polish.
I believe that the Church must seek to discover a new form of language that people of the 21st century can understand. I’ve seen how the message of Jesus Christ is appealing to modern people in Scotland when it’s presented in their own ‘language’. The popularity of Pope Francis clearly shows what can be achieved when our language is modified and updated. There are critics regarding this approach, claiming that the Pope goes too far, that he blurs the morals and the teachings of the Church. I don’t think this is the case. Over the centuries the Church has reconciled her teachings with the ever-changing world while sticking to the core values of the gospel. The final sentence in today’s first reading is very instructive: ‘we hear them preaching in our own language about the marvels of God.’ The message is the same (the marvels of God) conveyed in different ways (our own language). Perhaps as members of the Church we ought to learn from this and adopt the ‘language’ of modern society in order to become successful witnesses to Jesus’ message of love. Who knows, we may even see the reward of such efforts.