Sunday, January 01, 2006

Born of a woman

The Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God
The Cathedral of the Holy Rosary
Vadodara (Baroda), January 1, 2006

Yes, so I most certainly didn’t wake up in time for the 8:00 a.m. English Mass. At 8:00 a.m., however, mother knocked on the door, “Don’t you have to go to church?” I guess this must be a universal maternal thing, even for Hindu mothers of Catholic sons! I rolled out at 8:30 a.m. and hastily made my way to the Cathedral across town (I really have never investigated whether there is a closer parish here. The phone book is no help, being updated maybe twice a decade, and I know no Catholics in town. No, I didn’t grow up here. The folks moved here much later.), driving at breakneck speed (60kph [37.5mph] at times. Unheard of, no doubt, on Baroda roads!) to make the 9:00 a.m. Gujarati Mass.

I needn’t have worried. The 8:00 a.m. Mass had just let out as I pulled up at 9:01, the crowd was gathered outside, people wishing each other. Inside the church (one of those ghastly 1960s concrete things), there was still a line of people waiting to venerate the Infant Jesus in the crèche at the foot of the altar, and the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help on one side of the nave. Mass started at 9:10 (no one seemed to care), in a packed church (throngs of people standing in the back, spilling outside), full of colorful saris (worn in both the more common north Indian style, as well as the traditional Gujarati style with the pallu over the right shoulder), salwar-kameezes, the occasional chaniya-choli, and even some of the men in kurtas (in public, in most situations, Indian men wear western clothes, while women will sport both western and traditional dress).

This is the first time I’ve been to Mass in Gujarati (one of the very few times I’ve not been to an English Mass in India). While I speak the language fluently (it is, after all, what is known in India as my mother-tongue, the language of my parents. It wasn’t the first language that I learned to speak, however), I don’t know any of the prayers and responses for Mass in it! Let me tell you, it’s tough to respond in a different language from the rest of the congregation. Especially the Creed!

The hymns were all, of course, in Gujarati, in a traditional Indian bhajan style, accompanied by (the Indian) harmonium and tabla. There were hardly any hymnals (this is true of practically every Indian church I've been to), though this didn’t stop the congregation from a full-throated and joyful participation in the singing, that would put your average American (Catholic) congregation to shame. All the singing was done seated (even the Gospel proclamation), since traditionally, Indians sing while seated. The effect was beautiful and, in many ways, was like being at a Hindu prarthna-sabha (prayer-meeting), or like some of the kathas I went to with my grandmother as a child. In many ways, though, it was surreal.

One should realize that until about forty years ago, all Latin-rite Masses in India, regardless of the local vernacular, would have been in Latin. Once the vernacular took hold, there was a conscious effort to inculturate the liturgy (including some rather bold attempts to come up with an Indian anaphora with language borrowed directly from Brahmanic rituals and Hindu holy texts, which never got approval from the Holy See). Like all post-conciliar reforms, these were implemented top-down, and nothing impacted Catholic life more, than, of course, the translation of the Mass and the Scriptures. A part of me always feels that there was a certain artificiality (and certainly a clear theological agenda) in these efforts, though it must not feel that way to those who have now prayed and worshipped in this vernacular liturgy for over a generation. The clear theological agenda, of course, was to incorporate as many elements from Hinduism (i.e. certain kinds of Brahmanic Hinduism) as one could into the liturgy. Hence, the kind of surreal experience of finding words that I normally associate with Hindu prayer transplanted to Christian liturgy. Some of this, of course, is unavoidable, and natural. Just think of what a Gentile convert would have heard while participating in the liturgy in Greek in the ancient church. But I wonder, sometimes, about the wisdom of some of the choices, the most rankling of which is the translation of Holy Communion as paramprasad (supreme, or highest, prasad). Prasad is the term used in most varieties of Hinduism for the food that has been offered to the god or gods in a temple, and is then received by the worshippers. (My first thought was that this would be like using eidolothouton or hierothouton of 1 Cor. 10 [the terms for meat sacrificed to idols] to refer to the Eucharist!) Prasad has none of the connotations associated with the English “communion” or the original Greek koinonia, this idea of fellowship, of unity, with the Body of Christ. And most emphatically, Holy Communion isn’t just food that has been offered to God (even the One God, as opposed to just any god), which is then blessed and received. It isn’t just food that is offered, but Christ himself. Of course, being an English-speaking Catholic (as far as Indians are concerned), I don’t know if paramprasad now carries some of the other connotations that the words “Holy Communion” do for most Catholics in English. An outsider, certainly, would think only of prasad in its Hindu context.

That is just the most egregious example that came to mind. There are others. Some a little amusing, such as hearing the Pope referred to as “apnaa Vadaguru” (our chief-guru) in the Eucharistic prayer. Guru has entirely didactic, and no cultic connotations in Hinduism, as far as I'm aware. I simply cannot imagine referring to a priest as a guru, at least not in his role qua priest. While a teacher, a priest is also much more. The common term Indians (Catholic and non) tend to use for priests in the vernacular is padri.

I am no expert in things liturgical (or linguistic for that matter), nor am I familiar with the vast amount of expert work on inculturation that is out there. I am certain there are huge challenges in translating the liturgy into a language that has very little history of being a vehicle for Christian concepts and ideas (for instance, I suspect, the same issues wouldn’t arise with Konkani, spoken in an area with a significant Catholic population going back several centuries, or Malayalam, with its strong Oriental-rite pedigree). Nor do I think that certain terms should be taboo simply because they’re used by the local religion (that would have made the work of the early Church a little difficult, eh?). Yet, I wonder why there is such a fascination with only certain forms of Hinduism, when it comes to inculturation of the Latin-rite in India (Aside: I noticed that the only non-Hindu theological word that we heard at Mass this morning was sunnat, of Islamic heritage, used to refer to Jesus’ circumcision in the Gospel from St. Luke.). I wonder too why more attention wasn’t paid to the already-existing Indian rites – the Oriental rites, thoroughly inculturated, celebrated in the vernacular for millennia. (I cannot imagine the Syrian liturgy referring to the Pope as the equivalent of vadaguru.) Maybe there was, and I’m just ignorant.

Of course, in the West, one focuses only on the issues surrounding translation into English. No doubt, a large part of this is because of the prominence and importance of the American Church. And, no doubt, of course, because people simply don’t care as much about what goes on in other parts of the world.

Anyway, back to Mass. :-) Perhaps the most amusing thing was that after the Gloria, the celebrant said to the musicians, “um, could we speed up the rest of the singing please?” (an exhortation that, happily, fell on deaf ears). And then, he proceeded to deliver a nearly thirty-minute long homily! One that had some good wisdom, but was full of several different New Year’s tropes (e.g. “what does it mean to be blessed as we start on this New Year?”) strung together a bit haphazardly, and somehow connected to the Mother of God. I tried very hard to keep up, but there were more sub-points than your average apartment rental lease (“here are three ways to make sure you will be truly happy this coming year,” then each of the three points had three further points), and, much to my chagrin, I found my mind wandering. I guess we were really over time the homily did get over, since we skipped over the General Intercessions and went straight to the Creed! I do need to note that though he appeared to be south Indian (at least by appearance), his Gujarati was absolutely flawless. One shouldn’t expect any less of a Jesuit. :-)

There are no kneelers in the Cathedral (don’t know if they’re on an implementation timetable with respect to the new GIRM or not), though more than half the congregation knelt for the Eucharistic Prayer. At Communion, as is quite common in India, a couple of priests appeared from behind the sanctuary and assisted with the distribution of Holy Communion. I didn’t spot any Extraordinary ministers at all (though they are quite common in Bombay parishes).

Communion itself, pretty much every time I’ve been to India, has the atmosphere somewhat of being at a bus stand (except it’s quiet, and there isn’t any of the desperate pushing and shoving that one associates with trying to board a long-distance bus in India) – everyone rushes forward at approximately the same time. No ushers. I guess I’ve been Americanized enough where this just irritates me (boarding a bus absolutely infuriates me). Of course, it seems a little chaotic, and no doubt it is, but everyone does get to receive, and it doesn’t seem to take any longer. I have yet to be at Mass anywhere in India, however, where Communion is received under both kinds. This morning there was a huge crowd, and the congregation went through two full hymns during the Communion rite.

After the obligatory announcements (including a plug for a new book by a local author and parishioner, called “What does it mean to be a woman.” Father even held up a copy proudly for all to see!), and dismissal, a line quickly formed during the recessional hymn to venerate the Infant Jesus. I joined in, at this point still quite groggy, and not feeling very prayerful at all, just enough to stop next in front of the icon of Our Lady of Perpectual Help, and say a Hail Mary. In English.

Happy Feast! Pontifications has put up the text of St. Athanasius' commentary from today's Office of Readings.

[One of my New Year’s resolutions is to learn the prayers and responses of the Mass in the Indian languages that I speak – Hindi, Gujarati and Marathi.]

[I wrote this last night. Upon reviewing it my comments about inculturation seem entirely negative. Just to clarify, I am not of the school, common perhaps mostly in American evangelicalism, that views any contact with "pagan" religion in terms only of corruption, impurity and demon-worship. Far from it. The dialogue with other religions, particularly the religions of India, has indeed been fruitful since the publication of Nostra Aetate. My point was really that I was struck, and this is entirely an outsider, English-speaker's perspective, by the seeming artificiality of the translation of the liturgy into the Indian vernacular.]


St. Elizabeth of Cayce said...

Thanks for the descriptions of worship/liturgy in India and the thoughtful post on how culture influences the language of evangelism & liturgy. I've heard lots about these dilemmas over the years from Bible translators who had to do such things as describe sacrificial lambs to cultures without sheep, explain the "bread of life" to cultures without cereal crops, etc. Something suffers in translation; but we in the West also often misunderstand (or, better, incompletely understand) sections of Scripture written by & intially to "agrarian orientals."
Thanks be to God that He hasn't left us here alone to try and figure it all out for ourselves.

angelmeg said...

wow, the Liturgist in me will have a lot to mull over in your post.

Interesting how vernacular in the liturgy isn't as easy a transition as one might think.