You've heard this before, I'm sure. I have heard it too. In fact, I myself confess that I have even said it a time or two too many. With that, I plunge into a reflection about an old French Canadian saying, Qui perd sa langue, perd sa foi.
Who loses his language, loses his faith.
The truth that underlies this saying is akin to the Church saying, Lex orandi, lex credendi. What we pray, we believe. The Church is therefore not the place to be hearing "let 'em learn English." The Church is a community of saints who want to pour out their hearts to God in their own language. The mother tongue is the tongue that God understands because it is the tongue that jumps from the heart. There is abundant fodder for reflection about this in the Bible.
A clearly narrated story about language disparity can be found in the Bible passage found here. (2 Maccabees, 7) The mother of a son about to be massacred is asked to reason with him by the person in charge. She speaks to her son in their own language and encourages her son to give his life for the God who created us all. Read it. The killing king is one person who rued the day when he did not learn the language.
Have you ever asked yourself how the Romans dealt with the Israelites? Have you ever asked yourself how the Jews were so successful in maintaining their faith in God despite so many captivities and military occupations? Have you ever smiled at the passage when the servant woman reminds Peter of his Galilean accent? Have you ever asked yourself how St. Paul could talk to the Greeks, the Turks and the Italians? Did you ever ask yourself why Peter was hobnobbing with the Italians in the seaport city of Caesarea while James was left in Jerusalem with the Jews? Did you ever ask yourself how Phillip could convert the Ethiopian? It sure wasn't because they had the attitude of "let 'em learn Aramaic."
Did you ever ask yourself why in the 3rd century BC the Hebrews decided that they had to translate the Sacred Scripture into Greek because so many of their people had lost their mother tongue that the Word of God had to be translated into Greek so that it could be appreciated by His very own people? It sure wasn't because they had the attitude, "They're our own, let 'em learn Aramaic."
Our history, our Tradition, is that the missionary learns the language of those to whom the Message must be brought, not the other way around. The New Testament tells stories of conversion based on the willingness of the Apostles to learn to speak the language, both of the outsider and of the Jews who had lost their very own language. Peter learned Latin (Italian) while still in his own country. Paul knew Latin and Greek and spoke them when he had to, to those to whom he wanted to bring the Message.
It is clear that it is not up to the missionary to force others to accommodate to him/her. It is the other way around. God demands that we speak to everyone. Speaking the message of God requires that we speak the language of the heart and soul of the listener. If we don't, we are placing the Message in second place after our personal comfort. St. Paul never did that. He preached in season and out of season. He knew that it was not up to him to speak, but up to the Spirit. He accepted the spiritual reality that the Spirit talks to people, not to Greeks, Italians, Turks, Syrians, Men or Women. In order to let the Spirit do His work, the missionary has to accommodate his very own being to the Being of the Spirit so that the hearer can trust the Word enough to let it blossom into Faith. (Matt. 10:20) "...it is not you who speak, but it is the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you." That is a long way from "Let 'em learn English."
All of this being said, I confess that when I pray in the privacy of my room, I pray in my mother tongue, not in English. I have neither lost my tongue nor my faith. So, I haven't learned to pray in English, nor in any other language than my own mother tongue for that matter. I say that just so that you will have another reason not to cry at my funeral. I refused to develop a relationship with God in English.