Learn a new language at the advanced age of 60? Surely madness even to try. But having come to New York in 1994 to work for America, I moved after my first year of living at America House to a Jesuit parish on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Knowing that Nativity Parish is primarily Hispanic, and wanting to take part in the liturgies and become acquainted with the Spanish-speaking parishioners, I enrolled in a Spanish language program sponsored by the Archdiocese of New York, held late on Wednesday afternoons at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx.
Like others in the program, I’d had some Spanish before - first in college, and then a bit more at a later period. Much of it had disappeared, however, so I was placed among the beginners. But like most Jesuits, I enjoy studying, and so moved peaceably through the units of the book the program uses: an antiquated but still serviceable text published by the Foreign Service Institute of the State Department in 1959. Supplementing the classroom studies with listening for 20 minutes to the early morning Spanish news on the radio has helped me understand the spoken word; and reading the monthly Maryknoll magazine Revistawith its justice-based stories of missionaries in poor countries around the worldboosts my vocabulary.
Gradually, through classes, listening to the radio and reading, what had been forgotten over the decades came back, further progress was made, and my tongue became loosened so that what at first seemed unpronounceable (words with double R’s, like resurrección) came into the realm of the feasible. Although far from truly proficient, I now get along well enough for the pastor to allow me to celebrate Mass on Tuesday evenings for a small group that likes to sing, and occasionally the 6:15 Saturday evening vigil Mass.
My first homily efforts made me feel like an adult unexpectedly having to express his ideas with the linguistic abilities of an eight-year-olda humbling sensation. But when I would look up from the lectern at the faces of the people in the pews, those faces reflected genuine support, not critical observation directed toward the white-haired gringo priest.
In coming to know more and more parishioners, I was struck by a phrase frequently used in responding to a goodbye: Si Dios quiere. For example, when I say to the Puerto Rican volunteer sacristan, María, "Hasta mañana" ("See you tomorrow") as she locks up after the Saturday vigil Mass, she invariably replies, "Si Dios quiere." The phrase means "If God wills it." At first this struck me as strangewhy would God not will that two people friendly to each other should meet again the following morning?
But then I realized that the phrase serves as a reminder that it is God who is in charge of our lives, not ourselves; and that it is upon this loving God that we depend from day to day, rather than on seeming securities that can vanish in a moment.
For those who possess little of the goods of this world, the reminder needs scant emphasizing. The Hispanic parishioners at Nativity are low-income people who struggle to maintain even the slightest semblance of security in their precarious and often-threatened environment of entry-level jobs and ever-scarcer housing. María herself came to New York with the early waves of Puerto Ricans after World War II, followed later by Dominicans and then Mexicans. But parishioners in all three groups make use of Si Dios quiere, especially the older ones who have experienced at first hand the fragility of lifenot only through poverty, but also through the violence that has sometimes claimed their young family members.
No wonder a word like resurrección means so much to them, in the midst of a transient world that promises little in the way of those things that last. One that does last is God’s love - el amor de Dios - and people of deep and simple faith like the Nativity parishioners are living testimonies to it.