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Learning a New Language

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By Fr. Joseph Roesch, MIC (Sep 1, 2006)
While I was discerning my vocation to the Marians of the Immaculate Conception a little more than 20 years ago, I had an opportunity to make a pilgrimage to the Marian Shrine in Fatima, Portugal. While there, I felt that the Lord was calling me to join the Marians, but in my mind there was one obstacle.

I worried about the fact that I might be sent overseas as a missionary. When I was growing up on Staten Island, N.Y., we would occasionally have in our parish, priests visiting from India or Africa to help out during the summer. I always had trouble understanding them, and I felt that I would not want to be in that position of being a priest in a foreign land, struggling to make myself understood and having the people tune me out because they could not understand me.

I had taken three years of Spanish in high school, and two years of French in college, but had never done particularly well with either language. However, I had been an English major and had worked as a Shakespearean actor before joining the Marians, and had always prided myself on being able to communicate effectively in English. While praying in Fatima, I felt in my heart that Our Lady was saying to me, "What if God wants you to be a priest and to send you overseas? Who are you to say 'no'?"

I thought about this and realized that perhaps it was simply spiritual pride that was holding me back. I submitted my will to God's and, thus, my last defense against pursuing this vocation vanished.

When I returned to the United States, I contacted the vocation director for the Marians, with whom I had been exchanging letters, and told him that I was ready to join. I then forgot all about my fears of being sent overseas. The Marians are a small community, and it seemed likely that I would spend my life as a Marian working as a priest in the United States. But then 19 years after I joined, my life was turned upside down when, last year, I was elected to a six-year term to serve on the Marian General Council in Rome. I suddenly remembered the thought in my heart from Fatima 19 years before: "What if God wants to send you overseas? Who are you to say 'no'?" After some hesitation, I said "yes" to God's plan for me.

When I moved to Rome, my first task was to learn Italian. I had begun to learn a little in Washington, D.C., just before moving, but I began in earnest once I was settled in Rome. For several months I attended a language school four hours a day, five days a week, studying grammar and conversation. It was quite an uphill struggle. Learning a new language as an adult is a strange experience. While you can feel perfectly comfortable expressing yourself in your own language, you suddenly feel like a five-year-old, trying to express yourself in a new language.

Perhaps the Lord wanted me to learn a lesson from the little children as He often teaches in the Gospels. None of us is self sufficient, we must rely on others just as we must rely on God.

My daily meditations have changed since I moved to Rome. Each day, I have to read over the Gospels and the prayers that I will be saying at Mass in Italian, so that I will know what I am saying, and how to correctly pronounce what I am saying. After overcoming my frustration at the slow pace of my learning, I realized that I can come to a deeper sense of the prayers that I pray at Mass. In English, there is the temptation to take the prayers for granted since I am so familiar with them. The Lord has been renewing me through slowing me down and forcing me to look deeper.

I have been reflecting on the experience of trying to learn a new language, pondering what the Lord has been trying to teach me through all this. I think this experience can be a metaphor for growth in the spiritual life. Perhaps the Lord wants us all to learn a new, spiritual language — the language of love and mercy. We may feel awkward at first, like little children, trying to learn to speak this language more effectively, but we can turn in prayer to Jesus, Mary and our older brothers and sisters in the faith, the saints, who are very near to us, to learn how to become fluent.

We can grow in this new way of speaking by becoming aware of what we say on an everyday basis. I read somewhere recently that someone would use foul language only in "appropriate company." There is no appropriate company for foul language. We only succeed in reinforcing each other's bad habits. Gossip is another thing to be careful of. We can destroy the reputation of others so easily. This is a bad habit that is hard to avoid since it is so prevalent at home, school, work, etc. We should pray for the courage not to join in, or even to change the subject. Sarcastic and abusive language can hurt people more directly.

To begin to speak compassionately and affirmatively toward others might seem artificial and even hypocritical for some of us at first. However, we can slowly and simply begin to build up our vocabulary, and become fluent in this language of love, which the saints spoke with their whole lives. We might feel like inarticulate youngsters, like I do in Italy sometimes, but with prayer, it will eventually become easier for us to express ourselves as the love and mercy of the Lord flows through our hearts.

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Susan - Oct 15, 2007

I love languages but nothing is more universal than the language of love and mercy that can even be spoken without opening our mouths. It is such an important spiritual exercise. Thank you.