I grew up in the old Roman Catholic church, where services were called “The Mass,” and every word was written in a dead language, called Latin. This was not your everyday Latin. It was not classical. It was Church Latin, so different in pronunciation from the language that Caesar spoke, that if Caesar were raised from the dead in 1958, he wouldn’t have understood a word.
I don’t remember a single word in the Mass ever being spoken in English, except for the reading of the Gospel from the New Testament, and, of course, the sonorous sermon. Some of those sermons were so long, and so uninspiring, that they made me long to return to the readings in Latin.
I went to an Irish Catholic school in seventh and eighth grade. It was an old parish, really old. Most of the congregation was getting older by the second, and they died a lot. Sister Rosa Anne was the principal. She didn’t like me much, or if she did, she hid it well. I had red-hair and a rosy complexion, which would glow like Rudolph’s nose when I was embarrassed, which was most of the time.
Sister volunteered the seventh and eight grade, approximately thirty-five of us boys and girls, to sing the Requiem Mass for the Dead. For two years we sang Requiems approximately three times a week. Our family moved around a lot, so I was always the new kid, but it was never so obvious as it was in this school.
From the time we first arrived, I didn’t know what the heck we were doing. It was a good six months before I understood that there were different bodies in those coffins. I thought we were singing the same Mass, for the same person, again and again, week after week. It seemed pretty strange to me, and I began to take a quick sniff each time we entered the church, because I was pretty sure that after all those months that poor man was about to start stinking. I found out what was really going on when I finally asked the most important question, “Are they ever going to bury that man?!”
Sister Rosa seemed to find it necessary, for our own good, that we be decidedly uncomfortable. So, every day after recess, when we were the most sweaty and stinky, she would order us to kneel backwards in our desks. These were the desks that were lined in rows, with seats that raised and lowered on hinges. My desk would be the back of someone else’s seat, and my seat would be the front of someone else’s desk.
Great care had to be taken so that I would not fold myself up in my own seat. I was a regular klutz, and usually the center of much amusement on the part of my classmates, all under the disapproving eye of Sister Rosa. I grew to dread those moments, as we recited the entire Rosary, while sweat dripped down my side, and I flipped my seat open and closed upon myself.
Another pastime right after the hour was the reading from “Holy Scripture.” One never referred to it as the Bible. Sister would choose one person to read from “Holy Scripture.” Since half the class couldn’t make it through a fifteen minute reading in less than an hour and a half, I was usually elected. I received frequent unwanted attention from class members for always being singled out.
The readings for the week before Easter were particularly long, so naturally I was chosen to get us through them in a brief amount of time. The reading for Holy Thursday was entitled Christ’s Triumphal Entry Into
. Oh boy, this would be easy. I already knew the whole story, nearly by
So, I began reading with a solemn voice, and I did just fine until I came to the first catastrophic line.
“Go into the village…ye shall find an ASS….”
WHAT? Did I just read that word in Holy Scripture? My face turned beet red, and the class began to titter. We were a bunch of twelve year olds, for crying out loud. And this was a Catholic school where one didn’t use those words. Heck, kids in public schools didn’t use that word, not in class, in front of the teacher!
I managed to squeak through that line, glad to have it over with. My face was beet red and hot, but I was giggle free. I read on, without a pause, until I came to the next stumble.
“Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ASS, and a colt the foal of an ASS.”
The class became engulfed in snickers. My voice began to shake. This was terrible language in Catholic school. What were they thinking?!! I tried valiantly to continue, my voice breaking as I came to the end of the line.
“the disciples went, and brought the ASS…”
All of a sudden a laugh bubble broke in my chest. My hesitation, brought a stiff rebuke from Sister Rosa, “Enough, now, continue!” She made me repeat that scripture again and again, until I fell to the floor.
My shoulders began to shake, and my head bobbed, as I thought of that forbidden word. In the 1950’s south, this was unforgivable, and at that moment it was hilariously funny. Sister finally said the one thing that must never be said to an embarrassed twelve year old.
“It’s not funny! Don’t laugh!”
Well, it was all over. I began to laugh so hard, I couldn’t stand up. I laughed until I cried, and I may have wet my pants. At that point Sister lost complete control of the class, and the class lost control of itself, including me. At twelve years old, I almost had a heart attack!
Sister finally left the room in a huff. What was she thinking? A room full of twelve year olds. Had she forgotten what it was like to be innocent and twelve? I’m certain that in the present society of twelve year olds, this incident would never take place. I’m sure that the sophisticates of today would be able to repeat the “ass” word without a blink, but we were innocent then. We’d heard a lot of dirty words, even then, but we would never have repeated them. It was hilarious and unforgettable, and I never was able to read that passage without engulfing in laughter.
The result of this twelve year old encounter with the greatest book ever written, and the greatest life ever lived, was that it peaked my interest. It was a time that Roman Catholicism was considered the “
,” and reading the Bible was
discouraged, even forbidden. That night
I went home and I found the dusty tome hiding on a book-shelf. I opened it up and I began to read, “In the beginning…” Mother
It was certainly the beginning for me of a great love affair with the Word of God. It’s amazing how God works these things. He woke me out of a sound sleep, with uncontrolled laughter, and he brought me into a life of constant thirst for His Word. Even now, I feel a tremble, wondering what new thing will I learn today from Him. And, yes, sometimes God still makes me laugh with new expectation.