Four Languages in June

Four Languages in June

Most Reverend Edward M. Egan, Bishop of Bridgeport

It was in June of 1975 or 1976. With a group of Italians I was on a tour of Czechoslovakia. There were 14 in the party, and for about half of us this was our second visit together behind the Iron Curtain. In Prague our guide was a tall, rather stately lady. She dutifully led us from palace to palace, from museum to museum, from church to church, repeating in heavily accented Italian the standard line prepared for all official guides by the government tourist office.

In Iron Curtain churches of the time, a stop before an altar dedicated to Mary was commonly accompanied by an explanation of this kind for the tourist: "This altar has to do with the so-called Virgin Mary, whom Catholics adore as though she were a god or a goddess. It was designed by so-and-so and was for hundreds of years before the Revolution a center of Catholic superstition."

Our guide seemed to be extremely tired and burdened. Accordingly, the group soon got into the habit of hearing her official comments and then listening to a jeweler from Milan, who was a member of our group, read what his guidebook had to say about what we were seeing. The jeweler in question enjoyed kidding me, the "Monsignore," about matters religious, always attempting to create the impression that he did not take his Catholic faith much to heart. Hence, none of us suspected that he was making up what he seemed to be reading from his guidebook about an altar dedicated to Mary in the Cathedral of Saint Vitus in Prague, after our guide had finished some particularly ugly, government-authorized remarks.

"This altar," he announced, "was built as a testimony of the Catholic Faithful to their belief in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Son of G0D, and in the holiness of His Mother, the Virgin Mary. It should remind us that God is holy and that He expects us to be holy too."

"Here, `Monsignore'," the jeweler continued, "read it for us in English." He handed me the guidebook and pointed to the place on the page. Nothing of what he had allegedly read was there to be found. However, understanding what the jeweler was up to, I took the book and "read" in English: "This altar was built as a testimony of the Catholic Faithful to their belief in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and in the holiness of His Mother, the Virgin Mary. It should remind us that God is holy and that He expects us to be holy too."

In our party was an Italian professor of French from the University of Perugia, a lady of about 60 years of age. She, too, had made it clear to all in a rather elegant and playful manner that she was not "fanatically" Catholic. Still, she intuited what was happening, seized the guidebook from my hand, and finding the imaginary place on the page, recited the passage in French that would have made Moliere himself jealous. "This altar was built as a testimony of the Catholic Faithful to their belief in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and in the holiness of His Mother, the Virgin Mary," she declaimed. "It should remind us that God is holy and that He expects us to be holy too."

We were so thoroughly enjoying our little game of reciting with impunity Catholic doctrine about Mary in the capital of the most bitterly anti-Catholic regime of the Communist empire that we did not notice our guide slumped in a small wooden pew some yards away, quietly sobbing. "`Signore'," she called through her tears to the Italian jeweler, "could you repeat that section from your guidebook. I was not able to catch it all."

The French professor handed the guidebook back to the Italian jeweler. By now he too was crying. In fact, we all were. "This altar was built as a testimony of the Catholic Faithful to their belief in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and in the holiness of His Mother, the Virgin Mary," he whispered. But he could not go on. The tears had overtaken him. He just stared at the dirty, marble floor and sobbed. The guide continued for him: "It should remind us that God is holy and that He expects us to be holy too."

The group walked silently out of the Cathedral, not daring to look at one another. The tour was over. We invited the guide to our hotel for coffee. She could not come. She had to get home to her husband who was not well.

We returned to the hotel, ordered coffee, and sat down together in the drab lobby. The Italian jeweler looked at me with the air of someone who has just been beaten in a game of cards. "Well, `Monsignore'," said he, "you must have enjoyed all that catechism talk about the Madonna repeated in three languages in the Cathedral of Prague." The French professor did not allow me to reply. "Four languages, `Monsieur", she interjected, "Italian, English, French . . . and tears." With that she rose, again assumed the tone of declamation, and recited in French the words of the Mother of God from her Magnificat, "All generations shall call me blessed." (Luke 1:48) Then, averting her eyes so that no one might detect what she was feeling, she hurriedly left the lobby.

I do not know how many of us cried again once we were safely behind the doors of our respective hotel rooms. At least one did, and that is not the last time tears came to my eyes over four languages in honor of Mary in the Cathedral of Prague one day in June.