I was unsure about which church I wanted to visit this week when my roommate Loreto invited me to come to mass with him, his father who was visiting from New York, and some family friends. Of course, I accepted.
We went to Holy Rosary Church, in Downtown Washington, near the Judiciary Square Metro station (Red Line). Loreto explained to me that Holy Rosary is an Italian parish, and warned me that the Mass would probably in Italian. Always up for a new experience, we dressed in our Sunday best for the 10:30 Mass.
Holy Rosary is not a very big church, but it has a very powerful spiritual vibe. White marble dominates the space. Lining the way up to the altar was a series of intimidating white marble columns. The altar space was also covered in marble, with beautiful white angel statues on both sides. The flanks of the altar had candles and detailed statues of Christ and the saints.
The choir was sitting in the rear of the church, in the same loft as the organist. When Loreto and I first walked in, a prayer book fell from above, landing on the rearmost pew. Thinking it was a sign from God, I looked up, only to find the choir directly above me. Sometimes divine providence turns out to be a clumsy chorus member.
Mass in another language is quite an interesting experience. Though I am of partial Italian descent, I know absolutely no Italian. It was like watching your favorite movie in another language. It was a test of how well I knew the procedures and rituals of Mass: I didn’t know what they were saying, but I knew what they were doing. I caught on very quickly, reciting the penitential rite (“I confess to Almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters…”) in English while the rest of the parish recited in Italian.
Shortly after, the crowd began to recite a prayer which had the cadence of the Nicene Creed. I was utterly confused, because the Nicene Creed is supposed to come after the homily. I thought this was a strange Italian tradition, until I realized later that they were reciting the Gloria (“Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth…”). This completely threw me off, because the Gloria is usually sung. Later, a man came up to the podium, read for a minute, initiated a call-and-response sequence, and then did some more reading. I didn’t realize what was going on, but once the deacon came up to read the gospel, I figured it out. The first man had read the first reading, led the responsorial psalm, and then read the second reading. Most of the confusion I experienced was caused by a combination of atypical procedures and the obvious language barrier.
The most fun part of the Mass, from my perspective, was trying to interpret the priest’s homily. Through my limited knowledge of Spanish, (I took three years in high school, I know enough to ask where the bathroom is) and my intuition, I was able to pick up a few bits and pieces. In the beginning, I picked up “luminare” and “speranza,” which mean “to light” and “hope.” “Gesu Cristo” was pretty obvious, and in context I figured that “Signore” was “God,” though it turns out that it really translates to “Lord.” Today’s Gospel Reading talked about Jesus healing the blind man Bartimeo in Jericho (Mark 10:46-52). Before the Lord gives Bartimeo his sight, he says to him, “Go your way, your faith has saved you.” Some of the priest’s lecture touched on the reading, I understood that he was talking about salvation, and he referenced Jericho and Jerusalem. I heard phrases like “paso a paso,” “camino,” and “Gerusalemme” (Jerusalem), which made me believe he was talking about walking down the path to salvation step by step, just as Jesus took the path to Jerusalem after giving sight to Bartimeo.
The music was very good, the choir was backed by a beautiful organ, as I discussed early. I didn’t recognize many of the hymns, but one that I found remarkable was set to the tune of “Kumbaya,” performed during the offering.
I was in an awkward position during the offering of peace. I don’t usually think much about shaking my neighbor’s hand and saying “Peace be with you,” but here I wasn’t sure whether to say “Peace” or use the Italian word “Pace” (pronounced “pa-chey”). I ended up just saying “peace.” I don’t think I offended anyone.
The most remarkable thing about Holy Rosary was the tremendous sense of community. After the Mass ended and we walked out of the church, the socializing had already begun. Loreto’s uncle Enzo was laughing and chatting with some friends, and gladly introduced us. The Italian Mass is a way for these families to stay connected with each other to their ethnic and spiritual heritage. It is a fusion of Old and New World, a way for the generations of the past to connect with their modern descendants. It’s a nice tradition, and I hope that it lives on.
If anyone has any input on my interpretation of the Italian, please feel free to post a comment. In fact, if you have anything you'd like to share, feel free to leave a comment.