FEW WEEKS AGO, I freaked out my daughter when I told her that I had once known someone who was born just fourteen years after the end of the Civil War. To someone in their early twenties, the Civil War might as well be the Middle Ages. Yet it was true, and that person was my great-grandmother, my father’s grandmother. I knew her for quite a while; she died at age 93, when I was eleven, so I have some vivid memories. She spoke almost no English, only Italian, and toward the end sat all day in one chair, a blanket placed over the legs that had almost completely given out. The rosary intertwined amongst her bony fingers was a constant, and every once in while you could hear her mumbling, “Ave Maria, gratia plena…”
We visited her, and my grandmother and the rest of my father’s family, who all lived in the same city in upstate New York where he grew up, mostly on Sunday afternoons, that city being only about an hour’s drive from where we lived. But sometimes we went up on a Saturday, stayed overnight and went to church where my father had been an altar boy and where my parents were married. It was a predominantly Italian immigrant town. What I remember most about that church was how beautiful it was, and the number of women there who looked like my great-grandmother. Most of them spoke no English, and their heads were veiled or they wore hats. They knelt, if I recall correctly, throughout almost the whole Mass, reciting their rosaries. And they were dressed in the finest clothes they owned.
Now some would say that these women weren’t participating in the Mass, that they were missing the meaning. They should have been doing more things, like singing, watching the Priest do his thing (this was the 60’s after all), and shaking hands with the people near them. But here is what they were doing: they were engaged in intense prayer and they possessed an innate understanding about where they were and what they were receiving. These old immigrant women grasped at a spiritual level the inherent meaning of the sacrifice of the Mass. They had entered the sacred and left the secular world behind. This is why they wore their best clothes, because they were going to the most important place they could go. When they got home, back came the aprons and simple dresses and sensible shoes, and the loud talking in Italian. But in church, it was quiet prayer.
The capacity to understand the words of the Mass literally does not equate to a correct understanding of its meaning. 1 I get upset when I hear some people, especially priests, talk disparagingly about those “old people before Vatican II who used to pray the rosary at Mass.” I knew those old people. They were good, holy people, and I’ll bet you they knew more about the real meaning of the Mass than you or I do. Why did they kneel so much? Maybe it was because, like my great-grandmother, their legs didn’t work so well after years of raising large families and being on their feet sixteen hours a day, cooking and cleaning. Or maybe because they wanted to be closer to the Lord and Our Lady. I wonder what the world would be like if more people today decided to do some real praying at Mass instead of waiting to be entertained?
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 By the way, these immigrant people who spoke no English understood exactly what was going on when the Mass was in Latin. It was when the Mass was suddenly said in English that they had a problem.