The Church of St. Thomas of Villanova is set into the rim of a volcanic crater, high above Lake Albano and across the piazza from the Apostolic Palace outside of Rome, where popes have come to spend the summer off and on for 450 years. It’s also a hundred feet from where I am staying this month while visiting the Vatican Observatory, so this Sunday I walked out my front door and down the street for Mass.
Daily Mass at the Observatory is sometimes in English, sometimes in Italian, and after two weeks and with the help of a missal, I can muddle my way through the responses in the latter reasonably well. I left my Italian missal in my apartment, so was delighted when the ushers handed out hymnals with the Order of Mass in the front.
Or at least I was delighted until 10 seconds before Mass began, and a sister slipped into the pew next to me, reached over and took the hymnal from in front of me and slid it neatly onto the shelf in front of her.
No, no, I thought. I need that. And there was no getting it back. Without the missal, the limits of my Italian were “Amen” and “E con il tuo spirito” (And with your spirit). The Confiteor was utterly beyond me. I was, I fully admit, more than a bit disgruntled. I wanted to participate, but was stripped of the language to do it.
I started to come around by the Gloria. I realized that if I stopped lamenting, stopped trying to figure out what I was supposed to say, and instead listened closely, I could understand the words. I could let the people around me give voice to what my heart desired to pray.
It reminded me that when I know the responses by heart, they can become too automatic. I can forget to listen to the voices around me, the People of God come together to celebrate. I can forget the power these words have to reconcile, to praise. I forget that the words, no matter how easily they come to my lips, merely scratch the surface of the mysteries on the altar.
Writer Annie Dillard wonders in her essay “An Expedition to the Poles” how we can face these mysteries. “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?” she writes. “It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.”
For a fleeting moment last Sunday morning, I had a deeper sense of what lay underneath the words I say each time I go to Mass, and wondered if instead of hymnals, the ushers should be handing out crash helmets.
By the sign of peace, I could say firmly to the sister next to me, “Pace.” Peace. And Grazie mille. A thousand thanks for the lesson in listening.
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a parishioner at Our Mother of Good Counsel in Bryn Mawr and an adjunct scholar of the Vatican Observatory.