It is not an easy experience to be in a gathering where you understand less than 10% of what is being said: and that is what it was like today when I attended the Pentecost Mass at St Andrea Avellino church in Rome.
It was a remarkably enjoyable and in fact deeply moving experience. I think it is best described as an experience of multicultural community, which might teach us something about what we mean by that term.
For me it was a real challenge, to be the outsider, the one who understood very little and yet was made very welcome.
I am familiar with the broad structure of the liturgy, and while the service was all in Italian I could pick up some words here and there, either because of their familiarity or even similarity to my sprinkling of Spanish … though I have to admit I understood almost nothing of the sermon.
All of which leads me to comment of the remarkable experience itself—entirely appropriate on this Pentecost Sunday, with its story of people hearing and understanding despite being of all different language backgrounds.
In an astonishingly beautiful church, with paintings all around, including on the high ceilings, some 40 or so people were spread out and yet there was a clear sense of being there together. The liturgy did draw us in.
The prayers were not just ‘rattled off’, but actually invited people into what was happening, and their responses seemed to me genuine: they were participating. They were involved.
When it was time to greet one another with a sign of peace, I felt really welcomed by the people who turned to me and reached across to shake hands.
But perhaps the most moving part was the peeling of the bells during the offering of the eucharist. It was uplifting, in part because it was so surprising. It announced to everybody in the crowded streets outside: Hey, something amazing and important is happening here. Maybe you’d like to be part of it too!
Here was something like the pentecostal community described in the readings, a community more than we can understand, a community that is not based on everybody agreeing on everything, because they don’t even know what some of the others are talking about!
Pentecost is an image of God’s presence and action in ways that take us beyond ourselves and our familiar forms of belonging to something more.
The reading from Romans 8. 14 and following speaks of a sense of God’s action within us—it says God’s spirit drawing out our own spirits—to call out to God as a child to her daddy. We have a sense of being at home, close and familiar. This has the sense of trusting, belonging, being at home, even if we are also (as that passage says) aware that the world is a pretty disjointed and needy place, and a lot needs fixing! Even in this, we sense we are one with God’s spirit, groaning together at times, the passage suggests. It is a real community of life and hope, not a retreat from the real world.
Another reading from John 14, v,25 onwards tells of Jesus describing the Spirit as a comforter or advocate, or someone who acts as a go-between: which I take to mean the idea that when we are in deep trouble, we have someone ‘on our side’, pitching for us rather than against us—and this someone is God. God as Spirit is not condemning but advocating, defending, just like Jesus did for so many condemned or put-down people. God as Spirit acts on our side, against criticism and accusation, failing or fear.
So here is the experience of multicultural community in a quite new sense: this is much more than the idea of different groups doing things their way, each in their separate corners, speaking their own languages to themselves.
This is the idea of a capacity and potential to be together, as one community with many cultures, languages, forms and practices: and in stead of differences causing division or accusations, a sense of inferiority or alienation, there is instead a spirit of unity in diversity, a hospitality to difference and a surprising joy that comes from the sense that there is something here that is much more than us, more than we can understand or fully grasp. There is life, and hope, beyond our little view of things—and yet it includes us, draws us in, and invites us to go on together.
I am very grateful for a little taste of this, today, at Pentecost in Rome.