Monday, July 08, 2019

Love of a Suppressed Language: What Maori and Western Catholics Have in Common

A reader in New Zealand, prompted by articles like this and this, sent me the following thoughtful email. It is certainly worth sharing with NLM readers.

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Dear Dr. Kwasniewski,

I have often thought that my relationship (as a Catholic) to Latin is like that of a person of Maori descent to Te Reo — the Maori language. Many, if not most Maori people don’t speak it, but they love it, they know some things from memory, they sing in it and it is theirs and not foreign. The Maori language experienced a sharp decline in the mid-20th century but by 2015 the evidence of a notable revival was no longer disputable.

I am not Maori, but I couldn’t help being reminded of some of the stories in the book Growing Up Maori. The revival of the language was fought for here, and now has serious State backing. Maori went from being neglected and even despised to being declared an official language of New Zealand. I looked online for a better expression of the Maori identification with the language. I found, and was blown away by, the passionate experience of the writer Nadine Hura in “Arohatia Te Reo – Love the Language.”

This Maori analogy resonated with two of my sons and their families when I shared it with them. Then this piece turned up online at Crisis: “First Reactions of Teenage Boys to the Traditional Latin Mass.” It basically seconded all that I was saying.

For me, there is no way that Latin is foreign because it connects us to the sacred — to the universal and even to belonging with early Christians in the West and the traditions of 1,600 years (at least). Of course, I am part of a small minority which thinks like this, but one which has youth on its side. As with Te Reo, so with Latin as a liturgical language: by 2015 no one would be able to question the reappearance, in worship, of a language which was thought not only dead, but buried with a stake driven through its heart.

It occurred to me that you may find this powerful too. There is not only the love parallel, there is also the suppression parallel, including the decades of assimilation policy in New Zealand during which children were punished for speaking Maori to each other in class. How can we fail to remember the decades in which seminarians were dismissed for being interested in Latin, or priests were disciplined for using Latin in Mass? The decades in which love of the thousand-year-old Latin liturgy was equivalent to treachery and a sin against the Holy Ghost? The decades in which we acted as if an entire history and culture were a black mark of shame, instead of a glory to boast of and pass on?

Yours truly in Christ,
* * *
I have only a few thoughts to add to this moving letter. For starters, it brought back memories of the week I spent in New Zealand as a ten-year-old, traveling with my parents in a rented car from the top of the north island to the bottom of the south island. I remember the bubbling mudpools of Rotorua, the ferry across the channel, and our attendance at a performance of a Maori war dance, complete with rhythmic chanting and protruded tongues.

Language is as deep in us as our thoughts; indeed, we cannot think without language, nor do we belong to a family, a culture, or a society, apart from language. When people have an ethnic heritage, even if it is somewhat remote, it still “speaks to them,” as the poignant idiom has it. Healthy Catholics react with similar feelings of loyalty and comfort to the sound of Latin. Those who are opposed to it are somewhat like races that have been taught to hate their origins in order to blend in and get along with the people in power. A sad business, really, and one that cannot but backfire.

As Jesus once said, “the children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light” (Lk 16:8). Secular governments have reestablished the rights of indigenous peoples and their languages, but in the Catholic Church — supposedly run by those who have the best interests of the faithful at heart — we have yet to see any equivalent restoration of the right of the laity to their own tradition or any appropriate recognition and revitalization of her mother tongue. Moreover, native peoples have labored mightily to retain and reintroduce their own languages, even when these have fallen on hard times and seemed threatened with extinction. An entire modern nation, Israel, has taught itself to speak a formerly “dead” language, Hebrew. Classes in Latin and classical Greek conversation are being taught around the world. Does the Latin-rite Church have any excuse whatsoever for not retaining and reintroducing its own language on a global scale, beginning with serious Latin immersion courses in seminaries?

Nor can anyone point to Vatican II and say that the Council Fathers desired the abolition of the Latin language or the heritage, culture, and identity bound up with it, so that we must swallow this decision “out of obedience” to the will of the episcopate. As I demonstrated in this article, availing myself of the eye-opening diaries of Henri de Lubac, large numbers of bishops at the Council pleaded, with sound arguments and a spirit of urgency, for the retention and bolstering of Latin.

In reality, I believe it is as simple as this: in addition to its stupendous linguistic qualities, Latin invariably and viscerally reminds us of the venerable antiquity, solidity, stability, and coherence of the Catholic Faith. Therefore, it is intrinsically, one might say sacramentally, opposed to the project of the Modernists. Yet theirs was the project that prevailed during and after the Council, and the People of God, in whose name the memoricide was committed, have borne the burden of disorientation and deracination.

Maori with traditional face painting

(In the charged atmosphere leading up to the Amazon Synod, I feel it necessary to add that, unlike the Synod working document that wishes to “inculturate” liturgy within a pagan or semi-Christian milieu, I would not be in favor of incorporating Maori dancing, chanting, or face painting into the Catholic liturgy. At the same time, I am absolutely in favor of efforts to preserve native languages and art forms, purged of problematic elements. One could, however, imagine Maori decorative art having a tastefully subtle influence on furnishings, vessels, vestments, and icons, much as occurred in the Chinese context: see here and here. I could readily imagine Daniel Mitsui doing amazing things with Maori patterns: New Zealand Tridentine Mass cards, perhaps? For my own thoughts on true and false inculturation, see here.)

UPDATE: A priest in New Zealand sent me this photo of a Catholic church with Maori decoration:

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