My Lesson in Hospitality
By: Deacon David Reardon | Deacon Digest/Abbey Press
As a part of our diaconal formation program in the Diocese of Venice-in-Florida, we were asked to attend a Mass in another Roman Catholic community in which we had no experience. My wife Mary and I chose to attend the Vietnamese Mass at St. John XXIII Parish in Fort Myers. The Mass is celebrated on Saturday evenings at 8:00 p.m.DOWNLOAD THE BULLETIN
My initial concerns were that I knew nothing about the Vietnamese culture, language, sensibility, or spirituality. It seemed intimidating and disorienting to plant ourselves in the midst of this group unannounced. I didn’t know what to expect. How would we be seen and viewed? What would they make of us suddenly entering their community as complete strangers?
Walking from the parking lot to the church were the young and the old. Most had clearly taken time to dress well for the occasion; it was clear they cared about this time, which seemed to suggest this was an important occasion in their lives. It also suggested to me that—like many immigrants to this country—they appeared to have integrated enough into American society that they were achieving some degree of material success.
Why did the Mass begin at 8:00 p.m.? Many Vietnamese are small business owners, many keeping their shops open until 7:00 p.m. on Saturday evenings. They have come to this country to work. As we would see, they had come there that evening to worship and give thanks to the Lord with equal enthusiasm.
We walked somewhat hurriedly and nervously through the Narthex into the church. I felt the urge to steer toward the rear of the church so that I might have a broader perspective from which to view the Mass, the congregation, and the choir. However, it seemed Mary and I both realized simultaneously and without speaking that it would be much more important to seat ourselves within the middle of the people in order to participate in the Mass with them, as we would any other Mass in any other congregation.
As we found our place, a cantor in the middle of the congregation began to lead a chanted prayer. It was a long, beautiful prayer, more than 10 verses with a refrain/chorus between each verse. I soon discovered this chant was a glimpse into the style of the Mass which was largely chanted in this same lilting melody. (I later learned this form of chant is unique to Vietnamese worship and is called Doc kinh, “praying with devotion.”)
The Mass proceeded in Vietnamese and, of course, I could understand nothing. However, the beauty of the Catholic Mass is that I could follow the prayers often saying them inaudibly to myself.
People are the same everywhere. As I periodically scanned the congregation, I noticed grandparents with their grandchildren. The grandfather, appearing stern and intolerant of the young child’s restlessness, with the grandmother being more nurturing and understanding. There were families with young children showing expressions of physical affection toward their parents with frequent hugs. Three generations would be together in many pews. The family structure seemed close and attentive to one another.
The priest continued with the chant through the Mass, as did the respondents. Much of the music offered by the choir was this same heavenly lilting chant. Many of the choir members stood with arms folded across their chests. I began to look around and noticed that others in the congregation had assumed similar postures. Perhaps it signifies contentment or rest, maybe rest in the Lord.
The Readings and Psalmody were in Vietnamese. Following the Gospel, the priest left the ambo and moved down the steps of the altar to address a group of children in the first few pews. I was surprised he delivered his homily to them in English. It was brief, somewhat simple, and direct in its style and delivery. He seemed to conclude and paused momentarily before addressing the larger congregation in Vietnamese for a longer and (apparently) more developed homily.
As I observed the priest delivering his homily in two languages, it occurred to me what dedication this man has to serve our Lord. He has not only dedicated his life to serving God as a priest, but he has come to a foreign land, entered a foreign seminary, studied in a second language, and now cares enough about his own community to serve them in two languages. I know how difficult and challenging it has been for me to pursue the diaconate in my home country and native tongue—I have utmost respect for this priest.
The entire experience spoke to me of the power of song and melody as a universal means of expressing our love of God and a powerful means to convey a believer’s sense of awe and wonder of the Lord to others: “Sing praise, play music; proclaim his wondrous deeds! Glory in his holy name; rejoice, O hearts that seek the Lord!” (Psalm 105:1-3). The entire liturgy was enveloped in these otherworldly melodies that spoke very clearly of the supreme sanctity, goodness, love, and mercy of God. At the sign of peace, all around us embraced us with warm smiles and gentle greetings. We felt truly accepted by this community. We were welcomed with unspoken hospitality as strangers in a foreign land would have been welcomed by observant Israelites in ancient Israel.
Christ’s presence at the consecration was clearly experienced by all. As we approached the Extraordinary Minister to receive our Lord in Holy Communion, he offered us Jesus in English, proclaiming, “The Body of Christ.” This struck me as another sign of a very welcoming attitude. He accommodated our needs by modifying his behavior in an act of charity.
As a result of this experience, what had begun in trepidation and self-consciousness has allowed me to reflect on the importance of hospitality as an integral element to any ministerial activity. It will be important for me to be more mindful of this important part of mission. By prayer, petition, and practice, it is my desire to grow in this area. This experience has shown me that the Catholic Church is truly universal. Despite the barriers of human language, the language of God, His presence, and movement in his Spirit were active and present in this liturgy. It has also highlighted the importance and beauty of enculturation. The Mass was the “same” and yet elements of the Vietnamese culture have been respected and maintained in a way that does not detract from the Roman Rite, but also I believe truly enriches it. At the same time, a people of faith coming from their unique cultural perspective have been allowed to preserve the dignity of their liturgical heritage.
About the Writer: Deacon David Reardon, M.D., a newly ordained deacon for the Diocese of Venice in Florida, and his wife, Mary Reardon, M.D., have volunteered their medical services for a number of years on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. David is a pathologist and his wife Mary is a retired pediatric pulmonologist.