May 1, 2003
Four Languages in Praise of Mary
It was early spring in 1976. With a group of Italians, I was on tour in what was then communist Czechoslovakia. There were 14 in our group, eight of whom, including myself, were making a second visit together behind the Iron Curtain.
In Prague, the Czech capital, our guide was a tall, thin, tired lady who appeared to be in her late 50s. She led us dutifully from palace to church to museum, repeating in heavily accented Italian the standard line for official guides prepared by the government tourist office.
At that time, in Catholic churches in communist-controlled nations, a stop before an altar or shrine dedicated to Mary was commonly accompanied by an explanation of this kind from the tourist guide: "This altar or this shrine has to do with the so-called Virgin Mary, whom Catholics adore as though she were a god or goddess. It was designed by such and such an artist and was for hundreds of years before the communist revolution a center for Catholic superstition."
Our guide seemed to be uncommonly weary and burdened. Certainly, she was not enthusiastic in her presentations. Thus, we got into the habit of hearing her official comments politely and then listening to a member of our group, a jeweler from Milan, read what his guidebook had to say about what we were seeing.
Milanese through and through, the jeweler enjoyed poking fun at me, the "Monsigore," about matters religious, creating in all of us the impression that he did not take his Catholic faith much to heart. Hence, no one suspected that he was making up what he seemed to be reading from his guidebook in front of a Marian altar in Prague¹s Cathedral of St. Vitus, after our guide had concluded some particularly unpleasant, government-authorized remarks.
"This altar," he announced, "was built as a testimony of the Catholic faithful to their sacred belief in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and in the holiness of his mother, the Virgin Mary. It should remind us that God is holy and expects us to be holy too."
"Here, Monsignore," the jeweler ordered me, "translate it for us in English." He handed me the guidebook and pointed to the place on the page. Nothing of what he allegedly read was there to be found. All the same, realizing what the jeweler was up to, I took the book and "read" in English: "This altar was built as a testimony of the Catholic faithful to their sacred belief in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and in the holiness of his mother, the Virgin Mary. It should remind us that God is holy and expects us to be holy too."
In our party was an Italian professor of French literature at the University of Perugia, a stately lady of perhaps 60 years of age. She had made it clear to all in a rather elegant and playful manner that she was not–in her words–"fanatically Catholic." Still, she intuited what was happening, seized the guidebook from my hands, and finding the imaginary place on the page, recited the passage in a French that would have made Molière himself jealous. "This altar was built as a testimony of the Catholic faithful to their sacred belief in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and in the holiness of his mother, the Virgin Mary," she declaimed. "It reminds us that God is holy and expects us to be holy too."
We were all so thoroughly enjoying our little game of announcing with delicious impunity Catholic doctrine about the Mother of God in the capital of one of the most bitterly anti-Catholic regimes of the Soviet empire that we did not notice that our guide had slumped into a battered, wooden pew a few yards away, quietly sobbing, "Signore," she called through her tears to the Italian jeweler, "could you repeat that section from your guidebook? I was not able to catch it all."
The French professor passed the guidebook back to the jeweler. By now he too was crying. In fact, we all were. "This altar was built as a testimony of the Catholic faithful to the sacred belief in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and in the holiness of his mother, the Virgin Mary," he whispered. But he could not go on. The tears had overtaken him. He just stared at the dirty marble floor and sobbed.
The guide continued for him. "It should remind us that God is holy," she murmured, "and expects us to be holy too."
We walked out of the cathedral in silence, not daring to look at one another. The tour was over. Accordingly, we invited the guide to our hotel for coffee. She could not come. She had to get home to her husband who was not well.
We returned to the hotel, ordered coffee, and sat down together in the drab lobby. The Italian jeweler looked at me with the air of someone who had been badly beaten at cards. "Well, Monsignore," he said, "you must have enjoyed all of that catechism talk about the Madonna in the Cathedral of communist Prague, and in three languages as well."
The French professor interrupted before I could reply. "Four languages, Monsieur," she declared, "Italian, English, French and tears." With that she rose, again assumed the mien of theatrical declamation, and recited in French words from the f+iMagnificato, the prayer of the Mother of Jesus in the first chapter of St. Luke¹s Gospel: "Henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For He Who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name." Eyes cast down so that one might detect the depth of her feelings, she hurriedly left the lobby.
I do not know how many of us cried again once we were safely behind the doors of our respective hotel rooms. At least one did, and that is not the last time tears came to my eyes over four languages in honor of Mary in Prague in early spring.
Edward Cardinal Egan
Archbishop of New York