“I can’t understand a word he’s saying,” I heard one parishioner whisper to another behind me. True, the priest did have a strong accent: most of us are not used to hearing an African accent except on television, and usually then, it’s softened. But this gentleman had a thick accent that transformed everything he said into something initially only vaguely familiar. As with watching a live performance of one of Shakespeare’s work, it took a moment, but soon enough there was no problem to understand his words.
Understanding his approach seemed to be a different story altogether. His actions seemed much more reverent than any priest I’ve seen. His motions were slow and deliberate: he bent down to kiss the altar in a slow arc, lingered for a moment, then stood just as slowly; he blessed those who brought the wine and host (forgive me — I don’t know what they’re called) with a slow sign of the cross, and they, not expecting it, crossed themselves hurriedly and returned to their seats.
Even his homily was slow, thoughtful, and this made it longer than usual. I heard sighs of frustrations as he continued speaking past the time normally allotted to priests, and I would say his sermon was a good fifteen minutes longer than most parishioners are used to.
Having grown up in a church that had mandatory two-hour services (with sermons, therefore, that could last up to 90 minutes), I hardly noticed. Could this isolated squirming and whispering have been a sign of the short American attention span? Possibly. Could it be a sign that their minds are elsewhere? Most definitely.
I sat in Mass wondering about this cultural disconnect, and it occurred to me that perhaps Mass in Uganda is more sacred in the eyes of the parishioners. The majority of the population living in poverty. The priest mentioned a phone call from his assistant in his home parish about the Christmas offering. It was enormous: $250. Where such sums are impressive, life cannot possibly be easy in the Western sense. Mass might very well be the highlight of the week.
But isn’t that supposed to be the case for Catholics worldwide?