To hear Catholic Mass in one’s own language was, for centuries, impossible for the majority of Catholics. Vatican II changed all that, allowing Mass to be celebrated in the vernacular. As a result, Catholics worldwide hear the same Mass yet different sounds.
Poles in America experience a certain foreigners in the English Mass, regardless of the individuals’ fluency. This goes a long way in explaining the significance of the Polish Mass celebrated in Greenville today. A Polish priest, on loan from Polska, is stationed in Columbia, a mere hour-and-a-half from Greenville. After much persuasion, he came to a little church outside Greenville proper, and probably almost every Pole in a thirty-mile radius was there. The kids stood and knelt at the all the proper times, but being raised in the States, they didn’t know the hymns or the responses/prayers. They seemed lost. I would imagine that’s what they’re like visiting Poland as well: strangers in a land that sounds strangely familiar.
For me, it brought a smile. The first time I ever attended a Catholic Mass was in Poland, and Polish is, for me, the language of liturgy. From hearing alone, I know the prayers and formulations in Polish better than English.
Aside from the language, there are subtle and not-so-subtle differences. Poles still do the mea culpa in the Confiteor. “Moja moja, wina, moja wina, moja bardzo wielka wina,” all chant in the church, jabbing their thumb into their chest with each “moja wina.”
At the end of the Mass, he asked for a show of hands for a commitment to a monthly Polish Mass. Every hand in the church went up, including mine (after some prodding from K — I was simply absent-mindedly daydreaming about the oddity of hearing a Polish Mass after so many years). Critical mass achieved, the priest then announced that there would, henceforth, be a monthly Polish Mass. Applause broke out, and it was then that the significance of the moment was clear. A bit of their heritage, their youth in Poland, their past given place right here in Greenville, home of Bob Jones University, one of the most virulently anti-Catholic institutions in America.
While I was living in Poland, the closest I ever got to getting a taste of my own culture was to drop into McDonald’s or watch the latest American blockbuster.