Almost Holy: Confessions of a Bad Catholic

Of High Priests and Universal Language

At the time, Rice’s much-anticipated second album was still in production. Ironically, last week, while spending time with high priests of a different sort, Rice’s new album, 9, was released. I got my first impressions of it while heading to a Baltimore hotel to attend the annual November meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops – which, in my world, is something akin to DisneyWorld, Xanadu, Ibiza… or whatever else you’d call “paradise.”

Almighty O

After a hiatus of four years since the debut of the almighty O–a widely acclaimed album whose beautiful, soul-rattling material felt as if it were written with the finger of God—it’s hard to believe that, indeed, the wait is over. Sure, hyper-emotional folk-rock isn’t everyone’s taste, but for those who do gravitate to it, Rice’s return is a moment we’ve anticipated with quasi-evangelical zeal.

Though 9 might not have kept the entirety of O‘s raw purity of spirit, my first listen to the new album was a captivating, sacred experience.

In more ways than one, it was a eucharist.

With a bit of Catholic guilt, I have to admit that much of the spiritual heritage I cherish has spoken to me in a language drawn not from the Fathers of the Church but from the Fathers of the Culture—artists like Rice, U2, Dave Matthews, Nina Simone, Sam Beam, and Sarah McLachlan.

I was reminded of that language difference last week while flipping through the Scriptures to plot out some talks I’ll be giving in March for the Archdiocese of Denver. In the process, I came across a line from the Acts of the Apostles’ account of Pentecost that really struck me. I hadn’t meditated on it in quite some time—the moment when, having received the Holy Spirit, the apostles and disciples left the Cenacle and went out into the streets, speaking in tongues.

Native Tongue

“At this sound,” goes the verse in question, the disciples “gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language.”

“They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, ‘Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? ‘Then how does each of us hear them in his own native language?'”

“And every day,” the chapter ends, “the Lord added to their number.”

Fast-forward to 2006 and the cusp of a new liturgical year. The question presents itself anew: “How does each of us hear the Church in his own language?” But by “language,” I don’t mean English, Spanish or Vietnamese (although knowing those helps) I’m talking about how, when he made himself manifest, the Spirit enabled the newborn church to speak to each individual they encountered, using words the masses didn’t just know, but ones that resonated with them, a language that couldn’t help but draw them closer to the riches of grace.

Language Barrier

We believe the Holy Spirit has remained with us but, as a church, too often we speak an insular, internal language and expect the world to adapt to it—the exact opposite of what the Pentecost story calls us to do.

Growing up, I was blessed to learn the church’s traditions, values and idiosyncracies from an exceptional vantage point, and I fell in love with it. Luckily, when the language became garbled, I fell back upon the resources and friends I found along the way to help me learn its ways and words so that, when the church spoke, I’d be able to understand and get the meaning out of it that it deserved to have.

Given the lesson of the first Pentecost, though, we shouldn’t expect a mastery of “Catholic as a Second Language” from everyone who “wants in,” especially those who need the invitation to Christ and his work’s continuation in the church the most. Just as you can’t have communion without communication, we need to remember that our faith’s price of admission is nothing more than, as Pope Benedict put it over Thanksgiving weekend, “when each person freely welcomes the truth of the love of God.”

“With a bit of Catholic guilt, I have to admit that much of the spiritual heritage I cherish has spoken to me in a language drawn not from the Fathers of the Church but from the Fathers of the Culture—artists like Rice, U2, Dave Matthews, Nina Simone, Sam Beam, and Sarah McLachlan.”

“[God] is Love and Truth, a love whose truth never imposes itself,” the Holy Father said at his Sunday Angelus on November 26. “They knock on the door of the heart and of the mind and, where they can enter, they bring peace and joy.”

Love, truth, peace, joy – the buzzwords of a language much of the church has lost its fluency in.

Good Assumption

But all is not lost. The most faith-filled encounter I had in Baltimore didn’t happen on the floor of the bishops’ meeting, but in a tiny pub tucked away under the shadow of US Catholicism’s founding church, the Basilica of the Assumption.

As the first day of business wound down, I escaped the hotel and rolled into the bar, alone, to grab a bite and catch a bit of football in the hope of getting a recharge from the real, non-ecclesiastical world. In the process, I struck up a conversation with the couple next to me over beer and smokes as fits of Modest Mouse played on the house iPod.

Somewhere along the way, the male half of the duo–-a twenty-five year old sporting green-tinted glasses, a KGB t-shirt and Orioles hat–-asked what I did. As I’m really tired of either being: 1. harangued with questions about The DaVinci Code or 2. blamed for the sex-abuse scandal, I don’t often cop to my job immediately. For some reason, however, on this night I threw caution to the wind and mentioned that I was in town to cover the bishops.

And out of nowhere, something happened. The guy told me about how, last Easter, he was received into the church through the RCIA, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. On the surface, he didn’t strike the casual observer as one of the oft-vaunted young breed keen on “reinvigorating” Catholic life by retreating from the world to an ecclesiastical ghetto.


The beauty of it was, he wasn’t like that at all. “I was a deist for a long time,” he explained. Finding that what he termed “a cop-out,” he found a parish whose approach allowed faith to make sense in its rich simplicity, and he completed the initiation he began as a child, but fell away from before confirmation.

As he enthusiastically put it, the beauty of the church lies in how its teachings and traditions “give you a roadmap: something to live for, something to shoot for.”

In my native language, I hadn’t heard truth expressed like that in quite some time. Then again, it was just further proof that when the church affirms the world’s many tongues to spread a universal language: the power of belief, the purity of truth and the beauty of love, just as on that first Pentecost, the Spirit is renewed and the Lord adds to our number.

“We go blind when we’ve needed to see” goes one line from Damien Rice’s new album. And, as an even greater prophet once said, “You are the light of the world.” Now more than ever, in a world torn by conflict and wrought with despair, ours is a vision, a light, a voice that’s sorely needed out there. May we speak up in a way that isn’t just heard, but understood.