By Rev. Jean-Pierre Ruiz
“Vernacular” is a word I first heard a long time ago at St. Gabriel School in East Elmhurst, when one of the wonderful Sisters of Charity who taught there told us at the beginning of the prayers with which each school day began that we would no longer be referring to the Third Person of the Trinity as the “Holy Ghost.”
We would be invoking the “Holy Spirit” instead. The reason for this change, she explained, was something called “Vatican Two,” although we weren’t sure what “Vatican” meant, or why there was a second one. It didn’t help when Sister said that Vatican Two insisted on the use of something called the “vernacular” at Mass.
Our puzzlement persisted until we learned this meant that the Mass would be celebrated in English instead of Latin. That came as a relief, except to those of us who had already begun to memorize the Latin responses as we prepared to become altar servers! As for “Holy Ghost,” that English translation never made much sense in my family.
Because — more often than not — we invoked the Third Person of the Trinity as el Espíritu Santo or as le Saint-Esprit, referring to God as a ghost—even a “Holy Ghost”—seemed so irreverent! Anticipating the almost-inevitable question, “How do you know that a spirit is real?” Sister explained that, like the wind, you can feel the effects of the Spirit even though the Spirit can’t be seen. That made sense to me!
The readings for Pentecost testify to Spirit’s remarkable power and it’s more than just wind and flame! In the Acts of the Apostles we read that it was at the instigation of the Spirit that the followers of Jesus suddenly began to speak in different languages.
They made known God’s mighty deeds in a way that was understood by a crowd “from every nation under heaven,” each one hearing the message in their own language.
Luke (the author of Acts, which is something of a sequel to his Gospel) doesn’t tell us how that happened, perhaps because even he didn’t have a clue. Even so, how it happened does not matter as much as what it tells us: the message of the Gospel is proclaimed in each and every one of our own languages.
The Good News of Christ comes to us in each of our countless vernaculars, in Spanish and Igbo and Kreyòl Ayisyen, in Polish and Tagalog, Korean and Mandarin and in English—just some of the languages in which we praise God in our diocese—and in so many others besides.
This is fully in keeping with what Saint Paul wrote to the young church in Corinth: “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone.”
By no means does unity call for uniformity, the apostle insists. On the contrary: the dazzling variety of charisms itself testifies to the transformative power of the Holy Spirit.
The body of Christ that is the Church is not one in spite of its many parts, but because it has many parts, all of them bound together by the Spirit who breathes life into all of us!
Readings for Pentecost Sunday
Acts of Apostles 2:1-11
1 Cor 12:3b-7, 12-13
Father Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University, Jamaica.