In My conversion to Roman Catholicism and why I left, I explained why I converted to Roman Catholicism. During my second year at the University of Cape Town, at the age of 19, I was baptised into the Catholic Church. Kolbe house, the Cape Town University Catholic Society and Residence, became my new heim. Kolbe House is located on a small estate about 200 metres from the Main Road, Rondebosch.
Walk up the steps across the veranda and straight into the big lounge, behind which is a small library, which could be separated by a curtain because the library also served as a stage for Kolbe student concerts in which I sang favourites such as “A certain smile” (Johnny Mathis version) and “Love is a many splendid thing” (Nat King Cole). On the right of the lounge is a set of folding doors that opened on to the little chapel. After lectures, I would spend many afternoons at Kolbe House, browsing through the books in the library that nobody else read, while waiting for other students to arrive on whom I could impress myself. Most of my peers, like most students, were more interested in bonding over a beer, not necessarily in that order.
Isn’t that what much conversation is about; bonding – and beering? According to Naom Chomsky and Gilbert Ryle, the primordial function of language is self expression – pressing yourself on to others. Chomsky suggests that expression, not communication, is the central function of language (Chomsky, Language and Responsibility, 1979:88). Ryle (1959), in a similar vein (at the end of his introduction to “The concept of mind”), states: “Primarily I am trying to get some disorders out of my own system. Only secondarily do I hope to help other theorists to recognise our malady and to benefit from my medicine.”The “purgative” (“suppository”) function of language is one function that did not occur to Chomsky – I suppose. (Theological Aphasia and Language as Communion).
There was another Jewish student Andrew (not his real name), who was taking instruction with me in the Catholic faith at Kolbe House, the university residence and chaplaincy. Father Peter Paul Feeney was the chaplain and our instructor in the faith. At the end of our instruction, Fr Peter Paul baptised us together.
Andrew was my physical antithesis. I was blond and lanky; he, dark hair and short. Don Quixote and Sancho. During our year of Catholic instruction together at Kolbe House, Andrew and I used to spend time sharing our joy in our new found faith – two wondering Jews wandering no more. I had rented a room in a quiet part of Rondebosch near Kolbe House. Andrew lived in the main residence on campus. Whenever Andrew talked about Catholic things, his voice quivered, his eyes shone; he was in love. I was not too far behind him. He had a special love for Mary, the mother of Jesus. Many Catholics tend to gravitate to the mother of Jesus more than to her Son. This is generally true not only of born Catholics but also of converts. There’s just something special about “Mother”, Ma-me-le (Yiddish). If you can have a heavenly father, why can’t you have a heavenly mother. Mary’s role for Catholics, though, is far more than that, as several papal encyclicals make clear. For example: “Mary places herself between her Son and mankind in the reality of their wants, needs and sufferings. She puts herself “in the middle,” that is to say she acts as a mediatrix not as an outsider, but in her position as mother. She knows that as such she can point out to her Son the needs of mankind, and in fact, she “has the right” to do so. Her mediation is thus in the nature of intercession: Mary “intercedes” for mankind. And that is not all. As a mother she also wishes the messianic power of her Son to be manifested, that salvific power of his which is meant to help man in his misfortunes, to free him from the evil which in various forms and degrees weighs heavily upon his life. (Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater: On the Blessed Virgin Mary in the life of the Pilgrim Church, 1987.03.25).
A man knows about courage, truth, strength, wrath, but what does he understand about gentleness, lovingness, virgin purity and affection? That’s the woman’s domain, isn’t it? Mary, the meek, loving, obedient highly favoured woman, pierced by sorrow becomes the Mother of God, “Can we not feel that it must have been so right…a living object of devotion, faith and hope” (F.W. Robertson, 1924. “The Glory of the Virgin Mother” in Sermons on Bible Subjects, p. 224. Everyman’s Library). Bernard of Clairvaux brought a new emphasis to the mother of Jesus, exalting her to “Queen of Heaven” and intercessor between Christ and the Church. Here is Bernard: “The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent. In the eternal Word of God we all came to be, and behold, we die.” So, only if the mother of Jesus gives his Son permission to save, can he do so. When I was a devout Catholic, I used to feel that it was so. I never cared about biblical exegesis. Like most Catholics, I didn’t read the Bible much. There was no need to; the Church said it was so, and that was that. Besides, the mother of Jesus had that feminine touch that no man – not even Jesus – could match. But is this true? The Son of Man was a perfect embodiment of both the masculine and the feminine of humanness.
There is also, of course, the Mother tongue. Language teachers, translators, and linguistic scientists (linguists) are especially interested in the “syntactic joints and “semantic flesh” of the Mother tongue (Johnson, Barbara. 1985 Taking Fidelity Philosophically. In: Difference in Translation In: Graham, J.F. (ed.). Ithaca: Cornell University Press).Of particular interest to Bible translators are the problems in translation of biblical texts from the original (Mother) tongue.
But Mary is more than a tongue; “she is the neck of Our Head [Christ], by which He communicates to His mystical body all spiritual gifts” (Bernadine of Sienna, (Quadrag. de Evangel. aetern. Serm. x., a. 3, c. iii.).quoted in the encyclical AD DIEM ILLUM LAETISSIMUM (English: Until that Joyful Day) on the Immaculate Conception, of Pope Pius X, Feb 1904). In the Catholic order of mediation between God and man, if Christ the Head is the Mediator between the Father and man, Mary, the neck, is the mediatrix between the Head (Christ) and man. (I discuss the mother of Jesus in more detail in Mary highly-favoured mother of the Son of God.
After my baptism, I attended Mass every evening at the little chapel of Kolbe House. As far as I knew, my parents had no idea of, or interest in, my personal life. We never discussed religious matters. A few months after my baptism, I was elected to the Kolbe committee as member in charge of “spiritual activities.” The role involved being available at daily mass. Quite a logical appointment seeing that I was one of the few Kolbe-ites who attended daily mass.
I was also Father Peter Paul Feeney’s altar boy for the three holy days of Easter. The Last Supper was probably Jesus’ last Passover meal. He ate it on the first day of the Passover, “the day of Unleavened Bread on which the passover lamb had to be sacrificed’” (Luke 22:7). Christ was crucified a few hours before the first evening of Passover. It’s not certain on which day of the week the Passover fell for that particular year. The evidence seems to indicate a Thursday. But it’s not so important to know the exact day. What is important is, firstly, the historical and religious fact that Jesus died – was born to die – on a cross; and rose from the dead; and, secondly, to know why He died. I consider those two facts to be the most crucial facts in human history questions, and consequently of my history.
My parents expected me to attend the Passover seder (ritual feast). On one of these Holy Week days, my parents’ were waiting for me to arrive at the family seder to recite the first portion of the Haggadah, the “Ma Nishtana” – a set of four questions sung during the Passover seder. It is sung by the youngest available male member of the family. As the youngest male in the family – my brother, Benny, was living in Israel – I had to start the festivities.(The Haggadah (Hebrew: הַגָּדָה, “telling”) sets forth the order of the Passover service (seder). Reading the Haggadah fulfills the Scriptural commandment to the Jew to “tell your son” of the Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt as related in the Book of Exodus. The family had moved from Claremont to Sea Point.
Sea Point is a bus ride of at least three quarters of an hour from Kolbe House in Rondebosch. So, if I leave in 15 minutes I’ll only get to Sea Point at about 8 pm.
Why was Fr Peter Paul taking so long to finish everything! After all it was a Low Mass. In a Low Mass, the priest reads, but doesn’t sing, and the ritual is much simpler and shorter. “The Low Mass, explains the Catholic Forum, was a basic Mass, with the bare (no, not bear) necessities. The High Mass was a more solemn Mass, and it had music, and all the other “smells, bells, and whistles” as they say. It also requires more servers and deacons assisting the priest saying the Mass. It was basically a more ceremonious way of saying the Mass.”
Mass and Passover; I was in a real Passover pickle at Kolbe House. Alphonse Daudet’s “The three low masses” comes to mind. It is about a priest whose enthusiasm (en theos “in God”) for gourmet dishes brings him into confrontation with Satan. The story begins with the priest reverend dom Balaguère (if he was a Jewish priest, he would be reverend dom Bagelère) enquiring of his clerk Garrigou (Satan in disguise) about the preparations for the after-Mass feast.
“Two truffled turkeys, Garrigou?” “Yes, reverend Father, two magnificent turkeys stuffed with truffles. There’s no mistake, for I helped to stuff them myself. The flesh almost cracked as they roasted, it was so tight–so—-” “Holy Virgin! and I, who love truffles as—-Hurry; give me my surplice, Garrigou. And what else besides the turkeys; what else did you see in the kitchen?” “Oh! all sorts of good things. Since noon we’ve done nothing but pluck pheasants, pewits, wood-hens, and heath-cocks. Feathers are scattered thick. Then from the pond they’ve brought eels and golden carp and trout, and—-” “What size are the trout, Garrigou?” “Oh, as big as that! reverend Father. Enormous!” “Heavens, I seem to see them! Have you put the wine in the flasks?” “Yes, reverend Father, I’ve put the wine in the flasks. But what’s a mouthful or two as you go to midnight Mass! The priest rushes throughout the three Masses. “But how can he go any faster? He scarcely moves his lips, he pronounces fully not a single word. He tries to cheat the good God altogether of His Mass, and that is what brings his ruin. By temptation upon temptation, he begins to jump one verse, then two. Then the epistle is too long–he does not finish it; skims the Gospel, passes by the creed without even entering, skips the pater, salutes from afar the preface, and by bounds and jumps precipitates himself into eternal damnation, always following the infamous Garrigou (_vade retro, Satanas_[“Get behind me Satan”]), who seconds him with marvellous skill; tucks up his chasuble, turns the leaves two by two, disarranges the music-desk, reverses the flagons, and unceasingly rings the bell more and more vigorously, more and more quickly.”
At the Kolbe House Mass, my churning brain was not thinking at all of that other altar, the laden passover table anxiously fixed on the front door waiting for its alter ego to arrive. Priest: Benedìcat vos omnipotens Deus, Pater, et Filius et Spìritus Sanctus. (May almighty God bless you, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit). All: Amen.
The Mass is ended, go in peace. Ite Missa est, which means “Go, you are sent forth.” Missa does not mean “Mass,” but “sent forth” as in missive, missile. I was flying out of there like one. But, no it was not to be. The Mass was over, but like all altar boys, I had no pass; I had to remain to put things away. Done. I leaped down the steps of Kolbe House (see photo; for the steps, not the leaping), took the short cut through a gap in the copse, and dashed down the road to wait for the bus to Sea Point.
I opened the door of the flat. Fanny, my mother: “Where have you been, the food is getting cold.” I installed the Yamulke on my head, opened the Haggadah and sang:
Ma nishtana ha-laila ha-zeh mi-kol ha-leilot? Why is this night different from all other nights?
Indeed, very different.
I made only one tape recording of the voices of my parents; it was of this passover night. I still have the tape in my possession. I listened to a snatch of it about five decades ago. I can’t bring myself to listen to more of it – yet. The bit I listened to brought painfully home to me my snivelling deportment in the presence of Issy, my father.