Filing in that first memorable morning, we are full of anticipation and a babble of excited voices fills the air. Long tables and chairs fill the chapel which has been transformed into our meeting room for the duration of the Congress. There’s a beautiful display of Oblate symbols, pictures of Saint Eugene and multi-colored cloths at one end of the room, highlighting the raised dais where Father General Marcello Zago and members of his Administration are gathering. We are delegates from around the world, France, Italy, Spain, Poland, Senegal, Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Lesotho, Guyane Francaise, Australia, Transvaal, Chile, the United States and Canada, and the cacophony of languages reminds me of another room where a multiplicity of tongues, through the power of the Spirit, becomes understandable to all.
For us, the credit goes to the Oblate translators among us. I am in awe of these polygots, speaking as they do at least two languages each and most of them more – three, four, six and even ten. The universal language of smiles, nods and handshakes is continually present but we need these Oblate linguistic virtuosos to help us come to know one another. They are ever present and unfailingly kind in showing up at one’s side, patiently translating ordinary conversations and facilitating connections.
It is impressive to me as well that our work is done in three languages, with simultaneous translation being provided in Spanish, English and French. We become accustomed each morning to see our smiling translators disappear into their little booths at the back of the room as we don our headphones. They emerge hours later, still smiling. We come to know them first through their voices in our ears rather than by their faces.
It is impossible for the translators to be everywhere, however, and other ways of communicating have to be found. One is song and dance. So it is that our regular evening soirees in the enclosed courtyard become opportunities for some, and command performances for others. At the end of an intense working day, we wander out as dusk falls, stop at the well-stocked bar cart and find a place in the waiting circle of lawn chairs. The request is to share something of one’s culture. By the gentle light of the lanterns, amidst much laughter, folk songs, circle dances and poetry from around the world entertain us. We enjoy it all even if we don’t understand the language!
I treasure a photo I have of one of those evenings. Father General Zago is solidly seated in his lawn chair, his signature cap on his head. He is smiling and holding up two fingers in what looks like a peace sign. But I know it is not. I know exactly what it is, for I am standing off to the side leading the group in an action song. Well-known in Canada, “Little Rabbit Foo-Foo,” involves raising two fingers to represent the bunny who hops across the forest. It also, rather gruesomely, involves an attack on field mice and I remember well the enthusiasm with which we chanted and acted out the line, “Scooping up the field mice and bopping ‘em on the head.” It was a joy to discover that when you have line repetition and lively actions, you don’t need to understand the words in order to participate and play.
It was in that same spirit that I also led the group in dancing and singing the ‘Hokey Pokey.’ I do recall that Father General remained seated for that but the rest of the group formed an animated circle as we all, ‘Put our right hands in,” and took them out again. I can’t claim it was Canadian culture, but it sure was fun.
We speak often about hospitality being a hallmark of the Oblate charism. It is one thing to speak of it and another to live it. In the hallowed rooms of the Mission House, in the beautiful courtyard, from our always gracious translators to our sociable and kindly hosts and facilitators, we experienced it. We came as strangers and we emerged as friends. A new Oblate community had been created.
Sandra Prather, HOMI