The Accents of Holiness

The Accents of Holiness October 31, 2011

I thought all Irish-born American priests were dead and gone, surviving solely on celluloid — until last Sunday, that is. Then, for the first time, I heard a real, live brogue trilling from the pulpit. I can’t trace it to any particular city or county, although I’m sure it came from somewhere in the southern two-thirds of the island. It did not, in any case, sound like the speech of the few Lower Manhattan barmen who were willing to serve me when I was a teenager, all of them from a certain northern city with two names.

The priest said “t’ing” for “thing,” “fate” for “faith,” “borden” for “burden” and “airly” for “early.” To my disappointment, he did not say “Jaysus” for “Jesus,” and he pronounced “Christ” like any God-fearing American. But during the Gospel reading, he did refer to Pharisees “woinding” their phylacteries.

I’m only an occasional visitor to this parish, but I’d gotten the impression that particular Mass was normally celebrated by a native Arizonan, a husky boyish fellow with a pronounced stutter. When Barry Fitzgerald’s talk-alike dedicated his homily to drumming up donations, it suddenly struck me why they’d made the switch: if you want an omadhaun to part with his gold, lay on the blarney. It’s worked for Irish Spring, Lucky Charms, Michael Flatley and Liam Neeson, so why stop? Even MC Everlast — born Erik Schrody in Los Angeles — affected a brogue in “Jump Around,” or so it has always sounded to me.

My girlfriend has stated flat-out that all priests should talk like they just skidded down the rainbow from Ballygymrat, or wherever. There was a time when I might have agreed with macushla on this one, but no longer. My change of heart has nothing to do with the contents of either the Murphy or Cloyne Reports. Credit should go to Joe Queenan, who satirized Frank McCourt’s absurdly best-selling memoir Angela’s Ashes for Esquire in a piece titled “Angelique’s Ashes.” Esquire’s editors have not, unfortunately, seen fit to make the text available online.

Basically, Queenan switches all the cultural references in McCourt’s story from Irish to Belgian. In the process, he transforms it out of all recognition, from poignant to ridiculous, raising the question of why. Belgium, like Ireland, is a small, mainly Catholic country. If Ireland can boast of Wilde, Shaw and Haney, Belgium can meet and raise with Van Eyck, Magritte and the guy who created Tintin. Ireland has bled from its Troubles; Belgium hemorrhaged from German Schrecklichkeit — twice. Ireland perfected stout and boxty; Belgium, wheat beer and waffles. Et cetera.

Queenan convinced me that there is no qualitative difference between he two places. Anyone who prefers Ireland to Belgium — or, for that matter, Portugal or Slovakia — has been had by a multimillion dollar nostalgia industry, which can sail right back to Byzantium for all I care.

But still, my ears insist that some accents are more priestly than others. The pastor of another parish I attend comes from somewhere in Latin America — exactly where, I don’t know. But in his “let jour jay be jay,” I hear the glories of imperial Spain, the tart wit of Teresa of Avila, the self-sacrificial frenzy of the cristeros, the defiant witness of Blessed Miguel Pro, and the swagger of Opus Dei. For as long as the service lasts, I count myself proud to be a marrano.

Despite the plug I’ve given Belgium, I must admit, a French accent has never sounded quite right coming from an alter Christus. This is my own fault. For years, the French ultra-right has exerted the same morbid fascination on me that the Nazis exert on normal people. Anything Gallic evokes Lefebvre; or Jean Martin as Colonel Mathieu, defending torture before a press conference in Battle of Algiers; or Richelieu plotting with Rochefort and Miledi. Sorry, Ss. Francis de Sales and Vincent de Paul. You too, Gregory of Tours and Odo of Cluny.

Northern Europeans were meant to be read, not heard. Thank God Pope Benedict and Henri J.M. Nouwen wrote so extensively. In my experience, “England” and “religion” are as inimical as “Brazil” and “vegetarianism.” Whenever I hear an English voice emerge from northwards of a clerical collar, I conclude the owner is on his way to a fetish party and give him a knowing wink.

In the future, of course, we should expect to hear increasing numbers of priestly voices flavored with the cadences of the Global South — particularly Africa and Asia. Fine with me; the Nigerian and Filipino priests I’ve heard seem quite competent, pastoral and enthusiastic. Perhaps it’s not so bad I can understand maybe one word in three. In unintelligibility there is mystery, or else nobody would make such a to-do over the Latin Mass.

Having catalogued my own prejudices, I turn the question over to the floor. Is there any national or regional accent that just sounds more sacerdotal to you than any other? Is there any you’d plug your ears to avoid hearing? Don’t be afraid of sounding petty. Sacred talking is just like sacred music, which everyone has an opinion on. Either one can inspire or mesmerize; you can play either in the car. The Vatican used to think neither a fit occupation for women. Spill, people, so we can get this Tower of Babel started.

"Saint Joseph of Cupertino.'Nuff said."

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