Each May, as the academic year comes to a close, we in the University of Portland and Holy Cross communities practice the ritual of conversations about our summer plans. This past spring, I raised quite a few eyebrows when I revealed that I'd be spending about two weeks in Bulgaria. Initially, many folks asked if I spoke any Bulgarian, but then, when I explained that I'd be working as part of a multinational research group for mathematics, they would respond with something like, "Oh, that's right, math is pretty much a universal language."
Truth be told, our Bulgarian hosts spoke almost perfect English, so the other Americans and I were able to rely on a lot more than the universality of math (which wouldn't have been much use anyway when we needed to find a bathroom). Nevertheless, math's abstract quality, its independence from many specific human realities, does make this kind of international collaboration much easier; the chances are far slimmer that some crucial point will get "lost in translation."
And so, I already have visited five different countries to attend mathematical conferences or to work on mathematical projects, and I've also helped to host foreign colleagues here in the States. Paradoxically, then, it is my "a-cultural," academic discipline that has connected me with so many vibrant, exotic cultures – with all of their great sights and sounds, tastes and smells, and ideas and opinions.
When I was in Bulgaria, I visited a number Orthodox Christian churches and one ancient Orthodox monastery, but I wanted to celebrate Mass in a Catholic Church, especially on Sunday. Fortunately, the Catholic cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria stands only about a mile from the hotel where I stayed. Now, in a nation that historically is overwhelmingly Orthodox, St. Joseph Cathedral looks like a newer, attractive, country parish in middle America (with the exception of its really impressive crucifix).
They had one Sunday Mass in Latin, which I knew I could follow easily enough (especially since I had my copy of Magnificat with me). Everything seemed as if it was going to be as familiar as it could get, given that I was worshipping half a world away from home. However, I was totally unprepared for what greeted me when I entered the doors: the congregation was about one-third African. Now, up to that point, I had not seen a single African man or woman in Sofia; yet, on that Sunday, there we all were – Africans, Bulgarians, Asians, other Europeans, and a few of us Americans -- drawn together by this most universal way to celebrate Mass. This ancient rite, largely independent from any contemporary culture, spoken aloud in a dead language, had connected us all as many different members of the living Body of Christ.
People have asked me how mathematics and priesthood can "fit together" for me. My best and most honest response is that I have experienced and recognized the same kinds of wonderful paradoxes, the same kinds of mysteries, in both.
Fr. Charlie McCoy, C.S.C., is an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at the University of Portland. He is a monthly contributor to the Spes Unica blog, reflecting primarily on the work of Holy Cross in education. Learn more about the work of Holy Cross priests and brothers in the field of education to bring hope to the Church and world.