Changing the "Pray, Brethren..."

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Changing the "Pray Brethren ..."

ROME, 24 OCT. 2006 (ZENIT)

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: A friend of mine has said that it is never permissible, at the opening of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, to say "brothers and sisters" or (even worse) "sisters and brothers" during "Pray — that our sacrifice may be acceptable to God our Father." I have seen in some regional missalettes that say the priest is allowed to use these words along with "friends" and some others. What is acceptable to say during this part of the prayer? — C.S., College Station, Texas

A: The present English missal has a footnote after the word "brethren" that says: "At the discretion of the priest, other words which may seem more suitable under the circumstances such as friends, dearly beloved, my brothers and sisters, may be used."

Therefore our correspondent's friend is incorrect in stating that the priest may not substitute other suitable formulas for "brethren."

Certainly no such footnote exists in the new Latin missal but this is quite understandable in a Latin text.

Missals in other major languages have generally opted for a different method for this invitation to pray: that of offering a simple translation of the Latin text plus two or three alternative formulas of greeting from which the priest may choose.

Thus the Spanish missal offers three texts, two with an equivalent of "brethren" and one with an indirect greeting.

The Italian and Brazilian Portuguese missals both offer four texts. The Italian translates the original Latin text as "brethren" and uses "brothers and sisters" in the others. The Portuguese uses "brothers and sisters" in all four cases.

This method offers some variety while removing any danger of arbitrary invention by the priest.

The composition and approval of new alternative texts not found in the original Latin belongs to each individual bishops' conference although it must receive the definitive approval of the Holy See before being incorporated into the missal published for use in each country.

Since all present translations are currently under review it remains to be seen if all of these new texts, duly approved by the Holy See over the last 36 years, will pass a second muster. It is probable that many will be acceptable and will continue to be used. ZE06102428

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Follow-up: Changing the "Pray Brethren ..." [11-7-2006]

After our brief comment on the possibility of using "Pray, my brothers and sisters" instead of "Pray, brethren" (Oct. 24) a reader from British Columbia made some reflections on aspects of so-called inclusive language.

Among other things she writes: "One of our priests insists on using 'my sisters and brothers' introducing the 'Orate, fratres' prayer. As a woman, I find it distracting, patronizing and condescending — pure pap. Is it somehow supposed to compensate for other more obvious 'problems'? For example, consider that the Liturgy of the Word today — the readings from Paul's Letter to the Ephesians and the Gospel of Luke — use at least 30 to 40 masculine pronouns in giving instruction or the relating of Jesus' parables. Yet, in the past I had no trouble hearing the epistles or the Gospels and applying them to myself — a woman.

"However, this new insistence on paying lip service to the feminine pronoun form and replacing what once was generic and inclusive in the English language is playing havoc with my whole appreciation of holy Mass in the vernacular! I almost feel like shouting out, 'Look, we have a Father in heaven! Jesus the Son of God came to us a male child, the Son of Man! The Holy Spirit is presented as 'he'! We have an entirely male priesthood! What's wrong with God's plan? Did God somehow make a mistake? Doesn't the imposition of a few feminine pronoun forms or artificially contrived inclusive terms work to bring about dissatisfaction with the way God has ordered things and willed the human race to re-create (procreate) itself?  And for us — the whole human race to be redeemed?"

While I believe that few people will become dissatisfied with God's plan because of the adoption of a few "inclusive" terms, our reader has touched a nerve regarding some aspects of the use of so-called inclusive language. That is, it often appears patronizing and thus is a source of distraction and annoyance to the very people it was meant to include.

I admit to being personally unconvinced by the arguments that English's use of male pronouns in a generic sense to reference mixed groups or humanity in general, somehow excludes a part of humanity, except in the minds of those who have decided that it does.

Nor, for that matter, is this use exclusive to the English language. All the Romance languages, for example, use the male form more or less as English does and for good grammatical reasons.

Recent efforts by some Spanish and Italian public figures to imitate the English penchant for inclusiveness have led to linguistic gyrations. They are constrained by grammar to begin their addresses with the equivalent of: "I call on all male citizens and all female citizens...," a mode of expression more likely to divide than to include.

One advantage of studying several languages is the discovery that assignment of grammatical gender is usually not based on logic. Romance languages, which, unlike English, assign grammatical gender to inanimate objects, frequently attribute opposite genders for the same thing in different languages. The same happens in forms of address; in Italian, for example, the courteous form of addressing a person uses a female form for both sexes.

The point I am trying to make is that such matters as the generic use of the male pronoun is merely a practical means of transmitting a simple message. And contorting the language to get around it can often lead to unnecessarily turgid prose.

In biblical and liturgical texts, as our reader points out, it can also lead to lack of clarity and even theologically erroneous expressions.

That said, it is also necessary to recognize that some aspects of language do change over time and may no longer convey the original intention.

Thus, not all expressions such as "brothers and sisters" instead of "brethren" are necessarily ideological uses of inclusive language. Rather, such uses might simply recognize the reality that in some parts of the English-speaking world the word "brethren" is now archaic and no longer conveys its original meaning.

The expression "brothers and sisters" in homilies might also serve to emphasize that we are addressing all present as members of the Church as God's family.

Pope John Paul II usually began his discourses with "Dear brothers and sisters" and our present Holy Father follows the same path. At a recent canonization I even heard Benedict XVI use a formula that addressed the people as brothers and sisters in Latin ("Fratres sororesque carissimi"). ZE06110740

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