The Jargon of Liturgists: Brain-Washing the Faithful

Author: Calvert Shenk


Here are two different ways of describing the beginning of holy Mass:

1. "Before the Eucharistic celebration begins, the assembly gathers in the worship space. As the assembly sings the gathering song, the presider and other ministers enter. The presider greets the assembly and, in preparation for liturgy of Word and Eucharist, invites them to reflect on their sinfulness."

2. "Before Mass, the congregation enters the church. As the introit or the processional hymn is sung, the celebrant, deacon, lector and servers enter in procession. The celebrant, having made the sign of the cross, greets the congregation and, in preparation for the sacred mysteries, exhorts the faithful to call to mind their sins:"

It may seem that these descriptions are essentially the same, distinguished from each other only by more-or-less arbitrary differences of terminology. The first description is a fairly typical specimen of modern liturgical jargon, the second a straightforward exposition in more traditional nomenclature. It seems to me that in imposing the first kind of language on the Church through missalettes, hymnals, orders of worship, articles, homilies, and any other means available, the liturgists of a certain school are really seeking to impose notions of the sacred liturgy, the sacraments, and the Church which are quite different from those which are in fact held by the .

Let us examine some of these common liturgical catchwords so beloved by modern liturgists, and seek to account for the insistence with which they are pressed upon us.

Any term may be used except "Mass." Mass, of course, is the word which most Catholics have used for centuries to designate the principal service of their Church. To call holy Mass a "Eucharistic celebration" may be to imply (more or less subtly) that a different service is really in prospect-or, at least, a transformation of our conception of that service. The term "celebration," though venerable in the liturgical lexicon, is often used now in a rather different sense from its traditional meaning. The connotation is that we are going to have something very like a party, and that the Mass is an action which we who "celebrate" perform (indeed, liturgists often talk of our "doing Eucharist"), rather than a sacrifice which Christ offers. It is not many steps from this notion to the idea of the "community" celebrating itself.

. This is meant as a somewhat tendentious translation of or : the coming together of the faithful. As opposed to "congregation" (the more common term until recently), it is designed to include all who "assemble," including the priest. The intention is to eradicate the distinction between the celebrant, acting in , and the faithful who participate in the sacrifice analogically. (See Pius XII, encyclical , and many other conciliar and papal pronouncements giving the Church's view.)

. A "space" is just a space; a church (building) is a symbolic, visible expression of the Church (the Body of Christ).

. This idea-really just the fact of people being present at the same time and place-has been elevated by modern liturgists to the level of sacred action. As a "gathering rite," the opening prayers and hymns of the Mass (introit, penitential rite, Gloria, collect) become entirely a matter of people "gathering." The emphasis shifts from prayer and praise to such concerns as "hospitality:" This is the trivialization of worship. We also, of course, gather for club meetings, sporting events, and virtually every other human enterprise involving more than one person in the same vicinity.

Song. The constant use of this term for many sung parts of the liturgy is particularly exasperating to the faithful church musician, to him whom Father Robert Skeris calls "the competent ." "Song" (as unfortunately enshrined in the ICEL sacramentary) seems to be a mistranslation of (chant) as in (entrance song) or, worse, "gathering song." It is used to refer to hymns, proper chants (e.g., introit, offertory or communion, when these are acknowledged at all), and any miscellaneous musical elements with the exception of the ordinary parts of the Mass. At least, I have not yet encountered terms such as "glory song" (Gloria,) "holy song" (), or "bread-breaking song" (). The implication in contemporary culture is that these sung items are the musical equivalent of pop tunes, and of course in practice they frequently are. I remain committed to the use of specific terms such as "hymn," "antiphon," "psalm," "canticle," and the like.

. This term, which connotes to Americans the chairman of a meeting, is another attempt, when used in place of "celebrant," to eradicate the distinction between the priest and the faithful. Anyone can preside, and indeed, one has heard of celebrations over which non-ordained persons have presided. The aim is to desupernaturalize holy orders. Some years ago the preferred term was "president," which seems, mercifully, to have disappeared-perhaps as a side-effect of many liturgists' strong reactions to a succession of Republican administrations.

. This title once referred to the celebrant, deacon and subdeacon at solemn Mass (sacred ministers) or to those authorized to administer the sacraments. Now it simply includes anyone who does anything noticeable in the liturgy, from the ushers (ministers of hospitality) to the organist (minister of music). Again as in the case of "song," one notices a lack of specificity. Anyone can be a "minister" of anything.

. These terms become jargon when used without the definite article, "the." A dependable rule of thumb is never to trust anyone who drops his articles, as in "to do Eucharist" or "to be Church." The idea seems to be to eliminate (along with capitalization) the notion of the Eucharist or the Church as a specific definable entity. Whatever the user of the term would like "Eucharist" or "Church" to mean becomes its meaning.

. Of course, we are all sinful, but that (apart from original sin) is because we commit sins. "Sinfulness," as habitually used in place of "sin(s)," seems to remove the concern with specific sinful action and to replace it with a wistful feeling of regret that we, as a society, are so "sinful" (particularly, of course, in our "structures of oppression").

. Banishing the word "offertory" in favor of "preparation of the gifts" implies quite a different relationship between ourselves and the . "Preparing" the gifts is hardly the same as offering them. A whole devotional tradition of offering ourselves with the bread and wine on the corporal, to be transformed with them by the action of Christ in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, is here obliterated by a simple substitution of words. The and the still refer to the . What is good enough for the should, one would think, be good enough for us.

Who has not, in discussing the sacred liturgy with a diocesan or parish liturgy director, seen the wince of fastidious pain and the subsequent condescending smile when a term such as "hymn," "offertory," "," or "celebrant" has been used? Who has not felt the gently scornful reproach with which the functionary has quickly pronounced the current jargon term in response, with almost audible italicization? The clear message is that one is a hopeless reactionary, or at least pitiably ignorant of the politically correct liturgical worldview at the moment.

No doubt, many who use and promulgate "litjargon" are simply passing on what they have been told is the preferred usage of the Church. But someone, somewhere, had to have originated these deceptively innocent sounding expressions. Whether intended or not, the net effect of their constant use is to brain-wash the faithful, to persuade them that the process of desacramentalizing and desupernaturalizing the worship of the Church has somehow been officially mandated, and that they must adjust their thinking accordingly.

What can be done? Perhaps little beyond insistently, constantly, habitually using terms which express unequivocally the Church's real theology of worship, and banishing the jargon terms entirely from our own speaking and writing. Perhaps we must wait for a new generation of "legitimate liturgists" (to use another of Father Skeris' felicitous coinages), nurtured in the real teaching of Vatican Council II and the post-conciliar popes, to restore sanity and Catholicity to the common liturgical practice of the


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