THE JARGON OF LITURGISTS: BRAIN-WASHING THE FAITHFUL
by 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
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
. 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
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
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