The Liturgy and the Language of Love

Author: Rev. Jerry Pokorsky


By Rev. Jerry Pokorsky

Some time ago, I offered a Mass in celebration of a 65th wedding anniversary. When I asked the devout Catholic couple the secret of their success, they responded that they always prayed together and never used foul language when they argued. It took me some time to understand the profound significance of their holy boast. Even in arguments they strove to use a language of love.

The language used in a marital relationship has an analogue in the liturgy. The liturgy is the priestly action of Christ and his Body and Bride the Church (, 7). So just as verbal and non-verbal communication between husband and wife promote and express the marriage union, the words and gestures of the Mass are designed to promote and express the union of Christ with his Church.

Since 1993 the American bishops have been reviewing and voting on a contemporary revision of the translation of the Mass as proposed by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). The new Sacramentary (the book containing the prayers of the Mass) will be in two volumes. In June 1995, the American bishops, in their plenary meeting, are expected to vote on the main parts of the Mass. If all goes according to ICEL's plan, the two-volume Sacramentary will be eventually approved by the bishops, assembled, and sent to the Holy See for confirmation. The executive secretary of ICEL has been quoted as saying that in response to the changes in contemporary language, the translation of the Mass from the official Latin will be revised every generation or so.


Every priest who has listened to a saga of marital strife knows that a good marriage needs effective communication (honest but free from self-absorption and narcissism). It's almost a cliche to say that when communication breaks down, in many cases, so does the marriage. A wife's lament, "He's not the man I married" reveals, in perception or in reality, a loss of a sense of the familiar and a failure in communication. To a significant degree, communication depends upon a common and reliable use of language. When the language is subjected to unnecessary change (as opposed to organic growth) or when it is distorted by ambiguity, communication is distorted.

ICEL has systematically removed an important and reliable vehicle of communication in the liturgy by censoring the familiar English "sacral vocabulary." Words such as "soul," "spirit," "beseech," "merit," "servants," "handmaid," and "majesty"-which were at once archaic and endearing to faithful participants in the liturgy-have virtually disappeared from liturgical translations. ICEL's plan to revise the Mass every generation to accommodate contemporary linguistic usage strikes at the heart of effective and enduring liturgical communication.

In the Roman Canon, shortly before the Consecration we should be praying "...for the redemption of their souls" ( animarum ). But ICEL deliberately fails to translate "soul" () and insists upon translating the phrase as "...for our well-being and redemption." ICEL's prejudice against the use of "soul" continues in the invitation to Communion. Where the Latin reads, "...but only say the word and my shall be healed" ( anima ), ICEL translates the phrase "...but only say the word and shall be healed."

Catholics who are homebound with advanced age often unconsciously revert to the traditional "And with your " ( spiritu ) in response to the liturgical greeting by the priest, "The Lord be with you." ICEL had a chance to restore the correct translation to the 1973 Sacramentary, but ICEL's present revision continues to censor "spirit." This is not an isolated example. ICEL occasionally drops whole phrases to avoid the use of archaic words or phrases. Hence, while in the Roman Canon we should pray " the sight of Your divine maiestatis ), ICEL has decided to drop the entire phrase. Liturgy as ideology


The censorship of the sacral vocabulary in favor of contemporary language is at the heart of ICEL's demand to revise the translation for every generation. There seems to be a close relationship between the notion that the Church needs a new translation for every generation and the tendency-all too common, but obviously not happy-for a married man to figure he needs a new, younger woman every ten years or so. It's easy to understand the appeal of what is new and exciting. But living chastity in marriage means finding your excitement in what is familiar, not what is exotic. What's more, it is easy to find excitement within familiarity-in marriage or in the liturgy-if one is really in love. The emphasis on contemporary language that cries out for revision in every generation has reduced the liturgy to the arena of ideology and competing interests, especially between the sexes.

The competition between male and female has reached a fever pitch in society. Women were once a civilizing influence in the culture, bringing out the best in male characteristics. But increasingly young women are renouncing femininity and even taking on the worst of male attributes. The liberated woman as "sexual predator" is becoming more and more stereotypical in film and popular culture. At the same time, as expressed in their behavior, men are renouncing the properly masculine characteristics of courage and self-control. As a result, the proper order of male and female relationship- romance-marriage-sex-babies in that sequence-has been scrambled, with a skyrocketing divorce rate thrown in for good measure.

A reflection of marital conflict in the liturgy can be found in the influence of the feminist ideology. The introduction of "inclusive language" has had the effect of blurring the distinction between male and female, priest and people, Christ and his Church. The neutering of the language invites a chronic loss of awareness of the differences between male and female, in a futile attempt to paper over sexual differences. By drawing attention to the contemporary gender-neutral ideology, "inclusive language" amounts to an attack on the complementarity of the sexes.

It is common to see flyers advertising diocesan liturgical workshops which promote the "reasonable" demands of "moderate" feminism, especially "inclusive language, as a matter of "justice." Traditional hymns are the first to be emasculated. For example, the third verse of now reads, "Our mothers, too, oppressed and wronged, Still lived their faith with dignity..." The modern seminarian, too, is constantly evaluated on whether he appropriately uses "inclusive language." Formation personnel in seminaries even insist that seminarians change the authorized liturgical texts to accommodate "inclusive language." (I recall an episode in the seminary that caused suppressed snorts of laughter when the deacon prayed that we might be good "stewards and stewardesses" of God's creation.) The infallibility of the pope is a topic for theological debate in seminaries; but the demand for divisive "inclusive language" is not negotiable.


Properly speaking, the liturgical text belongs to Christ. It is the dialogue between Christ, the Bridegroom, and the Church, his spotless Bride, as she listens and responds to her Lord and unites herself to him as he offers himself to the Father. The marital imagery of the Mass reflects the complementarity of the sexes found in Scriptures, especially Genesis- a complementarity which confounded the surrounding ancient pagan cultures. Man and woman were not created to with one another, but to complete one another in the image and likeness of God.

But in a single prayer, ICEL neglects the holiness of the Church, the bride of Christ, and manages to undermine the complementarity of priest and people, Christ and the Church, man and woman. ICEL translates the traditional Offertory prayer, the , as "Pray...that our sacrifice may be acceptable to God" rather than "Pray...that may be acceptable..." ( meum ac vestrum )- thus failing to draw attention to the distinction between the priest (representing Christ) and the people (representing the spotless bride of Christ, the Church). In the same prayer, ICEL translates as "for the praise and glory of name" when the Latin reads "for the praise and glory of name". ICEL changes "his name" to "God's name" apparently in deference to gender-neutral sensibilities. Finally, the prayer should conclude with "and the good of all Church ( sanctae). But ICEL translates this phrase as "and the good of all the Church" dropping the word "holy" and changing " Church" () to " Church."

The promotion of "inclusive language" is not progressive; it is regressive. It ensures that the pattern of conflict between male and female found in the worship of ancient pagan deities will be perpetually enkindled in Christian liturgy.

But there are other disturbing trends in ICEL's current revision of the Roman Missal. In many contemporary catechisms dealing with the 6th Commandment, words such as "purity," "holy," and "virgin" have been replaced with concepts such as "value systems" and concerns for "self-esteem." It must be admitted that the results have been devastating. The typical Catholic high school often breeds indifference (and sometimes contempt) for holiness, purity and virginity, the essential conceptual building blocks for healthy marriages and families.

Revisiting the proposed revision of the Roman Canon, the long term ICEL agenda becomes clear. The mistakes of the 1973 translation, despite recent admissions that the first translation was "done in haste," were not corrected. In the prayer remembering St. Joseph, the Latin calls him "the spouse of the Virgin" ( Virginis ). But ICEL continues to translate the prayer, "Joseph, her husband" avoiding any reference to "the Virgin." After the Consecration, ICEL again retains the 1973 translation of puram, sanctam, immaculatam as simply "this holy and perfect sacrifice." But the Latin is considerably more vivid with profound Scriptural and marital imagery: "a victim, a victim, a victim." Doubtless, these words are alien to contemporary culture. But so is the Church's authentic teaching on chastity.


There are many other proposed changes and adaptations including a "Litany of Praise," an invention designed by ICEL as an optional substitute for the penitential rite. But it neither asks for forgiveness nor is followed by the absolution. Further, ICEL continues to translate the consecratory formula, , as "for " instead of "for ." ICEL begins the Nicene Creed with " in God." But the opening line of the Creed should have been translated accurately as " believe in God" (Credo ). And the "Song of Praise" becomes the generic title for both the and the proposed "Easter Canticle," an alternative to the during Easter.

In November 1993, the body of bishops gave the bishops' doctrine committee responsibility for independent oversight of liturgical translation efforts. As reported in the April issue of , the six-man doctrine committee was recently stacked with members of the liturgical establishment. So it comes as no surprise that in March, the doctrine committee reviewed ICEL's translations and concluded that "...all the texts were theologically orthodox and any other concerns that may have been raised have been satisfactorily addressed by the liturgy committee." In the meantime, several other English-speaking bishops' conferences have already approved these texts. The American bishops will vote on the texts at their June plenary meeting.

A vote rejecting the ICEL texts would raise hopes that the liturgy might one day recover the familiar and endearing sacral vocabulary. A lifetime of familiarity challenges the believer to enter into a close personal communion with the Lord in union with the whole Church. The English sacral vocabulary in the liturgy-for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health-is the enduring language of love.

This article appeared in the June 1995 issue of "The Catholic World Report," P.O. Box 6718, Syracuse, NY 13217-7912, 800-825-0061.