32 Sunday Ordinary Time – November 6, 2011 – The Language of the Liturgy
A few weeks ago I was standing outside the front door after Mass when a young girl came running up to me all excited. Julia Huber had learned a new word in school that week and then she heard me use that word in the homily. She even told me what the word “ponder” meant.
Words are very important. No matter what the language is they communicate ideas, meanings, values. They are expressions of joy and sorrow. They help us learn new things and reminisce about old things. Communication is difficult when we do not understand words used in a language.
Language helps to connect and unite people. A group decides on what a word means and it even grasps the nuances of that word. However, language also separates us from one another when diverse cultures mix, when different agendas compete using the same words. Words are puzzling when phrases inherited from an another age no longer carry the same meaning. Texting today is a good example of how words change. I have to decipher them carefully to get the message.
As English speaking Catholics around the world prepare to use a new translation of the Roman Missal the focus has been on the text. For many there is reason to be disappointed over the translation process, the lack of direct involvement of lay men and women and the hierarchical nature of the task. Realizing that words and their meanings are important, especially while praying together, what else can we turn our attention to, to diffuse any discouragement, to channel energies in a positive and constructive way?
When words fail us we turn to nonverbal means of communicating. International road signs are good examples of that. Consider also what seems to be a universal sign for “may I have the check please.” √ People who do not hear well use sign language. Hand signals, gestures, body language speak volumes to us. Smiles and frowns communicate joy and sadness. Sometimes a hug or a kiss are worth more than the words, “I am sorry.” There are many ways for humans to communicate beyond words. The richness of the Catholic liturgy depends not only on words and songs but on our actions as well. What are some of the nonverbal languages used in this parish during Mass?
Our different ministries include children, teens, women and men in liturgical roles. Our processions, common postures and gestures during Mass engage us in the actions of the liturgy. Works of religious art in our church communicate the stories of our ancestors and our own stories. The way we arrange ourselves around the font, the ambo and altar table shapes the level of our participation during the liturgy.
The new translation of the liturgical texts is the result of a process dating back to the previous pope and others who desired a more accurate interpretation of words rather than using popular language. It is not the first time the Roman Missal has been used as way to unite vast numbers of Catholics in prayer. It is not the first time that a new translation has been contested. Nor is this the last missal. There will others in the future.
Why is something like a new translation of the Missal troubling for some when there are other issues to worry about? Indeed, we are inaugurating this translation at a time in history when there is restlessness not only in the Catholic church but in all mainline religions. Studies show Americans consider themselves to be spiritual but not terribly religious church goers. Whether a new translation will inspire Catholics to return to their parishes no one knows. Christian history reveals that many if not most of the popular spiritualities practiced by Catholics and others emerged to counter attempts to tell people how to pray.
Young Julia Huber was all excited about learning a new word “ponder” in school and then hearing it used in church. She defined it for me as “thinking about something before making a decision.” The ministerial leaders in this parish have pondered how to incorporate the changes here at St. Vincent’s. I can assure you as we use the new translation we will not compromise our customs and traditions here or forego our sensitivity about who we are and what we stand for as a parish.
The words in the new translation do have multiple meanings and can be confusing. Some of them are just not the words we happen to use in everyday conversation. They will take some getting use to and we will do so as well as we can. The gospel today reminds us that God who gives us freedom also holds us responsible for what we do with it. 
Let us not forget, then, there are other priorities that are important in life, more important than a new translation: helping people who have no work, no food, no housing, no family, no friends.
As we worship God we can learn some new words and their meanings. As we do so we can also continue to concentrate on what we try to do best here at St. Vincent’s — daring to bring the kin-dom of God to those who desperately need us.
1 Labberton, Mark. “The Living Word” in Christian Century November 1, 2011, page 20