Sacred language for sacred acts

It was just about a year ago that U.S. parishes began using the new translations of the Third Edition of the Roman Missal—an implementation process that seems to have gone far more smoothly than some anticipated. Wrinkles remain to be ironed out: there are precious few decent musical settings for the revised Ordinary of the Mass; the occasional celebrant (not infrequently with “S.J.” after his name) feels compelled to share his winsome personality with the congregation by free-lancing the priestly greetings and prayers of Mass. Some of the new texts themselves could have used another editorial rinsing, in my judgment. But in the main, the new translations are an immense improvement and seem to have been received as such.

Why that’s the case is explained with clarity and scholarly insight in a new book by Oratorian Father Uwe Michael Lang, “The Voice of the Church at Prayer: Reflections on Liturgy and Language” (Ignatius Press).

From the days of Christian antiquity, Father Lang explains, liturgical language—the language of the Church at its formal public prayer—has always been understood to be different: different from the language of the marketplace or public square; different from the language of the home. Liturgical language, at its best, is multivalent; it does many things at once.

It is a language of instruction, teaching Christians to grasp the truths embodied in their prayers.

It is a language of delight, attracting us to those truths through the beauty, even charm, of the prayed words and their arrangement.

It is a language of persuasion and encouragement, urging us to conform our lives to the truths we lift up in prayer and spurring us to greater efforts to imitate Christ and the saints.

It is not, to illustrate the point along the via negativa, the kind of language found in the old Collect for the 21st Sunday of the Year (“Father, help us to seek the values that will bring us lasting joy in this changing world…”) or in the old Post-Communion prayer for the 30th Sunday of the Year (“May our celebration have an effect in our lives.”).

The language of the liturgy is also a language meant to elevate us, to lift us out of the quotidian and the ordinary. We don’t “speak” at holy Mass the way we talk at the local mall, and for a good reason: the liturgy is our privileged participation in the liturgy of saints and angels around the Throne of Grace, and the way we address the Lord, and each other, in those circumstances ought to reflect the awesome character of our baptismal dignity. The Latin used in shaping the Canon, the Prefaces, and the Collects of the Roman Rite in the classic period of its formation was not, Father Lang writes, “the ordinary idiom of the people.” Rather, it was “a highly stylized language” consciously intended to give expression to a unique religious experience—an experience of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.

In the post-Vatican II period, Polish translators followed the classic understanding of liturgical Latin and deliberately adopted a high, literary Polish for rendering the Missal of 1970 into their native language. English translators did exactly the opposite, stripping the Latin of its distinctive sacral vocabulary and images, and flattening out the rhythms of liturgical Latin. The results were not happy: Collects that informed God of what God presumably already knew (about God’s doings or our needs), and then made anodyne requisites of the Most High; eucharistic prayers that eliminated sacral words and biblical images; post-Communion prayers that, like the nonsense cited above, sounded like requests made to a therapist or dentist.

The Poles made the right choice, and whatever else can be said about post-conciliar Catholicism in Poland, it never slogged through the worst of the liturgical translation wars. The bad choices made by English translators decades ago, often for reasons of populist ideology and dumbed-down theology, have now been largely rectified by the new translations, which take seriously the modern scholarship about liturgy and rhetoric Father Lang so helpfully summarizes in his book.

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.