Monday, November 28, 2011

The revised liturgy: medieval words, modern sexism

The bishops have spoken, or at least succumbed. This weekend American Catholics began saying new words at mass. Well, perhaps new is incorrect - the aim of the revised liturgy is to bring back older words that are closer to medieval Latin. In a time when the Catholic church has been rocked by scandals of almost Renaissance proportions, this move is supposed to make American parishioners feel more holy. It is also supposed to bring us in line with European-language liturgies, whose translations are closer to the medieval text.

Yesterday I went to the 10:30 mass at St. Michael's Catholic Community. The Bishop of Joliet, resplendent in purple robes and gold miter, processed medievally down the center aisle behind an honor guard of Knights of Columbus wearing feathery hats. When he greeted us with the customary "The Lord be with you," half of us responded "And also with you" while the other half said, medievally, "And with your spirit." By the end of mass, we had all caught on and were saying the revised words. I didn't feel especially holier. I did, however, feel greater kinship with European Catholics, who rarely attend mass.

Catholics sometimes reproach Protestants for acting as if the Holy Spirit stopped working with the church in the first century, after the New Testament books were written. Tradition, Catholics maintain, is the Spirit's continuing work in the church. Even the Spirit, however, has a bad century now and then, or at least a bad continent. Apparently the words he inspired the Western European church to use in the 11th century were superior to those he inspired the American church to use in the 20th century. So now instead of simple words like one in being and born, we're back to medieval words like consubstantial and incarnate; and instead of affirming our faith as part of the believing community ("We believe in one God ..."), we're back to medieval individualism ("I believe in one God"); and along with with our guilt-ridden medieval ancestors we can strike our breasts and confess that we have sinned "through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault."

And of course we are just as sexist as ever. More so, in fact. A medieval priest did indeed say "Pray, brothers" (orĂ¡te fratres), but not at every mass. More likely those words were spoken to brother priests at  concelebrated masses, not to male and female parishioners at typical parish masses. And the medieval creed did indeed affirm that Christ came down from heaven "for us men" (propter nos homines)Never mind that any 21st-century English-speaker hears that as "for us males," whereas the Latin means "for us humans." Why change good sexist texts that are already close to the Latin words, even if the meanings have completely changed?

Alas, as Fr. Nonomen lamented in Commonweal magazine, "the majority [of parishioners] won’t care. They will dutifully learn all the new responses and musical settings and generally remain unaware of the powerful changes this liturgical language is likely to work on the church their grandchildren will inherit." Or will not inherit, as more and more of us get tired of medievally resplendent bishops making excuses for bad decisions by incompetent men in high places, and quietly drift away.


Anonymous said...


I have to say that I rather like the medievally responses. There is a little more awe in them. But the exclusionary language seems strange. Fighting a rearguard action to restore the 1950's meaning of the word "men" does not strike me as a sign of a robust church eager to spread the gospel. It is concerning.

Ann S

Jim Furlong said...

I still think that "and also with you" is a much better translation of the MEANING of "et cum spiritu tuo" because I am more of a body than a spirit at this time, more of a person worthy of recognition than an older person nearer to death from old age and therefore nearly a spirit.
The funny little old celibates in Rome have proven once more that they are out ot touch with the modern world.

Loren Seibold said...

Perhaps they intentionally seek to be out of touch with the modern world? What value is there for them in doing that?

Mike Gantt said...

Such changes seem to have so little to do with doing the word of God. They are all about how we can hear the word of God better. But what good is hearing it if we're not doing it?

Greg Metzger said...

I am with you on the sexism, not as upset about some of the changes, like some others. The sexism is a major problem, and right along with that, in some ways more significant I think, is the way these changes have come about and what that signals. This article in Commonweal is a fantastic explanation of that concern: