Thursday, December 15, 2011

Catholics change liturgy, but words still inadequate in expressing faith

Published: Saturday, December 03, 2011

LAST weekend, Roman Catholic congregations in the English speaking parts of the world began using the revised text of the third edition of the Roman Missal. It altered in significant ways the words Catholics use at their celebration of the Eucharist.

Announcements from church leaders and teachers went to great lengths to emphasize that Mass, the core of Catholic worship and practice, remained what it has been from the earliest days of the church. Nonetheless, the impact of the changes was very evident.

Many found themselves referring to books and cards to guide them in prayer. Familiar routines often gave way to clumsy transitions and awkward silences. Like most changes, some people were enthusiastic about them, others were much less so.

The prevailing attitude in the congregation where I worship seemed to be a kind of bemused acceptance and an edifying “we can do this” spirit. There seems little doubt that after a brief period the changes will become more and more familiar and the transitions and silences will smooth themselves out.

Beginning to use a new ritual book in any religious tradition raises important questions about the language people use in worship and prayer. Liturgy, the many ways that believers publicly and privately give voice to their efforts to approach the mysterious reality that guides their lives, is an essential element in spiritual practice and self-understanding.

Scholars often point out the word “liturgy” has origins in the Greek word for work. Liturgy represents part of the work of being a person of faith. It is our effort to put ourselves in the right relationship with that which we worship so that we can better serve our world and one another.

People of faith must recognize the limitations of even the finest liturgies and most eloquent prayers. Language has given rise to the eloquent longings for meaning and significance that are to be found in the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible’s Psalms and the Gospels. Even here, people of faith come to know the limits of what we can say and write about the object of our worship.

Our expressions of faith will always be inadequate to describe the source of all we know and love, that which provides our lives with significance, that which calls us to serve others. There comes a point when silence becomes the most eloquent expression of our faith.

Martin J. O’Connor is the Oscar Schindler humanities professor at the University of New Haven and parish deacon at St. Bernadette Parish in New Haven. Write to him at the University of New Haven, 300 Boston Post Road, West Haven 06516. Email:

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