We’re about to embark on a great, broad-based education campaign in the Catholic Church. It involves the introduction of the English-language translation of the third edition of the Roman Missal. The church has 16 months to get priests and people in the United States ready to pray reverently, intelligently and together at Mass. Those most affected will be the priests, who have to learn new words and cadences. People in the pews will learn new responses and hear new phrases, closer to the Latin originals.
The last major liturgical change was in the mid-Sixties, when Roman Catholics went from the Mass in Latin to Mass in the vernacular, with words and phrases common to our ears. For many, it was the first time they knew exactly what they and the priest were praying. While the Mass in English-speaking countries was essentially the same, the United States had one version, Great Britain another, Australia still another. Now we have a text that is the same for all the English-speaking nations. Seems appropriate as the world grows closer together.
We’ll also have language that is less commonplace, which will sound like church language, certainly not inappropriate given that this is for church. It’s not unusual for us to have different language styles in different parts of our lives. How we speak in the ballpark isn’t how we speak in the classroom or how we speak in oratory from a stage. Why not a different language style for church? Processing up to Communion isn’t sliding into home plate. “Give me five” on the basketball court isn’t the same as “Peace be with you” at Mass.
There have been jokes about words as scholars worked out the translation. One word church pundits laughed about is “ineffable,” a description of God. “Ineffable,” Merriam-Webster says, means 1. Too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words, or 2. Too sacred to be uttered. As texts were being edited, the word became less popular with translators and now it is in the Roman Missal just once, in the opening prayer for Mass on December 20.
The word has captured my imagination, however. In prayer it is one of my favorites, my excuse for not quite understanding God, the reasons why God does something, or how God does anything. When I ponder “What does God want,” I realize that I have to live with the fact that I’ll never completely understand the “ineffable” God. It’s not lack of prayer that keeps me from knowing exactly what to do; it’s that the ineffable God holds his absolute knowledge from me. It takes the pressure off.
We Catholics are about to embark on an educational journey. We’ll learn a more exact language for prayer, we’ll deepen our theological roots, and we’ll gain a greater sense of the sacred. And if parishes do it right, we’ll learn this together.