Nov 15, 2011

To Understand and to Teach the Church’s Sacramental Language

Online Edition: November 2011
Vol. XVII, No. 8

To Understand and to Teach the Church’s Sacramental Language
Questions and Answers on the New Translation

by Christopher Carstens and Father Douglas Martis

Mystical Body, Mystical Voice: Encountering Christ in the Words of the Mass, by Father Douglas Martis and Christopher Carstens, is a thorough and accessible exploration of the new English translation of the Roman Missal. An initiative of the Liturgical Institute at St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary in Chicago, which Father Martis heads, and published by Liturgy Training Publications, the book is a part of the effort to provide instruction and formations of Catholics in the sacramental meaning of the words of the Mass.

In addition to the book, Father Martis and Mr. Carstens have presented more than sixty workshops around the country, titled, “Mystical Body, Mystical Voice” (web:

The final chapter of the book is “Liturgical Catechesis for Active Participation” — which concisely summarizes the authors’ objectives:

“After coming to an awareness of the sacramental character of the liturgy”, they write, “we must still acquire ‘sacramental senses’ to achieve true and actual participation in the Mass”. This requires “mystagogy” — teaching or formation that leads into the sacramental mystery. “Because the words of the Mass are authentic signs, it is possible for us to perceive them mystagogically and, through them, to participate actively in Christ’s voice of praise to the Father.… Without true sacramental signs, real participation is impossible”.

This section of the book includes a question-and-answer section, excerpted here with the kind permission of the authors and Liturgy Training Publications.

(Both Father Martis and Mr. Carstens appeared with Helen Hull Hitchcock on EWTN’s “Theology Roundtable”, hosted by Colin Donovan, scheduled to debut Sunday, November 13 at 10 p.m. Eastern.)

— Editor


1. Why do words matter?

Words are sacramental, which means they contain and convey the reality they speak.

Homo sapiens is a talking animal, communicating with the senses, by word of mouth, pen and paper, telephone, electronic message, magazine, radio, television, and image. So voluminous is this communication, we often speak of “information overload”. We also acknowledge with a common expression this inflation of language — “talk is cheap”, and as a result we often “pay lip service” to it. Liturgical language, on the other hand, is never “cheap”, by no means wasted, and in no way empty. As sacramental signs, the words of the Mass in some way cause, contain, and convey their meaning: ultimately, these signs must point us to the reality, which is Christ Himself. By virtue of the sacramental connection between sacramental words and their supernatural reality, when the Church speaks her Mystical Voice, she says what she believes and means what she says.

What does she mean? Better yet, whom does she mean? She means Christ, her Spouse, the eternal Son of God, and our Redeemer. In the Word made flesh, Jesus undoes our own disobedience (literally, our “not listening”) to the voice of God by His own perfect obedience, thus allowing men and women to enter into the eternal dialogue of love within the Trinity. When the Church speaks, she joins her Mystical Voice with that of Christ her Head, speaking with Him His “yes” to the Father’s design. The sacramental words of the Mass, cultivated from divine and human sources, are the words of the Lord and His Church in this dialogue of Trinitarian love. The words of the Church speak this divinized language; when words become individualized or idiosyncratic, they speak a language that is not her own, thus symbolizing a different reality.

The precision of the Church’s sacramental language, consequently, expresses the reality of Christ the Logos and fosters a supernatural — and Logical — response from us. When the Church determines the words of the Mass, it is not a matter of mere semantics, for her sacramental words must correspond to the Word they signify. To use obscure, novel, or imprecise language causes, in the end, an obscure, novel, or imprecise reality. As there are rules governing any language, the “grammar” that defines the Church’s mystical language is determined by Church doctrine and history. Catholic belief and Catholic language are closely related. Words mean things; and in the Church’s liturgy, they mean Christ.

2. Why is the language at Mass different from everyday language?

The language of the Mass sounds different from our everyday language because the Mass is different from everyday activities.

A culture is the product (i.e., it is “cultivated”) of the history and values of a people as expressed in daily life. American culture, for example, results in part from our revolutionary history and the importance of individual freedom and self-reliance as lived out in the American “work ethic” and ritualized in the annual observations of Independence Day, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving. To divorce the lived expression of a people from the history results in mere nostalgia and sentimentality, while neglecting the historical and valuable from the enactment leaves only an empty ritualism. Families, too, have a “culture”. “The Joneses”, for example, are the product of their own history and values as carried on in actual events: the story of great, great, grandfather Jones coming from the “old country” and settling in upstate New York is relived in its retelling at the annual family reunion. The Church has her own unique culture, one founded on a particular set of values and history — the Ten Commandments, the Incarnation, the teachings of Christ, and the Apostolic mission. These components of our religious patrimony are relived (literally: they really do “come to life again”) in the observance of the liturgical year and the Church’s ritual celebrations.

Language itself is culturally bound. A nation, family, or religion speaks according to its history, values, and actions. The group’s origin, what it holds dear, and how it lives all contribute to the way it speaks: its grammar, syntax, tone, tempo, emphasis are proper to each linguistic culture. The topics of discussion, whether there is economy or prodigality in expression, whether the notions are concrete or abstract, words prosaic or words extraordinary: these are all rooted in the cultural milieu. Americans speak differently from Brazilians; the Joneses, differently from O’Briens; Catholics, differently from Lutherans. While the universal faith speaks to every time and place, Catholics at prayer speak in a way consonant with their own culture.

What these cultural and linguistic differences mean in practice is that the language of the faith differs from the language of Main Street. One stems from ecclesial culture and the other from American culture. While there is a “double exchange” in the inculturation process, it is the eternal and authentic culture of the Church that plays the dominant part. Liturgically speaking, our language tends more toward the heavenly than toward the earthly. God became human, after all, so that we might become God (in our reprise of Saint Athanasius); in the arena of language, we might say that God speaks like humans, so that humans might speak like God. It should not surprise us, then, that the liturgical language of the Church has a different tenor than the everyday language of the world.

5. How is today’s English-language liturgy a fruit of Vatican II?

The Mass and other sacramental celebrations reformed by the Church, both in their typical Latin editions and in their English translations, are the authentic embodiment of the teachings and spirit of the Second Vatican Council.

The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy saw that the “full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else” (SC 14). So that this paramount goal could become reality, Sacrosanctum Concilium offered a number of principles to guide the liturgy’s reform, among them the desire “for legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups, regions, and peoples” on the one hand, and the preservation of the “substantial unity of the Roman Rite” (SC 38), on the other. As one case in point, the document allows “the use of the mother tongue”, vernacular, while at the same time dearly esteems and seeks to preserve the Latin language (SC 36).

Most of the liturgical books were translated from Latin to the vernacular in a short period of time. In 1969, the Consilium [formed in 1965 as the group of experts responsible for implementing the Council’s liturgical reforms. – Ed.] (a precursor to today’s Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments) provided theoretical and practical guidelines in the document “On the Translation of Liturgical Texts for Celebrations with a Congregation” (Comme le prévoit, in its original French title). Giving priority to the underlying message of a liturgical text and placing less emphasis on the precise rendering of the actual texts (see numbers 7-9, for example), Comme le prévoit helped give the English-speaking Church an immediate way to participate in the prayers of the Mass.

Twenty-five years after the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Pope John Paul II acknowledged the graces and benefits of the liturgical reform and sought to inspire the Church to a deeper appreciation of the liturgy, which would bring it to its full fruition. About liturgical translations, he says: “But now the time has come to reflect upon certain difficulties that have subsequently emerged, to remedy certain defects or inaccuracies, to complete partial translations … to ensure respect for the texts approved and lastly to publish liturgical books in a form that both testifies to the stability achieved and is worthy of the mysteries being celebrated” (VQ 20). Two subsequent documents authorized by the Holy See (Varietates legitimae, “On Inculturation and the Roman Liturgy”, and Liturgiam authenticam, “On the Use of Vernacular Languages in the Publication of the Books of the Roman Liturgy”) carried forward the wishes of the Second Vatican Council to completion.

As a result, a “hermeneutic of continuity”, as identified by Pope Benedict XVI, can be traced from the current English-language liturgical books to the Second Vatican Council. The thread connecting our current Missal to the Council passes through the documents and directions of intervening popes, especially the documents guiding the proper implementation of the Constitution’s principles, Varietates legitimae and Liturgiam authenticam.

6. How do other ritual elements, like music and gesture, relate to liturgical language?

Each ritual component of the liturgy [whether language, music, or gesture] is woven together in a full sacramental expression of Christ: together they “speak” of Christ and to Christ.

A liturgical rite is made up of many elements — including objects, gestures, time, architecture, music, and words. Both individually and together, these elements signify Christ the Logos. Sacramental words share a special affinity for the Word, and when informed by scripture and the Church’s own liturgical tradition, they express the Word and foster His likeness in us.

Other ritual elements take the Word as their standard and form a ritual expression that evokes Him. Music, for example, is an especially fitting sacramental sign. As sung music combines both words and breath, they sacramentalize the Word — Christ — and the Breath — the Holy Spirit — in their eternal hymn of praise to the Father. Authentic liturgical music, which Pope Benedict describes as the “new tongue” singing a new song, is “in harmony” with the Logos and with the Spirit.8

Gestures also say with the body what words do with the mouth. Following the model of the Incarnation (God’s love in human flesh), we put into our bodies what we believe. When the priest greets the people with “The Lord be with you” or wishes “The peace of the Lord be with you always”, he extends his hands toward the people, as if embracing them. He likewise raises his hands when inviting the people to “Lift up your hearts”. Each of the faithful strikes his or her breast when confessing sinfulness “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault”, signifying in gesture the compunction of heart which the words of the Confiteor express. All bow at the words in the Creed, “And by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary”, communicating with the body our wonder at Christ’s divine condescension. All communicate through a bodily sign of peace what is also conveyed in words at the same moment of the Sign of Peace.

In the end, ritual language embodies the reality of the Word, Christ Himself. The faithful do not restrict themselves to a “logical” worship, using only words; they also employ “incarnational” worship with their bodies, since Jesus Himself is both Logos and incarnatus. Liturgy then truly becomes the “spiritual worship” called for by Saint Paul, divinizing the whole human being, “logifying his existence”, and making him like the standard, the Logos.9

9. What can be done musically to foster active participation in liturgical language?

Sung texts in Mass are memorable, foster unity of voices, and engage the whole person.

Because words are sacramental, they have the potential to become more efficacious in song. Jesus not only speaks to us and to the Father, but His “tone of voice” is elevated into song: “Christ Jesus, high priest of the new and eternal covenant, taking human nature, introduced into this earthly exile that hymn which is sung throughout all ages in the halls of heaven. He joins the entire community of mankind to Himself, associating it with His own singing of this canticle of divine praise” (SC 83). Our liturgical dialogue of love with the Trinity, mediated by the Logos, is perfected by the Breath, which is the Holy Spirit.

Of the many parts that can be sung at the Mass, the Church insists that foremost are “those which are to be sung by the Priest or the Deacon or a reader, with the people replying, or by the Priest and people together” (GIRM 40). In short, the Church holds that the faithful should sing the Mass itself, almost as a single continuous sacrifice of praise. In particular, the dialogues and responses, orations, and the Ordinary of the Mass (e.g., Kyrie, Gloria, Holy, Holy, Holy, etc.) are deemed the chief texts to be chanted because in large part they fully animate the Body of Christ in its “canticle of divine praise” to the Father.

Chanting these texts is also an eminently practical way to foster participation. First, music makes the text more memorable (try to recite without accompanying music, for example, the “Star Spangled Banner”). By committing the liturgy to memory in this way (by taking the texts to heart), we can participate with ease from Mass to Mass, the texts having become a part of ourselves. Second, music helps through its rhythm and meter. These elements allow a larger number of voices to pray together, thus manifesting the unity of the Church by the unity of her Mystical Voice. Third, music fosters the effective communication of the meaning of a text. In fact, sung texts sacramentalize clearly that their meaning is Christ. Even on a natural plane, the use of music helps heighten the meaning of an occasion. What birthday would feel complete without at least one refrain of “Happy Birthday”? How else can a civic or sporting event begin except with the National Anthem?

Even a romantic moment seems imperfect without a love song playing in the background. Finally, music’s emotive quality engages the whole person, letting his or her words issue not only from the head but also from the heart and soul. From the incarnational perspective of Catholic liturgy, sung prayer reveals the deeper meaning of the words by the intimate cooperation of spirit in flesh.


8 Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. John Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 140. 151.

9 See Ratzinger. The Spirit of the Liturgy, 151.



The Editors