If a Catholic (or especially a non-Catholic) were to stop and think about it, he would discover that there are some things—perhaps many things—about Catholic worship that on the surface seem strange. Consider: Catholics put the bones of their deceased ancestors beneath the altar; no one would consider putting the remains of even the most beloved relative on or around the kitchen table. Catholic ministers wear a liturgical attire, such as chasubles or dalmatics that, if worn on Main Street, would turn heads. Catholics also do such things as bow and genuflect, actions that are generally foreign to any other environment today.
Why these apparently peculiar properties of Catholic prayer? And why, in addition to these examples, does her liturgical language also have a uniqueness about it?
Perhaps the first thing to note is that nearly every human endeavor (and the liturgy, while supernatural, is founded upon the human and natural) has a language proper to itself. For example, were you to turn on the radio on a Sunday afternoon in the fall, you might hear talk of “slot receivers,” “wide-outs,” “wishbones,” “four-threes,” “three-fours,” “dime packages,” or “nickel packages.” If you were unfamiliar with the context of this sort of speech, the language would seem strange and nonsensical. But if, on the other hand, you were familiar with the game of football, the meaning of these terms would be clear. In many cases, in fact, these terms would be the only ones to describe the players and actions on the field.
Our lives are full of other examples. The smartphone user speaks in terms of USBs, LCDs, and 4Gs. The coffee drinker at Starbucks orders (or is supposed to order) his beverage by using a certain lingo. What, after all, is a “venti frappuccino skinny”? And whereas a brat (rhyming with “cat”) in most parts of the country is a naughty child, in the vernacular of Wisconsin, a brat (rhyming with “caught”) is what is eaten during the Green Bay Packer’s game (see football example above).
So, any human endeavor—each game, culture, world, reality, activity—has a language that is proper to it, a vocabulary and tone that is most sensible in its own context. These other realms of activity (football games, phone conversations, and cafes) have their own set of verbal rules. Why shouldn’t the liturgy? Our question, as we reflect upon the language of the Roman Missal, is “What is the nature, the character of the liturgical world?” In a word, it is sacramental.
A sacrament is “an outward sign, instituted by Christ, to give grace.” And while the Catholic Church has seven rites that are, in the strict sense of the term, “sacraments,” the same sacramental quality is found in the liturgy as an organic whole and in its constituent parts. Whether it is candles, vestments, music, Sunday, church doors, holy water, or genuflecting, all are perceptible symbols that lead us, in some real way, to an encounter with Jesus.
This sacramental nature of the liturgy is also the context within which the Church’s language of prayer will make sense. To say, sing, hear, or pray the words of the Mass is at the same time to say, sing, hear, or pray the Word, who is Jesus himself.
If we try to understand the words of the Mass with the ears of the football fan, the smartphone user, or the coffee aficionado, there is a great deal of meaning that we will miss. On the other hand, if we bring to Mass ears formed sacramentally, and expect to encounter the Meaning of all things, we can be led to an encounter that is truly nourishing and spiritually enriching.
The liturgical world is a sacramental one, and its language is understood most clearly in this context. Let us, then, search out the meaning of the Mass’ words and, in them, hear the voice of Christ.
Christopher Carstens is director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin; a visiting faculty member at the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois; editor of the Adoremus Bulletin; and one of the voices on The Liturgy Guys podcast. He is author of A Devotional Journey into the Mass and A Devotional Journey into the Easter Mystery (Sophia), as well as Principles of Sacred Liturgy: Forming a Sacramental Vision (Hillenbrand Books). He lives in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, with his wife and eight children.