Words and the Man

I have been thinking a great deal about words this past weekend, gentle reader, for it seems as though I am overwhelmed by them at the moment. Not only do I have a lot of writing to do at my work before Thanksgiving, and indeed over the next several weeks before I go on holiday for Christmas, but in addition to my daily blogging I am also composing an article of rather substantial length for another site. Then there is the fact that my inbox over the past several weeks has become a complete shambles of unanswered mail. And on top of that as a Catholic, I am aware of the significant change in words that is about to occur within the central liturgical celebration of my faith, in that I will have to learn and become accustomed to a whole new translation of the mass. It seems of late as though words are not escaping me, but rather that I am completely surrounded by them.

In follow-up to my post on Friday, we had a beautiful day of it for the celebration at my parish of St. Stephen Martyr yesterday of both the 50th anniversary of our present church building, and for the dedication of our new vestibule and new doors depicting scenes from the life of St. Stephen. Although I was sorry that Cardinal Wuerl could not make it, having been called to Rome for some last-minute meetings, we were fortunate to have Auxiliary Bishop Barry Knestout presiding. Bishop Knestout has a background in architecture, and oversaw the contest among the architecture students at Catholic University to design the Papal Mass furniture for when Pope Benedict XVI visited Washington a couple of years ago. It was unusual to have a homily in the context of which the preacher explained some of the differences between Romanesque, High Gothic, Baroque, and Modernist architecture, pointing out the good points of each and how each might bring us to reflect on our relationship with God in different ways.

It struck me as we went through the liturgy that, since I am not usually able to attend daily mass, this would be the last time I would attend a mass using the English-language translation of the Order of Mass that I have known my whole life. For those of my readers who are not Catholics, beginning this coming Sunday Catholics in the U.S. will be using a new translation of the mass from the official Latin into English, replacing a translation that had been put in place decades ago but which was not quite as faithful to the original Latin text. Over the past few months we have been introduced, slowly, to the coming changes, but the full implementation of them will begin with the First Sunday of Advent this weekend.

As a cradle Catholic born in the 1970’s, who attended a pretty solid, middle-of-the-road parish growing up, I was completely unfamiliar with the mass in Latin until I was about 17 years old, when I attended a Latin-language mass for the first time. It is something which ought to be made more widely available in our parishes, as the Pope has asked bishops to do, but having said that I am quite comfortable attending most Sundays in my own language. If we did have a wider availability of mass in Latin in this Archdiocese, for example, I expect that I would want to have it for some of the important feast days and holy days, rather than every Sunday; but that is just my opinion or preference, of course.

When I am in Barcelona, as I will be in a few weeks’ time, I have a small booklet containing the Order of Mass with the Castilian (Spanish) text on one side, and the Catalan text on the other. It is always striking to compare the two, for there are more words of clearly Arabic origin in the Castilian text, thanks to the conquest of Spain by the Moors in 711 A.D., and Catalonia being kept free from Muslim occupation by Charlemagne and subsequent Frankish kings after a fairly short interval of Moorish control. In addition, even when both languages have a word of clearly Latin origin, they are of different vintage.

For example if we look at the text of the Consecration in English, quoting Christ at the Last Supper, the text currently reads, “Take this all of you and eat it, for this is my body, which shall be given up for you.” If we look at the same text in Catalan, it reads:

“Preneu i mengeu‑ne tots, que això és el meu cos, entregat per vosaltres.”

Whereas in Castilian, the same text reads:

“Tomad y comed todos de él, porque esto es mi cuerpo, que será entregado por vosotros.”

Note that the root verbs “manger” (Catalan) and “comer” (Castilian) are of Latin origin, both meaning “to eat”, but whereas the Catalan word obviously comes from the same Latin root as that which gave rise to the French verb “manger”, which is of course the same as in Catalan, and the Italian verb “mangiare”, which is quite similar, the Castilian word is from a different branching of Latin dialect.

In a way, this is all just interesting side material, of course.  Yet the understanding of what is actually being said at the mass is of deep importance, I believe, to the individual soul. How we see our relationship with God, and our duty to our fellow man, stems in large part from the words that we hear when we are in His Presence, and which we take away with us as we go about our business.  It is true that in my day-to-day life, when at the office, blogging, or engaging in new media, sometimes it becomes very tiring to concentrate on words all of the time, and yet other words come back to remind me to do the best that I can.

With the implementation of the new translation of the mass, I will have no choice BUT to concentrate on what is being said, for so much of it will be new, or a subtle variation on what I have always known for the past three decades.  I am looking forward to paying attention to these particular words, with the hope that I will be internalizing their significance in the process. For the words that I write or speak, whether on these virtual pages or elsewhere, are ultimately of no import unless the words of the mass, the central celebration around which my life turns, touch my heart and my mind, and stir me to take action.


Detail of Christ on main entrance facade,
St. Stephen Martyr, Washington, D.C.

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