Choosing the Words for Prayer

In this second article, in preparation for receiving the revised English edition of the Roman Missal, we will look at the importance of words in the liturgy and the choice of new words for the Missal.

The Church’s liturgy, its public prayer, is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #10) and “the indispensible source from which is derived the true Christian spirit.” (CSL, #14) It is, quite simply, the most important thing we do as Catholic Christians. It is from the liturgy that we are empowered to hand on the faith to future generations, to care for the sick and dying, to work for justice and to build up the Christian community. It is in the liturgy that we participate most fully in Christ’s paschal mystery, his saving death and resurrection, by which we are reconciled to God. It is to the liturgy that we bring our lives – all we are and all we do – and, uniting ourselves with Christ’s sacrifice, offer perfect praise and thanks to God.

In the liturgy we use words, songs, symbols, gestures and movement to unite ourselves with Christ in giving thanks to God. Our use of these ritual elements makes Christ sacramentally present and draws us into an encounter with God. Each of these ritual elements has a long and rich history, steeped in Judaism and the liturgical life of the earliest Christian communities. Careful attention to each of these elements is necessary if we are to experience the liturgy as the source and summit of the Christian life, enter fully into the paschal mystery, and offer fitting praise and thanks to God for our share in divine life. For the past many years, since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the focused attention of the Church has been on the words of the liturgy. In Advent of this year, English speaking Catholics will be introduced to the most recent fruit of this attention. Although the actions of the Mass will be the same, the words in English, freshly translated from Latin, will sound different.

The words which we use in our public prayer are distinctively biblical. The words of almost every liturgical prayer are found in the Scriptures or allude to the biblical texts which have nourished the faith of generations of Christians. The following are a few of the examples which are found in the new translation.

The familiar greeting, The Lord be with you, is found in several places in the Scriptures, but most notably in the Book of Ruth (2.4). Boaz came from Bethlehem and said to the reapers: The Lord be with you. And they answered, The Lord bless you. The liturgical response to this greeting is: And with your spirit. This is an exact translation of the Latin, Et cum spiritu tuo, and matches the response which has been used for many years in almost every other language. The words of this response are taken from the letters of St. Paul in which he frequently greets the Christian community with the words, The Lord be with your spirit.

A second example of a biblically inspired text can be found in Eucharistic Prayer III. At the present time, we pray, From age to age you gather a people to yourself, so that from east to west a perfect offering may be made to the glory of your name. In the revised Roman Missal, the English text has been rendered more faithful to the Latin: you never cease to gather a people to yourself, so that from the rising of the sun to its setting a pure sacrifice may be offered to your name. This text is inspired by the words of the prophet Malachi (1.11): For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts.

Perhaps the most obvious example of a biblically inspired text is the invitation to Communion and the assembly’s response. The priest says: Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb. In the first sentence we hear the voice of John the Baptist announcing the arrival of Jesus, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world (John 1.29). In the second sentence, we hear the words of the author of the Book of Revelation (19.9): Blessed are those invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb. The assembly’s response echoes the words of the Roman centurion who seeks healing for his servant (Luke 7.6-7). We pray, Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.

The “new” words which have been chosen for our celebration of the liturgy are certainly more faithful to the original Latin texts. More importantly, they will unite us to countless generations of Christians whose faith has been nourished by the biblical word, and have the power to lead us to a deeper union with Christ, the living and eternal word, in whom we live and have our being.

In the next article in this series, we will look at the particular changes in the words of the assembly at Mass and explain the reasons for those changes.