Bishop Donald Trautman is in the news again, for repeating his contention that John and Mary Catholic are too dimwitted to understand polysyllabic words. Many Catholic blogs have already commented on this, with palpable humor, irascible wit, and a touch of deja vu.
I asked our oldest girl, Kitten, if she knew what "ineffable" meant. She didn't, but took a shot at defining it before I gave her a quick definition. I then asked her what she would do if the word were used at Mass, and she didn't understand it. "I'd look it up, or ask you," was her response. Then I mentioned Bishop Trautman's problem with the word, and asked her whether she agreed that the words at Mass should reflect common speech. She was indignant; her choice of words surprised me: "That would be an insult to the Presence! Using higher words makes us think of higher things."
Kitten is twelve years old.
If the fictional "John and Mary Catholic" have less of an understanding of the sublime realities of our faith than a twelve-year-old, then we Catholics are in serious trouble, indeed; and it's not the sort of trouble you can fix by taking the current language used at Mass and making it intelligible to the average four-year-old.
The truth of the matter is that when we talk about God, we are touching upon realities and mysteries that are already beyond human comprehension. We may be more familiar with words like "Trinity" or "Incarnation" or "Paraclete," than we are with "ineffable," but the familiarity we have with the words themselves doesn't alter the fact that the wonders these words convey in our poor human speech transcends our reason, our senses, and our experiences as the heat at the heart of the sun transcends a wood fire.
And we do not go to Mass to "share our experiences" or "celebrate ourselves" or for any other purely human reason. We go to prostrate ourselves in worship of the Almighty God, to beseech Him to forgive our transgressions and to grant us prompt succor in our needs, to immerse ourselves in humble prayer as the propitiatory sacrifice on the gibbet of the Cross is re-presented in an unbloody way upon the holy altar by the power conferred upon the priest at his ordination, and then, to take and eat Christ's Body and to receive Him Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in the miraculous reality that is called transubstantiation. There is nothing ordinary or everyday about this experience, which is available to us every day and which we are commanded to be present for each Sunday as one of the precepts of the Church.
Over the past forty or so years, Catholics have been hard-pressed to remember that this experience, this entering into the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for the purpose of uniting our prayers of praise, penitence, petition, propitiation, and thanksgiving, is the reason we go to Mass on Sunday. I wouldn't be surprised if quite a lot of Catholics thought that the purpose of the Mass was to take turns at the various "lay ministries," announce special events in the lives of parishioners, and be affirmed in our okayness both by the understanding pastor (who tells us we're all doing splendidly and never embarrasses us by mentioning any of those controversial sins like contraception or abortion or homosexual activity) and by the sheer genial neighborly relaxed country-barbecue atmosphere of it all. Of course, there is a moment during the Mass when we all fall silent and look smilingly at the altar, during the highest and most important part, the Rite of Summoning the Children for Dismissal So They Can March Out in Procession To Go Color Things; but after that we can sidle back in our pews, tap our feet to the catchy music, and listen for the sounds of coffee and doughnuts being set up in the church hall.
Of course, there is one encouraging thing about the bishops' prolonged fight about the translations of the prayers--it means that the bishops have read them. Bishop Lynch is even quoted at the above link thus: "“It’s a good thing that we’re supposed to pause before the orations,” Lynch joked, “because we’ll have to gather enough breath to pray the prayers.”" Which, of course, means that the bishops have at least heard of the rubrics before, as well. Given the predilection in many dioceses for the ad-libbing of all prayers and a "make it up as we go along" style of liturgical celebration, it's unaccountably reassuring to know that the American Bishops at least realize that they're supposed to stick to the texts of the prayers, and to pause (and bow and kneel and so forth) at various places during the Holy Sacrifice.
So the fact that several bishops appear to be bent out of shape by the new translations would almost seem to mean that they intend to instruct the priests in their dioceses to stick to the actual words of the prayers at Mass, instead of indulging in off-the-cuff prayer and commentary as so many are wont to do. Of course, it would be much wiser to pray the Mass as the Mass is supposed to be prayed, because if the God we believe in is Who He says He is, offending Him by such grotesque disobedience within what is the highest act of worship we can offer to Him on this earth seems to be a chancy game to play.
That we would ever foolishly allow such offenses against His August Majesty or fail to acknowledge just how sublime and ineffable our God is for the sake of our own human desire to reshape everything to suit our lowest and most selfish impulses is nothing more than a gamble, and it's not a gamble the bishops of this country ought to be taking.