Words, Words

Article excerpt

Words make a difference. Even though two words are identical in basic meaning, their connotations may suggest that one is much more appropriate than the other. When it comes to music and liturgy, the connotations of some commonly-used words point to a mistaken ecclesiology. This was an issue in the discussions of Music in Catholic Worship and Sing to the Lord. The former document represented an anthropocentric view of the church and her liturgy, while the latter, while far from perfect, included a much more theocentric view. I would suggest that if musicians and liturgists would consistently use the more appropriate terms, a change in attitude might gradually be effected.

Take, for example, two words: assembly and congregation. "Congregation" was used before the council, but has largely been replaced by "assembly." Etymologically there are subtle differences. "Assembly" derives from ad + simul, a coming together, making similar. "Congregation" comes from con + grex (flock), a gathering together in a flock. Some would object to calling the people in church a flock, as in a flock of sheep, who are simply herded around without exercising their own independent judgment. But I would suggest that the difference between the two terms is more functional: "assembly" implies bringing people together without distinction, being made similar; "congregation" implies being brought together under the guidance of a shepherd. That shepherd, as we know, is Christ, who is represented liturgically by the priest, who acts in persona Christi, who leads in the place of Christ himself. Moreover, in the use of the English language, congregation is specifically religious, while assembly is not. In my recollection, "assembly" was something we had in elementary school, where all the classes gathered in the auditorium, either for some extraordinary entertainment or for some stern exhortation in the face of a looming problem of behavior. It was a noisy affair, but it had the benefit of interrupting the normal schedule of classes, which, even for those who loved school, was a pleasant break in the routine; there was certainly nothing sacred to it. In modern church usage, "assembly" sometimes includes everyone in the liturgy, priests, ministers, and people, emphasizing their similarity, while "congregation" retains the distinction of people from clergy. I would suggest, then, that "congregation" better represents the Catholic view of the hierarchical nature of the church, and that "assembly" represents the anthropocentric view of focusing only upon the people. This stands in striking contrast to a Christocentric view of the liturgy, in which the focus is upon the action of Christ, which subsumes priest and congregation without erasing the distinction between them.

There is a consequent term that follows from the de-emphasis upon the distinction of the ordained from the congregation: "the president of the liturgical assembly" or more commonly "presider," as opposed to "celebrant." A president is a member of a group, elected by the group as one of them to preside for a time. The notion of a minister, elected by the congregation out of the congregation is characteristically Protestant, and stands in striking contrast to the Catholic notion of priesthood, whose vocation is principally from God, and whose appointment is from the hierarchy of the church. Some will say to single out the priest as celebrant is to deny the fact that the congregation celebrates the Mass, too. That objection can be answered by using the term "priest" itself, though "celebrant" is the traditional term. Either is preferable to "presider," which has the connotation of being temporary and provisional and not particularly sacramental.

If the liturgy should be Christocentric, then Christ should be the focus of attention, not the congregation. The question of orientation is addressed very well in this issue by Msgr. Guido Marini, Papal Master of Ceremonies, who reports two solutions, clearly endorsed by Pope Benedict: facing east, or facing the crucifix. …


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