Cardinal George´s Address at Thomas Aquinas College

When Language Struggles to Express Mysteries of Faith

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SANTA PAULA, California, JULY 16, 2001 ( Here is an excerpt from Chicago Cardinal Francis George´s commencement address at Thomas Aquinas College last month.

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It is nearly 100 years since Pope St. Pius X instructed the Catholic people to make the liturgy the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful derive the Christian spirit. The changes in the liturgy mandated by the Second Vatican Council were not intended to be merely external changes in format and language, but rather, changes in the way the liturgy was to express the mysteries of faith and was to shape the lives of the people involved in its celebration.

Romano Guardini, a great German liturgist, in an open letter to the 1964 German Liturgical Congress at Mainz just a few months after the publication of the Council´s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, suggested that the question facing us would be whether we would be content simply to revise text and rubrics and offer better explanations of the meaning of the rites or whether, as he said, we would relearn a forgotten way of doing things, recapture lost attitudes. Guardini and many of the liturgical pioneers ­- Lambert, Beaudoin, Josef Jungman, Driedel Hilenbrand from Chicago and others -­ realized that the external reform of the liturgical text and rituals would not at all automatically communicate the spirit of the liturgy, which in fact, was the spirit that these pioneers in the liturgical renewal sought to recapture for the Church.

To recover this spirit of the liturgy now … we must also probe deeper into the relationship of the individual to the community and the community to the individual. The core and effect of participation in the liturgy, of establishing through word and symbolic action our entry into the mystery of Christ´s self-sacrifice for our salvation, is an evermore intense experience of personal conversion which leads us into communion, not only with God, but with others. Full and active participation in the liturgy leads people to embrace the truth, to take up the cross, and to follow in the footsteps of Jesus throughout every dimension of their lives.

The pastoral problem that the priests and others involved in the ministry of the Church often meet is the kind of segregation of the Sunday Eucharist from everything else that follows the other days of the week. That means, however, if that happens (and it does happen), that the Eucharist has not been celebrated as the Church wants us to celebrate it. The liturgy invites us to a new life and shapes our attitudes toward this life. The liturgy does not merely express who we are and what we believe, but helps us to discover who we are and what we can become in Christ Jesus, Our Lord.

In Jesus´ great priestly prayer, in the Gospel according to St. John just before he surrendered himself to his death, he addressed his Father, whom he has told us that we may now dare to call Our Father, and prayed, «I pray not only for them but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they may also be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.» If we are not one, the world will not believe. Which explains, I think very much, why after 2000 years only 20% of the world knows who Jesus Christ truly is, from within his body, the Church.

Here there is the emphasis on mission that is bound up in the celebration of the Eucharist itself. Our unity with God is not something simply meant to ensure our personal salvation but rather to bring about our being agents of Christ and his witnesses in the transformation of the world. If this is then a new world in Christ, then there is a new language. For a world, God´s world, and the human world, is always a worded world. The Word that God speaks in his own Trinitarian life and who becomes incarnate in the Virgin Mary for our life here and hereafter, need be only one Word, for God is infinitely simple.

We, however, divided as we are in many ways and always finite, need many words to name this world which God gives us as gift. You spent four years here, particularly in seminars, but also outside of the seminars themselves, listening, reading, talking. You have learned the importance of words, you have learned to appreciate that if the words are right, then everything else has a good chance of following correctly. Our most important words are always those used in prayer and in the liturgy of the Church. They are our words, but along with symbols and actions given us and being rooted in the ministry and intention of the Lord, they speak to us of the mysteries we recognize and enter into and probe through the faith.

The language of the Roman Missal which is used for the celebration of the Eucharist in the Roman rite is, of course, Latin. But now, as a result of the Second Vatican Council´s reform, the Roman Rite is celebrated not only in Latin (and I´m glad that you preserve that celebration here), but in many other languages as well, including English, and this, too, according to the will of the Council. It is necessary to word this liturgical world well. But battles over translations have occupied too much of the Church´s energy in recent years -­ so much of our energy, that we haven´t looked at the world around us and asked what words we must say there. …

The first translations of the Roman Missal in the late 1960s, the translations still being used in our celebration of the liturgy in English, were done far too quickly, probably with good intent. But they have been heavily criticized, even by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy itself, which is why they have redone the Sacramentary. They did not adequately capture the Latin original. And a new document on authentic liturgy issued just a few weeks ago from the Holy See presents guidelines for the second generation of translated liturgical books. These guidelines recognize the need to be both faithful to the original and to be understandable in English, but with the first emphasis on fidelity to the Latin. …

As a public language -­ and this is important -­ as a public language, American English has self-censored many references to God in the past generation, or these references to God have been deleted from public discourse by court order. And you can see the way in which new immigrants, when they come from a culture that has been shaped in dialogue with the Catholic faith, in a while, even when speaking their first language begin to censor themselves. When the Mexican people and others from Latin America come to Chicago and other places, the first two years they continue to say «Gracias a Dios» and after a few years, it becomes simply «Gracias.»

Languages have developed differently in relationship to historical and social circumstances. We are much more linguistically self-conscious now, and that is very good. Yet language is and must be more than the construct of any one generation or any single group. We just heard that from your class representative, quoting Chesterton: «Language puts us in contact with people long dead.» And therefore, linguistic manipulation which severs these connections, is a first cousin to human genetic engineering and just as morally ambiguous.

Therefore, we recognize because of this sophistication in understanding the way in which words do shape our world, that language can hide as well as disclose truth. The way in which a language is structured enables us to see some things more easily than others, and that is indeed the source of much of the difficulty in the great discussions around liturgical language — particularly when, for pastoral reasons, we want to see that this language is inclusive as possible. And yet we cannot do that, and most bishops, being kind men, are sensitive to that. We cannot do that by sacrificing the fidelity, a fidelity which isn´t even possible unless you have
a linguistic idiom which is able to make a distinction between individuals and natures.

You studied the classical thinkers, you studied Catholic theology and you know how Trinitarian and Christological theory depends upon an absolute necessity to distinguish between individuals and natures so that we can predicate natures and therefore can talk about the mysteries of faith. An idiom that says that the world is composed not of individuals and natures and collections of individuals, but only of individuals and collections of individuals is not an idiom that is capable of expressing the Catholic faith, nor able to be used for translating the Roman missal. And that is very often the case, as we start to discern what is a good translation and what isn´t. It comes down to what is this idiom able to express? And very often, in the kind of language that now is politically correct, we have an idiom that is unable, in itself, intrinsically incapable of expressing the mysteries of our faith.

Celebrating the liturgy makes us not only more self-conscience about language, liturgy also moves us to express in action what it is that unites us to God and therefore to one another, and what it is in our action that either permits us or prevents us from living joyfully the mission Christ gives his people here and living most joyfully with him forever. The original liturgical movement of the past century insisted on this relationship, between celebrating the liturgy and creating a new world, transforming this world in which we live. You are to come to the altar, to receive the Lord, to listen to the inspired word of God, not just when you read it by yourself in personal prayer, important though that is, but to read it as it is proclaimed in the liturgical assembly where it is explained in a normative way for all of us.

You should see yourselves as a result of this experience as a priestly people, committed therefore, by that very prayer to bringing Christ´s own healing and reconciliation to all the world. We are to bring Christ to a world caught up in all the many things that we can give words to, give names to, but which in fact, if we don´t have a face in front of us, often we can only be involved in abstractly. Individualism, racism, secularism, violence. It is when you are acting in the world, you put faces with all those words, that you can come to see yourself as God´s own instrument, spreading his peace and justice within the community that God has given you to love. This, this in its entirety is the spirit of the liturgy. Liturgy is not about us, except to the extent that we are in Christ.

Many years ago I read an excellent little book by Josef Pieper, «In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity.» And in this book, professor Pieper addresses the point of falling into the trap of a man-centered liturgy. He put it:

«[T]here can be no festivity, no liturgical celebration, when man imagining himself self-sufficient, refuses to recognize that goodness of things which goes far beyond any conceivable utility. It is the goodness of reality, taken as a whole, which validates all other particular goods and which man himself can never produce nor simply translate into social or individual welfare. Man truly receives it only when he accepts it as pure gift. And the only way fitting to respond to such a gift is by praise of God in sacramental ritual worship.»

Our Holy Father, in speaking so marvelously about the vocation of Christ´s faithful in the world tells us precisely that our action in the world follows from our action in the liturgy. Our words in the world follow from our words in the sacred liturgy. Our conversation in the world follows from and is integral to our conversation with God from within Christ´s body, the Church. Only if, like a good liturgical translation, we are faithful to the original, to the image of God stamped in us through baptism so that we are like Jesus Christ and yet understandable to everyone we meet, only if, like a good celebration of the liturgy, our actions are witnesses to God´s own transcendence and to our own future eschatological banquet, only then is liturgy good and are our lives holy.

Liturgy cannot be motivation for justice which transforms the world. Liturgy itself transforms us and the world itself so that we are truly present and Christ is really present to the world through us. If you have ever been in a place where the liturgy has never been celebrated, where the Eucharist has never been confected by Christ´s body the Church, there is a vast difference. The world is different because Holy Mass is celebrated. The world is different because we participate in that celebration. Not just we individually, not just the Church, but the world as a whole would be a very, very different place were the Holy Eucharist not celebrated.

There was a 19th century missionary to Southern Africa, Lesotho, the Lesotho people, who was himself a friend of St. John Vianney, the patron of your class. He imitated something St. John Vianney once said, but said it more clearly about his own mission to these people of South Africa. They asked him how he could go constantly on horseback, day after day, arriving in a village, listening to the people, hearing their sins and forgiving them in Christ´s name, celebrating the Eucharist, catechizing the young people in a language he never completely mastered, in words that he always struggled to find. They asked him how he could spend decade after decade among these people who were most of the time not very hospitable, without ever returning to his family in France. «How he could do this?» he replied, echoing something that his friend St. John Vianney told him. «You know my friends, the world belongs to the one who has learned how to love it.»

The world belongs to the one who has learned how to love it. If the Holy Father has called us to a new evangelization, it means he has called us to love the world in a new way and to be apologists once again in the sense St. Peter tells us — to be able to give reasons for the hope that is in us.

And you can do this very well because of the marvelous education you have received here. But we must do it, after the Council, not in a defensive way, but in a dialogical way where you have to enter into the world of the other and appreciate the words spoken there precisely so that you can find the right words to introduce these people to your friend, your Savior, your Lord, Jesus Christ. We are to live in this world with Christ´s own love.

In the consistory that the Holy Father called to examine the Church´s mission at the beginning of the third millennium of Christianity, from all parts of this world, from every part of the globe, cardinals stood and said that what is important is that we judge everything that we do, every college that we run, every grade school and high school, every hospital, every movement, every religious order, every ministry, every particular mission -­ that it all be judged by how it contributes to the holiness of God´s people.

That´s a rather broad prism. But it is a narrow enough spectrum to enable us to begin to ask the most basic question we probably can ever ask: How is what we are doing, in every part of life, consistent with what we do when we celebrate the liturgy? This means that we have to give ourselves entirely to its celebration so that we can enter into God´s own life and be prepared to pick up Christ´s mission to transform the world.

Sometimes when we are called to love God it is a little bit like paying taxes, isn´t it? We look at what we´ve taken in that year, and we look at what we have to give to the government, and then we breathe a sigh of relief to see that we´ve got so much left over for ourselves and our own purposes. And sometimes we approach God in the same way. We look at what we have to do to maintain that relationship of love more or less intact, and then what kind of energy and space and words are left over so we can do what we want to do.

And only, if through the litu
rgy we are brought to participate in Christ´s own self-sacrifice, to see that the liturgy will enable us to have not only the understanding but the strength of mind and spirit to surrender everything we do to Jesus Christ, only then can we be part of the Holy Father´s call to a new evangelization.

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