The terms we use for liturgy make a difference

Once upon a time…

… I stopped to visit my old chief and friend His Eminence Augustine Card. Mayer at his residence.  Sister said that he still had a guest with him, but they should be done soon.  I waited for a few minutes and out came His Eminence with His Eminence Joseph Card. Ratzinger. 

Since he knew me, they shared what they had been talking about: the loose use of terms and the problems the equivocations cause.  Card. Ratzinger put a question to me: What term, in my opinion, was in urgent need of clarification.  I immediately replied "ministry".  We are constantly hearing "minister" of this and of that, "ministries" of this and of that.  That loose usage created confusion of the roles of lay people and the ordained.  

The smiling cardinals replied that that was exactly the word they had been chatting about.

Words make a difference. 

When they are repeated over a long period of time, they have an effect on the knowledge and faith of the people.   This is certainly the case in the mistranslation of "pro multis" and many other mistranslations now being corrected.  The cumulative effect has been damaging.

But I digress.. though not much.

Prof. William Mahrt has a good article in Sacred Music.  This is a good example of why you should subscribe to Sacred Music

My emphases and comments.

Forthcoming in the Spring 2010 issue of Sacred Music

Words, Words
By William Mahrt

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. [Bingo!] 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, yet 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. [Do I hear an "Amen!"?]

Take, for example, two words: assembly and congregation. [Oooo… good one to tackle.] “Congregation” was used before the council, but has largely been replaced by “assembly.”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. [Then people would take exception to our Lord describing His people as a "flock" and as "sheep".] 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. [YES!] 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. [There is still a connotation to "assembly".  Music styles still have connotations.]  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[UGH!] or more commonly “presider,” [ARGH!] as opposed to “celebrant.” [ahhh!] 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. [And this was at the heart of the discussion which ensued with Cardinals Mayer and Ratzinger, which I mention above.  Also, Papa Ratzinger wrote some very good paragraphs about this protestantizing view of minister and presider, etc.  I can’t remember where right now… perhaps an English version got into HPR.  Anyone?] 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. [Do I hear an "Amen!"?] 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. The eastward direction places the priest at the head of the congregation, with all facing the same direction, making it clear that the action is addressing God. If that is not possible, the usage of the early church of having a large image of Christ in the apse of the church, which is faced when facing east, is approximated by placing a crucifix on the altar which serves the priest as a focal point for his celebration of the Mass.

It is not widely known that the stance facing the people is not required by the liturgy; all that is required is that in constructing new churches, altars be built so that it is possible to celebrate the Mass facing the people. This, of course, should mean that it should remain possible to celebrate ad orientem as well, something not always observed in the construction of new churches.

There are two different Latin terms for the stance “facing the people,” versus ad populum, and coram populo. [This should be good…] We know “versus” from its legal usage in expressing an adversarial relationship, as in Brown versus Board of Education, clearly not the kind of relation to be expressed concerning the priest and the people. Etymologically, it stems from “verso,” I turn, so it says “turned to the people.” This is in fact used in the Latin missal, even the new edition of 2002; there it substantiates the ad orientem stance: at certain points the missal directs the priest, “versus ad populum,” turned toward the people, to address of the congregation, such as at “orate, fratres”; or at communion, “conversus ad populum.” Such rubrics clearly express the normal stance of the priest as facing the altar, [Right!] suggesting a new term “facing God.” This is an important distinction, since the popular media insist on describing the stance of the priest in the old rite as turning his back to the people, consistently overlooking the fact that both priest and people face God.

Coram populo,” on the other hand, with its use of the dative, suggests a less direct relation; the priest is not facing the people in the sense of directly addressing the people, but celebrating the Mass, “before the people.[Okay.] I remember the first years after the council, when priests began to celebrate coram populo, seeing the priest begin the Canon of the Mass by incongruously looking the congregation in the eye while saying “We come to you Father.[How I loath that sort of shallow mummery.] The whole direction of the Eucharistic prayer is to the Father in renewing Christ’s sacrifice, and must bring the congregation into the act of offering up as the direction of prayer. Too direct address of the congregation by the priest runs the risk of both priest and people overlooking the necessarily transcendent object of the dialogue.

Other terms indirectly express an anthropocentricism. One names the entrance hymn a “gathering song,” often including its function as “greeting the priest.” [GRRRRR] The introit of the Mass is the procession of the clergy into the church processing to the focal point of the liturgy, the altar, and marking the altar as a sacred pace by incensing it. The music of the introit is to accompany that action and to establish the sacred character of the whole liturgy which is to take place. It is not about the congregation, but about the Mass; the congregation has already gathered, and it need not “greet” the priest yet; this takes place after the introit, when the priest greets the congregation, “The Lord be with you,” and the congregation responds.

To call it a “song” is also a misnomer;  it is true that song is a translation of cantus, but in English usage, there is quite a difference between “song” and “chant.” “Song” implies the kind of pseudo-pop music that pervades our churches, and which has no particular musical characteristics which identify it as being for the introit. Chant, for the introit, means that this chant is only sung for the entrance of the priest and only on that day, that it is proper. The loss of the Propers of the Mass and of the great repertory of proper chants is one of the negative results of the council that is only now beginning to be remedied by the revival of chant scholas and the introduction of English propers, whose purpose ultimately will be to lay the ground for the revival of the singing of the Latin propers. [Do I hear a big "Amen!"?]

Another misnomer is “opening prayer.” This is properly called a collect, which means the closing prayer of a liturgical action, collecting the prayers and intentions of that rite in a general summarizing prayer. Thus the collect at the beginning of the Mass concludes the entrance rite as a whole, just as the prayer over the offerings concludes the offertory rite, and the postcommunion prayer concludes the communion. The Latin collects of the Roman Mass are models of concise statement and little schools of prayer all in themselves; we rarely hear them, though, because their present English translations are banal, and longer alternative prayers have been provided, leading most celebrants understandably to chose the seemingly more interesting prayers, overlooking the classic Roman collects. [Good point.]

A similar misnomer is the “Prayer over the gifts.” The Latin is oratio super oblata, and “oblata” is better translated as “offerings,” being etymologically linked to “offero,” I offer. It has always seemed to me a bit presumptuous to call the bread and wine offered in preparation for the Holy Eucharist “gifts.” The real gift is what is made of them, the Body and Blood of the Lord, his gift to us. Our humble offerings are but natural elements offered in preparation for the Eucharist; they do not give the Lord anything he needs or wants, but rather are symbols of our offering of ourselves to be incorporated into his Mystical Body, by his action, not ours.

Why address these matters in a journal about sacred music? Because music is an essential element of the liturgy, [pars integrans] making substantial contributions to its sacredness and beauty. The words discussed above are off the mark precisely because they contribute more secular connotations, which militate against the sacredness of the liturgy and are thus out of consonance with its music. So let us always choose the more sacred term, that the underlying notion of the sacredness of the liturgy will be properly expressed and thus be consonant with the same purposes of the music.

WDTPRS kudos to Prof. Mahrt.

This is a good example of why you should subscribe to Sacred Music.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. The Egyptian says:

    I would forward this to my parish Priest, but he has told me firmly that the church is now horizontal, not vertical, according to the dictates of VII.

    Related, my poor suffering wife and I were asked to participate in an engaged encounter at our local retreat house, at that time owned and operated by the Sisters of the Precious Blood. Before the Mass Sister Pantsuit informed everyone that our PRESIDER would be “Bob Johns”, I looked at her and stated ” that’s funny I always called him Father, when did that change”. Sister Polyester’s sour look could have changed wine into vinegar, needless to say we were never asked to help again.

  2. The Egyptian says:

    I should add that was 20 years ago, the Sisters closed the retreat center 15 years ago and it now is owned by a local committee and is doing well and is much more orthodox

  3. Jillian says:

    Excellent article!

    I have been saying for a very long time that the way a priest celebrates the liturgy makes a (huge) difference. This article could easily be buddied alongside the person who complained about ad-libbing… Words DO make a difference!

  4. Brian Day says:

    I am sorely tempted to forward this to my parish music director. The “cantor” at Holy Mass uses all of the above anthropological terms. I suspect though that the email would go directly into the spam folder. Oh well.

    I do have one question on the article itself.
    It is not widely known that the stance facing the people is not required by the liturgy; all that is required is that in constructing new churches, altars be built so that it is possible to celebrate the Mass facing the people.

    My understanding is that for new churches the priest must be able to walk around the alter for incensing. As far as I know there is no requirement to be able to offer Mass facing the people. I’d welcome any correction if I am wrong.

  5. pjsandstrom says:

    Is it not more correct to speak of the Mass as “Trinity-centric” (if one has to invent such a word), rather than “Christocentric”? After all, the prayers (with very few exceptions) are addressed to “the Father”,”in the Holy Spirit” — and also “through Christ”. It is “through Christ” and “in the Holy Spirit” we enter into the life of the Trinity. Our Eastern Church Brethren are very concious of this, and say so.

  6. Tom in NY says:

    “Ekklesia” is a very secular-neutral word, but used in the NT for “assembly”, from ek+kalein. Mt. 16:18 does say “ekklesian.” In the secular world it was often used to mean a political group.
    Otherwise, when the author works from Latin to English, he’s quite correct. Ut dicitur, “Lex loquendi, lex sciendi.”
    Salutationes omnibus.

  7. MAJ Tony says:

    @Brian Day: don’t give up on your “cantor” so easily. Truth in charity.

  8. Jonathan says:

    The Cathedral here used to have a Director of Music, it now has a Pastoral Associate for Music and Liturgy. I’d love to know what that means, but it has horrible resonances of laity stepping into the shoes of Priests.

  9. Tom in NY,

    Actually, what you say about “ekklesia” is true of Classical Greek, but I suspect that in Christian Greek the word has taken on special sacral meaning, just like “synagogue.” And in Latin “ecclesia” has always had a sacral sense, never a secular one.

  10. Peggy R says:

    I would agree that those word pairs mentioned here are very problematic.

    –I have been hearing “assembly” at my sappy clappy parish lately. The Faith First religion books use it too. I agree with the contrast made with “congregation” here.
    –I also agree that “ministry” is very misused. We laity have “apostolates”. Then there are all the various non-ordained “liturgical ministers” who put on the show that is to be a mass.

  11. JoanW says:

    I’m currently working in “Campus Ministry” at a Catholic college, and when I started, I insisited that I not be called “campus minister.” They asked me what my title should be, and I was sort of at a loss. Right now I’m “Coordinator of Campus Ministry,” which is a mouthful and still far from perfect. And I still have to correct people that I’m not a “minister.”

  12. Sandy says:

    Yes! Father, you took the word right out of my mouth – ministry! As I recall, some years back came a directive from the Vatican about lay people not using the term “minister”, but it continues anyway – one that annoys me for precisely the reason given. It is another example of the blurring of distinction between priest and lay people. Great article by the professor. I would agree about “assembly”, “pastoral associate”, and others we can all probably add.

  13. Dr. Eric says:


    This is why, when I lived in Belleville, I went to Mass in St. Louis. Also, this is why I am weighing the option to start going to Mass at St. Francis de Sales an hour away instead of the local church which is about 2 minutes from my house.

  14. frhoisington says:

    To comment on Father Z’s intro: an unnamed parish in Wichita, Kansas has a “donut ministry” by which parishioners can volunteer to serve the spiritual hunger of folks after Sunday Mass. What isn’t a ministry these days?

  15. Maltese says:

    *Words make a difference.*

    Too true! By them we live, and by them we die. By them we are led to life, and to death.

    “For the word of God is living and effectual, and more piercing than any two edged sword; and reaching unto the division of the soul and the spirit, of the joints also and the marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” Hebrews, 4:12.

  16. mike cliffson says:

    Yes Father.
    Main point taken.
    In honour of truth, hafter note:
    Brits my generation, (now God only knows, being inclusive they hug invisible trees or summat)
    Morning assembly Catholic state schools,& prod and neutral, WAS a liturgy.
    Prayers, hym(s) our father, blessing if available clergy or similar….
    Im less agin now n I was at the time….
    but it’s COz v such school assemblies personally unhappy abt”assembly” 4 mass, tho always took meaning of congrgation a touch differently.
    Nuther case: It’s not different terms, it’s giving a bad thing a good name. With “charisma” it’s vice in the world paying tribute to virtue, perhaps, but what abt:
    Is “mission” as misused statesside as in UK?
    Tis but a very few yrs ago that the Diocese, I fear may have been Bishop inperson, “reassured” anxious families that whatever may have been previous sitn a certain RC school “would ccertainly b alright now” bcoz they had ” defined their mission” and “made up a mission statement”.
    Families neither reassured nor saw difference , shocked but not surprised by latest news abt said catholic school: namely
    St Thomas More, Bedford

    (Benefit nonUK followers: said school recently praised by BRitGov 4 ,even b4 new satanic new law, AlREADY, unforced, tho certainly coerced and threatened, collaborating education policy presenting teens contraception and abortion”neutrally” and informing teens (not presumably their parents )WHERE 2 get BOTH. after 3 days school hadn’t issued any denial nor since as fas as Ive seen)See Damian Thomas blog in the telegraph.
    That’s Xtian Mission!

  17. Hans says:

    [Then people would take exception to our Lord describing His people as a “flock” and as “sheep”.]

    Just to be clear, since you may not hear it from the grumblers: They do. There are some people who are really offended by the notion that they are sheep. That doesn’t change the fact that they, we, are, but they don’t like it one bit.


    Peggy, when now-Bishop Braxton was pastor in the parish I was then in, he was very careful about how things were said and done. (It made him extraordinarily unpopular with some folk.) Has be been able to effect much of a change in Belleville?

  18. Wonderful article! Now if I could just get our all-too-liberal “Campus Ministry” office at my college to get the idea. I think this might be helpful. Maybe. :-/

  19. ruadhri says:

    A small point. I always understood “coram” as meaning “in the presence of”, as when Mass was said “coram Santissimo” – in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament – without any indication of direction. This article should be pasted on every church door.

  20. ruadhri says:

    Sorry, read that as “Sanctissimo.”

  21. robtbrown says:

    Like other days tomorrow I’ll go mass in the morning, read the breviary, then return to do some other reading.

    Normally, on Wednesday afternoons I’m involved in my tennis ministry, but tomorrow that will not happen. Instead, I’m going to KC for my watching the Big XII basketball tournament ministry

  22. ghp95134 says:

    Just in case one doesn’t know who Prof. Mahrt is:

    “…Mahrt has conducted Gregorian chant for more than 40 years without a break. He is the director of Stanford’s Early Music Singers and of the St. Ann Choir, a Gregorian schola at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Palo Alto [California]. He instructs singers in the mysteries of “the chant,” as well as the glorious polyphonic music that came after it. In fact, it’s possible that there is more chant sung in Palo Alto than anywhere else in the country, with the possible exception of monastic communities. Mahrt has inspired and guided generations of scholars and singers.

    One of his star students, Kerry McCarthy, now an assistant professor of music at Duke University, is the author of Liturgy and Contemplation in Byrd’s Gradualia and one of the world’s leading scholars on William Byrd, the preeminent English composer of the Renaissance….”

    I’ve had the pleasure to hear Prof. Mahrt’s schola sing at Our Lady of Peace Shrine in Santa Clara back when the FSSP had permission to celebrate a monthly “Tridentine Mass.” Wonderful chanting! Especially Kerry McCarthy, who sings like an angel!

    [The indult was withdrawn by the Ordinary; a few months later he allowed a “Trid.” parish to be established in the diocese — this was before Summorum Pontificum was released.]


  23. pelerin says:

    ‘Donut ministry’ – you could not make it up! It really is getting ridiculous when more and members of congregations (NOT assemblies) are becoming ‘ministers’ of this that and the other. By giving them a ‘ministry’ it is making them so important in their eyes.

    I should be interested to know whether it is just in the English speaking world that these ‘ministries’ have sprung up? I know that in France it is the ‘service de …’ which does not jar with me. In Lourdes the young children who go round giving people cups of water during heatwaves are known as the ‘Service de l’eau’ which is rather sweet. They wear little aprons and yes they are made to feel important but in a natural childlike way. But they are not referred to as ‘ministers of water.’

    One commenter mentioned the awkwardness when a Priest faces the congregation (NOT assembly). I used to find that particularly when the Priest said the Confiteor – to us as it were. Seemed so odd. I no longer have that problem – except when I am elsewhere – as in the Parish I now attend the Priest sits or stands at the side, when others would be in the middle facing front, and turns to the Blessed Sacrament in the Tabernacle at appropriate times even when celebrating the Novus Ordo ad populum. As I came out from Mass this morning a lady said to me ‘I am not in this parish but the Priest says Mass so devoutly.’ I was able to say ‘I am not either and yes he does!.’

  24. LarryD says:

    That was a great article. Years ago, my ‘home’ parish incorporated the ‘tradition’ (how does one incorporate a tradition – either it’s a tradition in the true sense of the word, or it’s an innovation. Anyway…) of having congregants greet those nearby just prior to the opening hymn. Hate it – for the simple reason the action is anthrocentric and not Christocentric. Another byproduct of ‘active participation’. When circumstances dictate that make me have to attend Mass there, I try to show up during the opening hymn in order to avoid the angry glares and intrusive hands while I continue kneeling in preparation for the Mass.

  25. TheWork says:

    Wow Fr Z. Been keeping that story under wraps all this time. I am very jealous…Cardinal Ratzinger! The future Pope of Christian unity, and I might humbly add, the Teaching Pope. Is there nothing he doesn’t think about and then with charity, tact, and patience that amazes me, teach the faithful?

    The thought of “the smiling cardinals” made me smile so hard my face hurts…

  26. TheWork: I have LOTS of stories like that. I have simply decided to tell a few.

  27. Peggy R says:

    Dr. Eric: Yes, I understand. We LOVE our small town here, but also being near the city and family. We trek up to Log Church from time to time. It would be nice to see more young families there. While most of the faithful dress like slobs–forgive me but it’s true–at the main NO church at Holy Family, the pastor celebrates by the book. He’s at Dupo also. Did your kids learn from Faith First also? I’ve liked much about the book, but the photos are from modernist masses.

    Hans: Bp. Braxton has been engaged in battles unseen by most of us. He is battling a generation of priests who don’t want to Say the Black, Do the Red. He does have strong allies in many good priests, however. Fr Z covered in Advent, the bishop’s call for all the faithful (except infirm) to kneel during the Eucharistic prayer. The bishop also put out a recent letter to call the pastors not to remove Holy Water during Lent–another issue that Fr Z has addressed here generally.

    He needs our prayers. I have been doing on my blog a “Today’s Priest” series for our Bville diocesan priests for this Year for Priests. A call to pray for one priest each day and share positive stories about them. [Many we could gripe about.] I have finished with diocesan priests…Bp. Braxton is my Today’s Priest, in fact.

    Thanks for inquiring. Glad to hear of his precision. In fact, kids to be confirmed are prepping to ensure they know things like the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. Bp. Braxton will ask the kids at confirmation at the cathedral.

  28. Dr. Eric says:


    It takes the same amount of time to get to Holy Family Church as it does to get to St. Francis de Sales Oratory. I’m not sure my kids would be as impressed with Holy Family- they’re little and don’t appreciate history yet. (For those of you who don’t know, Holy Family was founded in 1699 and the current church was built in 1799 and is the oldest existing church west of the Allegheny Mts. And the EF is celebrated every Sunday at 9:00)

    My apologies to Fr. Z for hijacking this thread.


    Our good bishop has had nothing but strife during his tenure here. Many heterodox priests have been having their way in the diocese and even before he got here, they protested his installment. To this day, many of them are still against him, I have spoken to a few priests who have made their opinions known to me.

    Something positive about our good bishop is that he has been able to get some Ghanaian priests to come over as missionaries (that’s right, they are sending missionaries to America from Africa!) He also offers Mass at the Cathedral publicly at least once per month- something his predecessor didn’t do, he rarely offered Mass at the Cathedral.

    Once again, my apologies to Fr. Z for hijacking this thread. I won’t post again about our bishop. I just feel he needs support.

  29. Peggy R says:

    I add my apologies for the hijacking as well.
    Dr Eric–Trust me when I say that there are almost no obstacles between our house and Holy Family. Trekking to MO from the South would be longer for us. Maybe some day.
    Back to the language issue. I do have to laugh as well about the names of some “ministries” that parishes come up with to mimic protestants and make laity feel like “ministers” equal to priests. “Donut ministries”–That’s just trying too darned hard.

  30. Peggy R says:

    Oh, one more vocabulary beef I have. Our diocesan paper’s editor ALWAYS uses “liturgy” when it is much more straightforward, clear and takes less ink to say “mass.” She will say that “a liturgy took place on such-and-such occasion.” What kind of liturgy? It might be a mass, but it doesn’t have to be. The Church’s liturgy means the public prayer of the Church, not just the Mass, which is the divine liturgy, or the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

  31. Bob Glassmeyer says:

    The Gathering Space.
    The Worship Space.
    The meat fork.
    About to pierce my skull.

    It’s a NARTHEX.
    It’s a church, an oratory, a temple, a chapel, for crying out loud.

    I don’t have a sleeping and sex (with my wife) space. I have a BEDROOM. Nor to I have a shower, shave and bodily waste-expulsion space. I have a BATHROOM.

    We’re not stupid, you liberal elite, parish-destroying liturgical nazi spoilsports! Go watch Bulwinkle or something! Leave us alone!

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