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“Church-speak” – Strange Things Church People Say

February 3, 2016 14 Comments

2.3.blogMany groups have a tendency to use words that make sense to their members but are unintelligible to outsiders. I have sometimes had to decode “Church-speak” for recent converts.

For example, one time I proudly announced, “RCIA classes will begin next week, so if you know anyone who is interested in attending please fill out an information card on the table just outside the sacristy door.” I thought I’d been perfectly clear, but then a new member approached me after Mass to inquire about the availability of classes to become Catholic and when they would begin. Wondering if she’d forgotten the announcement I reminded her what I had said about RCIA classes. She looked at me blankly. “Oh,” I said, “Let me explain what I mean by RCIA.” After I did so, I mentioned that she could pick up a flyer over by the sacristy door. Again I got a blank stare, followed by the question “What’s a sacristy?” Did I dare tell her that the classes would be held in the rectory?

I’ve had a similar reaction when announcing CCD classes. One angry parent called me to protest that she had been told by the DRE (more Church-speak) that her daughter could not make her First Holy Communion unless she started attending CCD. The mother, the non-Catholic wife of a less-than-practicing Catholic husband, had no idea what CCD meant and why it should be required in order for her daughter to receive Holy Communion. She had never connected the term CCD with Sunday school or any form of religious instruction.

Over my years as a priest I have become more and more aware that although I use what I would call ordinary terms of traditional Catholicism, given the poor catechesis (another Church word, meaning religious training, by the way) of so many, the meaning of what I am saying is lost. For example, I have discovered that some Catholics think that “mortal sin” refers only to killing someone. Even the expression “grave sin” is nebulous to many; they know it isn’t good, but aren’t really sure what it means. “Venial sin” is even less understood!

Other words such as covenant, matrimony, incarnation, transubstantiation, liturgy, oration, epistle, gospel, Collect, Sanctus, chalice, paten, alb, Holy Orders, theological, missal, Monsignor, and Eucharistic, while meaningful to many in the Church, are often only vaguely understood by others in the Church, not to mention the unchurched (is that another Church word?).

Once at daily Mass I was preaching based on a reading from the First Letter of John and was attempting to make the point that our faith is “incarnational.” I noticed vacant looks out in the pews. And so I asked the small group gathered that day if anyone knew what “incarnational” meant; no one did. I went on to explain that it meant that the Word of God had to become flesh in us; it had to become real in the way we live our lives. To me, the word “incarnational” captured the concept perfectly, but most of the people didn’t even really know for sure what “incarnation” meant, let alone “incarnational.”

Ah, Church-speak!

During my years in the seminary the art of Church-speak seemed to rise to new levels. I remember that many of my professors, while railing against the use of Latin in the liturgy, had a strange fascination with Greek-based terminology. Mass was out, Eucharist was in. “Going to mass” was out, “confecting the synaxis” was in. Canon was out, “anamnesis” and “anaphora” were in. Communion was out, koinonia was in. Mystagogia, catechumenate, mysterion, epikaia, protoevangelion, hapax legomenon, epiklesis, synderesis, eschatology, Parousia, and apakatastasis were all in. These are necessary words, I suppose, but surely opaque to most parishioners. Church-speak indeed, or should I say ekklesia-legomenon.

Ah, Church-speak! Here is an online list of many other Church words for your edification (and amusement): Church words defined

At any rate, I have learned to be a little more careful when speaking so as to avoid too much Church-speak, too many insider terms, too many older terms, without carefully explaining them. I think we can and should learn many of them, but we should not assume that most people know them.

The great and Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said that he discovered early on that he often got credit for being learned when in fact he was merely being obscure. And for any who knew him in his later years, especially through his television show, he was always very careful to explain Church teaching in a way that made it accessible to the masses. It’s good advice for all of us: a little less of the CCD and RCIA jargon and little more of the clear “religious instruction” can help others to decode our Church-speak.

I would not argue that we should “dumb down” our vocabulary, for indeed it is a precious patrimony in many cases. But we need to do more explaining rather than merely presuming that most people will know what some of our terms mean.

This video has a lot of gibberish in it, but it illustrates how we can sound at times if we’re not careful!

Here’s another funny one:

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Comments (14)

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  1. Marguerite says:

    After Mass, I reluctantly had to go over to a bunch of cackling geese and remind them they were in the Holy of Holies. I got the same strange stare and mentioned that loud, unnecessary talking was disrespectful to Our Lord. They insisted they weren’t being disrespectful. I imagine this is because they didn’t understand what the Holy of Holies was.

  2. Steve Newark says:

    The way to solve this knotty problem is to state the word, but then take a moment to define that word in the next breath.

    • Richard A says:

      That’s true, but as the RCIA/sacristy example demonstrates, one often doesn’t know which words need defining. And, if Father accurately determines which words do need defining, I bet supplying the definitions really breaks up the flow of the sermon. As well as increasing its length.

  3. Sean says:

    It’s a difficult thing for sure, because it also affects how we relate to God, through our speech. Our language is a carrier of the content of our faith. We shouldn’t confuse people, but we quickly throw it out as “impractical”- which of course you aren’t implying at all, Msgr.

    Interestingly, the trend is to replace “churchspeak” with the lingo of corporate America, capitalism, and pragmatism- i.e., effective strategies for successful church growth and organizational health (Jesus meets Peter Drucker and Jim Collins). Consider the proliferation of “leadership” literature. It’s somewhat odd in some circles to regard theology and Gospel narrative as a liability when reaching the “unchurched”- a specious word coined by seeker-sensitive/attractional model megachurches. It’s not evil, of course, but perhaps we all need a little more reflection on what our language actually says about the God and Church we stand for.

  4. Ed says:

    Avoiding acronyms might help a little. They use acronyms in my workplace and, inevitably, a handful of employees will ask what the acronym means.

  5. RodH says:

    I have lived overseas and traveled extensively and I think it goes both ways. I think that in multilingual cultures folks might be a little more inclined to investigate the meaning of words to which the meaning escapes them. In the USA, many expect everything to be couched in virtual baby-talk.

    I am a convert to the Catholic faith and in spite of the fact that I had a theology degree from a Protestant seminary, there is no question I had to learn a different language…not really…but certainly a different vocabulary. So what? It expands one’s knowledge and guess what…one’s understanding of God, too.

    I greatly fear the replacement of Catholic doctrinal words with “Protestant” words because the fact is, those words have meaning, and often it seems, some, both converts and the already-Catholic, want to marginalize the teachings of the Church by making them palatable to the convert, whereas in fact, often, the convert needs to well, convert!

    Same goes for Latin. Why is it that people in countries all over the world will learn a new language so they can do mundane things like buy fruit at the market but we Catholics are profoundly against learning a common language to bind ourselves to each other in worldwide unity as we worship God!?

  6. Bob Schmidt says:

    Mis-communication is common outside the church. The Pro-Life movement is the high profile example. Get Catholics and Protestants in the same room or prayer vigil and they frequently get offended and claim those who don’t use the right code words are not as pro-life as they claim to be. Half of pro-lifers will not vote for the pro-life candidate because they just can’t believe a pro-life candidate would use “those words”.

    It is true in discussing social justice. The owners of social justice political correctness just cannot believe that people who use a different vocabulary can possibly be good people.

    The religious (Catholic meaning) are the worst abusers. I remember my Catholic pastor saying social justice required everyone to vote for Al Gore against George Bush and that it was a “grave sin” to not vote.

  7. Anne says:

    “I would rather feel compunction than know how to define it.”

  8. John Stevens says:

    When I was going through the process of conversion, I used to call this “Learning to speak Catholic.”

    I’m still learning! 🙂

  9. Steven says:

    As background, I converted from Lutheranism about two years ago and have a background in finance.

    In finance, the word “option” is used to describe something more specific, but fundamentally related to, the plain English meaning of the word “option.” if you buy a stock option, you are literally buying the “option” — the choice — to do something if you so choose — usually to buy, though occasionally to sell, a particular security at a pre-specified price.

    I almost sort of think I might understand what the “preferential option for the poor” means, except that I can’t understand how, in any sense, it is an “option” — unless maybe it is an “option” for a hypothetical poor person from whose point of view I’m trying to perceive a public policy?

    But finance jargon isn’t meant to be understandable to those outside finance — it is merely intended to condense expression among those within the field. On the other hand, Catholic teaching is not supposed to be Gnostic mysticism, accessible only by the few elect. The Lord can’t be understandable to any of us entirely, but ought to be understandable at least at some level to anyone to whom salvation is offered, which includes, at a minimum, anyone willing to accept it, which I am inclined to believe is a large majority of us.

    Jargon can be useful for those debating the finer points of theology, but when there is a consensus on some point, someone ought to be able to explain it in a way that those of us not devoting our lives to theology can understand.

  10. Dan Mesa/AZ says:

    Don’t forget homily!

    My first day of RCIA, I was about 1 minute late for the 9am mass, I asked one of the “church ladies” where we met for the RCIA class, she kindly told me that they’ll all meet right after the homily.

    I froze. Too embarrassed to ask her what she meant, I slyly sat in the back. I figured the homily was like a sermon, but not understanding the order of the mass, I wasn’t sure when that was. About 1 minute before the end of what I thought was Fathers homily (and it was), I nervously got up went into the bathroom and missed the announcement for all of the RCIA’ers. When I returned to my seat, the sweet church lady (Ellie) got out of her seat quietly informed me where I needed to go.

    BTW, that RCIA program absolutely phenomenal!

  11. Sue Korlan says:

    Consubstantial versus one in being. Neither is really intelligible, but the second lets you know what you’re trying to understand.

    • Msgr. Charles Pope says:

      well, not exactly. We share “being” with everything that “be-s” but not substance. I share being with a rock, but not substance. My substance is human, a rock merely mineral. One in being is exceptionally vague, which is why the official text says consubstanialem/homouisous

  12. Bee Bee says:

    I used to work in a large corporation on the Human Resources system that kept track of employee data and payroll. I sat in a group of about 5 people, but due to space limitations, two guys who were in charge of facilities (the physical plant of the building) sat nearby and could hear our daily talk.

    One time in conversation with one of the guys he said, well, you guys should never worry about confidentiality, because I can’t understand anything you’re saying! It made me laugh. We all understood each other perfectly well, and communicated very effectively about the system and data we were working on, but to someone not familiar with the techno-geek language of data and computer systems, he might as well have been listening to us speak Hungarian.

    The same problem can come up when someone is in the hospital. Doctors and nurses can speak in their own jargon, assuming the patient and family understand what is happening, what the medical staff wants to do, and what they are actually doing. But it’s often almost incomprehensible. So it’s up to the one who doesn’t understand to forget about being embarrassed for not knowing (after all, why would you know?) and ask. But yes, it appears we could make sure when we see someone who is uncertain, to make sure to clarify, and tone down on the acronyms and insider talk.

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