On Words at the Mass

Just yesterday I heard on public radio a word I could not comprehend. The word was: the “siria”. I knew it was not Syria, so I put on my thinking cap and realized she was saying “This area.” How could such a mangling take place? Easy. More and more English-speakers are placing final consonants on the next word (where possible), as for instance, “client’s policies” would be pronounced “client spolicies”. A number of which have been noted elsewhere on these pages.

But a couple of my favorites have not yet been mentioned. At the Preparation of the Gifts in the present translation of the Mass we have, “Through your goodness we have this spread to offer. . . .” And consider its companion prayer, a great misfortune: “Through your goodness we have this swine to offer. . .”.

Another gaff is an embarrassing double meaning just by itself, hardly to be mentioned in polite company, not to say, holy company. I dare to mention the Eucharistic Prayer’s sacred words, “Take this, all of you, and eat it.” My age group and beyond went through high school (and college?) hearing the slang words, “eat it” as a vulgar insult. Sorry to mention it. Gratifyingly, the new translation will say “Take this, all of you, and eat of it.”

One of the most hilarious phrasings, at least to those who take communication seriously, is in the last petition in the Second Eucharistic Prayer. One line actually says, “. . . and with all the saints who have done your will throughout the ages.”

Yes, we all know what is being said: saints are people who do God’s will. But as written it actually says that we are referring only to the saints who have done so, and not the others, who presumably have not done God’s will. To get technical, we are witnessing here what is called a “restrictive clause” as opposed to a “non-restrictive” one. You don’t need to dig out a grammar book, let me explain. A restrictive clause defines more closely the noun it is referring to. “My uncle who lives in Brazil is coming to see us”. The words after uncle restrict the meaning of uncle to only the one who lives in Brazil. If I used the same words but with different punctuation, I would be uttering a “non-restrictive” clause. “My uncle, who lives in Brazil, is coming to see us,” I am just adding information to the subject, my uncle, without defining him. I could as well have said, “My uncle is coming to see me.” [The examples are from the Oxford Companion to the English Language (Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 859).]

The commonly accepted manner of writing a restrictive clause is to put in commas. Without them the clause in question restricts the saints we are speaking of: just the ones who have done God’s will throughout the ages. Apparently there are other saints who have not. I know what “most people” would say, that everybody understands it cannot mean such a thing. And it would imply an oxymoron anyway—contradictory terms combined in “saints who do not do God’s will”—so why get all excited about a few commas more or less? Because the Mass is sacred and deserves good, not confusing, language.

I admit that even had the (non-restrictive) comma been in place (“all the saints, who have done your will throughout the ages,”), the right meaning would still be very hard to communicate vocally, except with an appropriate pause after the word saints. That is what I do in presiding at Mass. But grammarians currently indicate that commas are supposed to indicate structure, not vocal pauses. I conclude that the sentence itself should have been re-written.

Such an error will obviously be corrected in the new translation, you think.  But hang on to your hat. The new words are: “and all the Saints who have pleased you throughout the ages.” Again, shamelessly, a restrictive clause, restricting the meaning to only the saints who please God, not the ones who do not.

Finally, I would like to make a small remark on responses in ritual. My example is the “solemn blessings” of the present Sacramentary. Why is it that people do not respond “Amen” when each portion of a solemn blessing finishes?

The reason is quite simple. In ritual, the congregation needs a formula to trigger their response. If there is not one, individuals do not want to embarrass themselves by speaking out at the wrong time. They need a signal. Here is an example, the first petition from the solemn blessing in the Mass of the Ascension.

May almighty God bless you on this day

when his only Son ascended into heaven

to prepare a place for you.

There is no trigger, unless the presider knows how to lead with his tone of voice, dropping down and slowing down for a cadence at “a place for you.” Therefore, no Amen results. Many of us have noticed that priests are now supplying the Amen themselves, since the people are silent. Could this be the beginning of re-clericalizing the Mass?

What would an appropriate trigger-ending have been? The Church has a repertoire of them: “Grant this through Christ our Lord,” “We ask this though our Lord Jesus Christ, for ever and ever.” After each segment of a solemn blessing, why not put in “I ask this through Christ our Lord”?

I do not have access to the new translation of the Missal, so I do not know what the new form will be. But here’s hoping they will.



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18 responses to “On Words at the Mass”

  1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
    Karl Liam Saur

    The joys of schwa.

  2. Fr. Allan McDonald Avatar

    Very good and amusing post. Our DRE typed herself a version of the Stations of the Cross which we prayed this past Sunday in a special Lenten program for our CCD children and their parents. Unbeknown to her, her computer spell check changed Joseph of Arimathea to Joseph of Aromatherapy! In the Second Eucharist Prayer, “Father, you are holy indeed, the fountain of all holiness,” the comma seems misplaced–just where should the actual emphasis go? I usually pray, “Father you are holy; indeed the fountain of all holiness.” The point about the solemn blessings is well taken. I try to drop my voice to indicate the amen, works better when I sing it. But it is awkward, just as the absolution after the Sprinkling of Holy Water on the People, “May almighty God cleanse us of our sin…make us worthy to sit at his table in heaven Kingdom.” Know one knows to say “amen” at that point. (I usually add, “forever and ever” so people know to respond “Amen.”)

    1. Martin Barry Avatar

      But (splutter!) what does the Latin say? Vere Sanctus es, Domine, fons omnis sanctitatis. The structure looks unambiguous.

    2. John Foley, S. J. Avatar
      John Foley, S. J.

      Fr. Allan: I only lived in England for a year, but I learned that they put “indeed” on the end of sentences when they want to intensify them. “Your hair looks wonderful indeed” is an example, with stress on the indeed. In the case you mention, the assembly has just sung the Sanctus or Holy, and then dialogically the next sentence from the presider is supposed to say something like, “yes, Lord, you certainly ARE holy, even as the assembly just said.” Translated into a Britishism it does say that: “Lord, you are holy inDEED”. So the comma is in the right place. By the way, I have never heard a presider in this country say it with that understanding! We won’t have to worry about it too much longer, since the new translation will say, “You are indeed Holy, O Lord, the fount of all holiness.”

  3. Martin Barry Avatar

    Sorry John, but I think most of the points you make don’t amount to more than pet peeves. Spoken English has no space bar! Final consonants run seamlessly into initial vowels, except in an unusual and stilted pronunciation that might put a glottal stop between them. But you wouldn’t do that in ordinary speech.

    I’m afraid you’ve mangled the relative/non-relative distinction! The rule forbids a comma before a restrictive relative clause, but doesn’t require one before a non-restrictive clause. There are plenty of respectable examples resembling the one you complain about, including in scripture: (“And Moses told Aaron all the words of the LORD who had sent him”, Exodus 4:28, KJV)

    But grammarians currently indicate that commas are supposed to indicate structure, not vocal pauses. Not really – punctuation principally reflects intonation (the ups and downs of the voice, and, indeed, where the breaks come).

    1. John Foley,  SJ Avatar

      Sorry Martin, but I think humorous pet peeves have a place on this blog, at least that is what our instructions tell us. Allow me some kindly comment on your criticisms. 1) Commas are necessary when the meaning of a sentence is confused without them. Not just where rules say they must or may be omitted. 2) Liturgical words are meant to be heard, not read, except by the lector. I have noticed many broadcasters, including ones on BBC, are in fact holding back emphasis on the final consonant until the next word begins, thus making a new word, instead of “running seamlessly into initial vowels.” If you cannot not hear it, than I would recommend a lot more listening. 3) If punctuation serves the function you claim it does (“punctuation principally reflects the ups and downs of the voice, and, indeed, where the breaks come”), then obviously we would need a comma after “all the saints”, so that the presider can reflect the meaning by his intonation.

      I fear you have missed the forest for the grammatical trees, Martin!

      1. William Henry Avatar
        William Henry

        Punctuation matters, whether written down or spoken aloud (and I don’t mean Victor Borge style). How else could we say what we mean and mean what we say?

  4. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
    Anthony Ruff, OSB

    Thanks for your post, John! You make many good points.
    We just had “infidelity to your Word” a few days ago – at least that’s what came out…

  5. Kathy Pluth Avatar

    The best trigger for a solemn blessing is a musical trigger, when the presidential prayers are sung.

  6. Fr. Christopher Costigan Avatar
    Fr. Christopher Costigan

    Is this about us Lon Gylanders?

  7. Aristotle A. Esguerra Avatar

    “Lead a snot into temptation…”

    This one hasn’t been picked for generations…

  8. J Thomas Avatar
    J Thomas

    Turabian 7.0 states “use paired commas to set off a nonrestrictive clause,” and restrictive clauses use no commas. (21.2.3).

    The only reference to speach modulation as relates to comma use is regarding introductory phrases (21.2.4) – otherwise comma use by Turabian’s standard seems purely structural.

    The Society for Biblical Literature (SBL) Handbook indicates commas are not to be used as speach patterns but only in cases of syntactical ambiguity. (4.1.1)

    I think Rev. Foley’s assessment is correct.

    But since, as he notes, the print is for proclamation maybe more commas should be included to help presiders who can’t help themselves. Maybe more work at printing liturgical texts according to the proclaimed sense, akin to the lectionaries?

    Or, just leave the Latin text that relies very little on punctuation for sense to be prayed inaudibly by the priestly caste and then smother it in polyphany. Who really needs commas?!

  9. Alan Hommerding Avatar

    Most choir directors are very familiar with the problem presented by eliding final sibilants (the first few examples presented). Famous in the choral literature is Felix Mendelssohn’s “He, watching over Israel, slumber snot nor sleeps.”
    In terms of punctuation and so on – or “and et cetera” as a local restaurant has on its (not it’s) menu – we are living through a (re-) ascendancy of the aural over the visual in terms of words in print. Print is trying to “look” more conversational, in other words. This has led to an increased fluidity in punctuation and grammar, and has given rise to many a gaffe (which still has an “e” at the end, I believe) in print. The academic writing style is no longer an absolute, perhaps not even a norm. I’ve been an editor for nearly twenty years now, so I’ve watched this process in action. I know the CMS and other style manuals have tried to accommodate some of these changes.

  10. RP Burke Avatar
    RP Burke

    Of course, if the priest giving the solemn blessing chanted it, the cue for “Amen” would be very clear in the drop of the minor third from the reciting tone!

  11. B Peterson Avatar
    B Peterson

    My dad always jokes about “Lettuce spray…”

    1. Cody C.  Unterseher Avatar

      And from the old Kyriale, “Asparagus me….”

  12. Paul Inwood Avatar
    Paul Inwood

    In England from 1966 to 1969 we had the “prairie tortoise” in the introduction to the Our Father…

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