How normal people talk

I don’t claim to be a normal person. I claim, rather, to be a liturgist. Or if you will, a liturgy geek. I know the lingo.

But what about the normal people, the ones who come to the liturgy? What do they make of the words we use?

I’m sure there are normal people who think a canon is something you fire, and a missal is something that gets fired through the air.

Less contentiously, a host welcomes you politely. OK, it also has a churchy meaning: Lord, God of hosts must refer to communion bread.  

Doctor of the church? That would be a parish physician – someone to deliver you from your every embolism.

Normal people have icons – on their computer screen. And they use rubrics to evaluate their department’s work.

Many normal people would claim they’re not singers, but they might know that an octave comprises a scale with eight pitches.

Normal people confess their sins, not their doctrines. An apology happens when you’re sorry, not when you’re defending your beliefs.

We have a real surplice of potential misunderstandings here.

I wouldn’t advocate dumbing down the liturgy or eliminating all its jargon. Anything worth doing develops its own manner of speaking. Just google “types of wines” or “football vocabulary.”

I would suggest, though, that we liturgy geeks – we who plan and lead liturgies – should be more aware that we’re not normal people. We should think more about how to communicate with normal people – seekers, occasional attenders, regulars.

In the celebrant’s opening comments, in the homily, in the bulletin notes, in the adult education session, we should use words the way our listeners use them as much as possible. We can also use those words to lead them into the liturgy’s depths and better understand its language.

I suggest, then, that we speak less churchy vernacular and more vernacular vernacular.



  1. And, when people question why we’re doing what we’re doing in the way we’re doing it, we should be wary of cherry-picking our explanations and arguments, and be more transparent about our assumptions. Otherwise, plain-talk may merely serve as a ruse or rationalization.

  2. It’s not an esoteric and hidden code meant to confuse or deceive the laymen in the pews. These are real things, called by real names, some of which, like ‘icons’ for instance, have been co-opted by big-business, the world, the flesh, and the devil, or whatever you want to call it and given a new meaning. These words belong to The Church, not just ‘liturgy geeks.’ Use them and teach them. Stop dumbing things down and thereby enabling the people who come to church to look dumb too. There’s an us/them dichotomy set-up in this article pitting normal people against (the special class of) liturgist. Would the normal people even know what a liturgist is?

  3. As a non-liturgist myself, I really find this article condescending. As Scott Knitter says above, teach- if you think we, the great unwashed don’t know what these terms mean. I mean, talk about clericalism…

    1. Well, you’re a non-liturgist who reads Pray Tell. I’m talking about the kind of people who don’t. I wonder how aware of them you are.

      1. I’m a Catholic who reads blogs, listens to Catholic media, reads books, and listens to Catholic podcasts to inform myself about the faith, and try to grow closer to God. Just like the vast majority of “normal” Catholics in the pews. I see them everyday taking books from our lending library, picking up cds from our information kiosk, taking the opportunities provided in our diocese to attend speakers, seminars, and retreats all year round, in order to do the same.
        Assuming a lack of either intelligence or inquisitiveness – as this article suggests – does not square with what I see with my own eyes.

      2. No, I don’t assume lack of intelligence, Chip. I assume life in a different social milieu with different concerns from mine.

        I’m sure I have a mind bright enough to understand all the lingo connected to wines or football or computer repair. But it’s not the world I live in, and hence I don’t know the lingo. That doesn’t make me bad or stupid, it makes me someone who lives in a different world.

        I’ve become skeptical of people who speak for OTHERS about not dumbing things down and how condescending that supposedly is. I rarely hear it from the people themselves; I mostly hear it from their would-be spokesmen who have their own agenda.


  4. … and an “idol” is someone we really admire or wish to emulate – not a person, object, or activity that blocks the way between us and God.

    The way that the broader society has co-opted and flipped some religious words 180 degrees has some seriously implications. I’m happy to have people be unaware that the “narthex” is the lobby, but not so happy that we think “sinfully good” is a common expression with no implications for personal or social values.

  5. We do indeed have a liturgical nomenclature with which very informed laity, religious, and clergy can bandy about in specific contexts. But to suppose that continuing to use all of these terms is mostly a matter of teaching is a reach too far. Some examples: For nearly 50 years the Mass most often begins with a gathering or entrance song. In far more recent times a group of liturtgists have urged us to restore the term introit to describe the “chant” with which the Mass begins. Some have averred that singing this introit in Latin might be an even better option. It seems clear to me that their objective is to put the kibosh on chants like All are Welcome and Gather us In which they hold in great disdain. For decades we moved from using the term “offertory Song” to the song during the presentation of Gifts. My study of liturgical theology makes clear to me that “the offertory” of the Mass occurs when the priest and deacon hold aloft the consecrated elements as the priest sings “through him, with him, and in him……” and all respond with the Great Amen. Following the homily and collection representatives of the assembly present the gifts that the priest places on the altar accompanied by silent prayers. But their are terms with which most Catholics are comfortable (even if their understanding of them may benefit from further development: consecration, Psalm response, alb and stole—chasuble and humeral veil not so much). Epiclesis and anamnesis and anaphora no; Eucharistic Prayer, yes. Breaking of the Bread, yes; fractio no.

  6. I’m guessing very few first-time visitors decide not to return because they heard a word they didn’t fully understand. New experiences come with some new words, and most people expect that. What helps visitors is clarity on the immediate logistics.

    Our social room is called Wheeler Hall. Typically at announcements time, the celebrant says: “Everyone is invited for refreshments after Mass, in Wheeler Hall, which is the large room on the other side of that wall (gestures toward it). On your way out of the church, just turn left twice, and you’ll be in Wheeler Hall.” And there’s a sign on the way that confirms this. If a visitor asks where the rest rooms are, it’s best if the person they’re asking can lead them to the hallway where the rest rooms are and point them out, rather than “They’re in the parish hall, past the sacristy.”

    Questions about liturgical or theological terms may come later, but for the first visit, coming away with a comfort about the building and what’s where is an important thing.

  7. I think that attempts to explain liturgical jargon in language that “normal people” use should be highly comended. We need not change the terms we use, but we should make sure that people know these words, just as they learn other technical jargon in order to read, buy, listen, and, in general, communicate. I’ve tried to do that in my former role as editor at NPM–see I’ve tried to do the same, in a more expanded form, for my parish: Such attempts were a constant part of the pre-conciliar liturgical renewal; they should be embraced now in ways that will help people be more comfortable with or at least better comprehending of what we all seek to do.

  8. In theater, the director and actors might use a more specialized vocabulary in rehearsal. In performance, which is their raison d’etre, they don’t. They seek to communicate and usually use everyday language to do so.

    I fully understand that this is a limited analogy. But isn’t the main purpose of the Mass to bring about an encounter of the faithful with Christ? Usually we try to prepare ourselves through simplifying our inner lives into something approaching prayer. No special vocabulary required. And in fact for the many who aren’t ‘liturgy geeks’ that vocabulary might introduce confusion or even a sense of not belonging.

    That said, I also understand that the faithful need to become acquainted with the practices and language of the Church in a deeper way.

    So I’m having it both ways! Sweet!

  9. Using jargon is one way that the clerisy maintains its separation from those on the “outside”. In this time in which we need to look with a degree of healthy skepticism at clericalism in all its manifestations (which extend beyond those who are in the strictly clerical state of life), it behooves us to avoid using liturgical jargon as a way to exclude and patronize.

  10. I wonder how many normal people (especially in certain countries) inadvertently hear (and maybe envision) “Your Majesty” when listening to: “…that what we offer to the honor of your majesty may profit us for salvation.” If only upper and lower case were pronounced differently! That would alleviate any confusion.

  11. We faced this issue in a big way when implementing the RCIA. There were a lot of cries about changing the terminology, so that the so-called “normal” people could relate.

    The cry went up: Evangelization? Soapbox stuff, it’s not Catholic! Scrutiny! No way! Mystagogy, worse still! Catechumenate? Who could pronounce it, let alone know what it means???

    But people then realized we were doing a new thing, and it had its own terms — not jargon but language. The upshot was that we used those terms a lot, and now people know what they mean. It’s still church vocabulary, but it means something. Because, guess what? Normal people got involved in what this thing was about, and they found they could relate to it. So it was a set of terms that gained meaning. And each term meant something definite; it was not a trendy substitute for a thing we already had a name for.

    Does anyone remember the days when people who had “strange” “foreign” names had to adopt an American nickname? People don’t do that quite so much anymore. We struggle a little, but we at least TRY to pronounce their name even if it comes out of a language we don’t understand. Because, you know, it’s their real name, and you try to respect that as much as possible.

    My point is this: Jargon is one thing. Language is another. “Interface” is jargon. “CCD” and other acronyms are jargon. “Mystagogy” and “catechumen” are language. An “icon” is not just a picture; it’s something more. Call it by its right name.

  12. If God is real, and Catholicism is true, then what happens at Mass is the most important event of all time. I don’t think it’s too much to learn a few unfamiliar words, or learn to use familiar words in unfamiliar ways. It’s not Pelagian to expect we should meet God half way along the path of understanding infinite Mystery.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *