By P.J. Cullinane 

People have told us often enough that “Church language” simply by-passes them. Of course, language is a two-way street:  the Church’s language (in all its forms, not just its words) is meant to form us; we in turn shape it for different times and cultures.  For both those reasons, we can ill-afford to ignore the disconnect people speak of. The issue here is not just translations: it involves the texts themselves – texts of the liturgy, texts of the catechisms, and texts of official communications. 


How is this not a problem if participation in the liturgy is intended to enable the prayer of the Church to become the prayer of the people in this gathering, when the language or imagery used is alien to them? 


How is the disconnect not a problem when language at odds with science is spoken into a scientifically-minded world? Or, if language borrowed from the days of empires and conquest continues in post-colonial times, especially when people know that Jesus’ “kingdom” is not of this world? Or, if language that belonged in feudal societies, and even in Christendom, does not resonate with people living in democracies? Or, if language that was characteristic of patriarchy now alienates?  Language that doesn’t connect is not life-giving, and becomes a big turn-off.  


How is it not a problem when some Catholics ignore the role of the local churches in interpreting messages from the Holy See?  In presenting the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1993), which St John Paul II issued for the universal Church, Cardinal Ratzinger said that catechism “cannot be considered the only possible way, or even the best way, of giving a catechetical re-expression of the Christian message”. He explained that it was to be absorbed, interpreted and then re-expressed in the idioms of the various local churches – in that sense “mediated” by the local churches. In our country we are blessed having people doing this for our religious education programmes.  


Just as important is Cardinal Ratzinger’s assurance that the same process of “mediating” is required for “Instructions” issued for the universal Church. It cannot be presumed that such Instructions apply in exactly the same way in all the local churches. To simply take them from the web, by-passing the mediating role of the local church, is not true to Catholic ecclesiology. “Mediating” involves the teaching role of bishops and, of course, in a synodal church, the exercise of that role will be more sensitive, more complex, and multi-directional.   


Language matters. Sharing the faith depends more on gifts like imagination, music, story-telling, and the witness of holy lives, than on the gift of reason. But reason, and how the faith is articulated, also matters. It matters that we use language that invites interest, and shun language that alienates, or isn’t properly inclusive. It matters when Church communications regarding matters of concern to all, engage only those who can manage the semi code-language of surveys and digital-speak. 


Of course, there is no language for speaking adequately of God. God is infinite, and our understanding is finite, which is why we need imagery, metaphor and hyperbole. St Thomas put it this way: we can know that God is good, but cannot know what goodness in God is like. And yet, it is because of the goodness we experience within creation and in people’s lives that we catch our first glimpses of God’s intentions for us. We know God more surely when we come more alive to God’s presence in nature and in history. 


Through the experience of beauty, goodness and truth, we are being drawn to God. God’s presence comes to us disguised in sunsets and other experiences of beauty, music, works of art, poetry, and smiles on children’s faces. There we catch glimpses of what we have been made for. Our spontaneous responses are our personal God-language.  It is homely language, yet deep, and foundational.  


Nature cannot tell us the whole story of our relationship with God, but it can deepen our desire to know more. In the gift of human freedom, nature takes a leap, leaving itself behind by raising more questions than it can answer. Human choices are what make history. That’s where God speaks through lives of faithfulness and unselfish love, through acts of forgiveness and compassion – but also through catastrophes and heartbreaks when healing and hope are never far behind, transforming our Good Fridays into Easter joy. These experiences give more depth to our God-language. The psalms ring out with cries of despair and joy, usually over the more dramatic ups and downs of life; mystics have not shied away from the language of erotic love. 


The central prayers of the liturgy tell us, in narrative form, the story of what God has done and is doing for our salvation. Through our participation in the feasts and seasons of the liturgical year, God’s story becomes our story; “salvation history” becomes our history. Our God-language takes on the character of an on-going narrative. 


The on-going narrative becomes an on-going dialogue when God speaks in the Person of the Word, known more intimately as Jesus of Nazareth. In their friendship with him, his first disciples found their surest way of knowing God. And because Jesus’ presence is as real among us as it was among them, it is in our relationship with him – in the experience of keeping his company – that we have our surest way of knowing what God is like, and our surest corrective to inherited fear-based images of God. 


Our union with the risen Christ is not a private or “interior” affair. It is embodied in our relationships. It is as one body that we share his life, death and Resurrection. Consequently, the language of liturgy necessarily takes on a community dimension. This community includes those who lived, prayed and died before us; in the Creeds we use language that they used. What we say and pray together necessarily has a formal character to it. 


But it does not need to be more formal than that. Reverent, yes. But reverence comes out of being alive to Christ’s real presence – in the congregation (“where two or three are gathered . . . ”), in the Word (where “Christ is speaking to his people” – present tense), in the ministry of the one ordained to act in persona Christi; and in the Sacrament; (Second Vatican Council, SC. 7). 


Awareness of being in God’s presence generates awe. When awe is obstructed – by triteness or routine, or just too many words – liturgy is less telling. Our relationship with God cannot be reduced to correctness, or having the right answers, or – much less – seeming to put God in our debt, as if God owes us our salvation in exchange for certain devotions. Walking away from that kind of “religion” won’t seem any big deal.  Religious practices “hold” us when they resonate with the sheer mystery of God’s freedom, the gratuitousness of our own existence and our salvation, and give us cause for sheer wonder.  Or, to adapt Rahner: Christians will either find themselves alive to God’s presence, or they just won’t be around at all. 


  • Bishop Peter Cullinane is Bishop Emeritus of Palmerston North. This is the second part of a two-part reflection. 


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Bishop Peter Cullinane

Reader Interactions


  1. Gregory says

    How good a job has been done at that “mediating” in the “local idiom”? Sounds noble. An obvious problem with this is that rather than making it “local” it locates the manufacturing of meaning with the credentialised conference expert, career Catholic, or cutting edge cleric . The desired goal of some local explosion of meaning as expressed above doesn’t happen, from my observation or most reasonable measures, because the striving to be relevant, a la mode, and hip is cringey and the new “translation” is inevitably destined to be fish ‘n’ chip wrapper as soon as it’s published.

    Lastly, more demands need to be made to learn the Faith don’t you think? If the laity can master running a family, engineering, medicine, code, accounting, construction, and all the other pragmatic materialist procedural skills of life then we could be expected to condescend to understand a little bit of Church jargon.

    ” To simply take them from the web…” this is a revealing comment. It reveals that the cheap and rapid access of the laity to global information, video of liturgy, music, texts of Councils and Encyclicals, is hitting a sensitive spot because it puts the actions or inaction, disorganization or organization or of the local authority into context; even if the point about irregular ecclesiology is spot on.

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