As Dr Joseph Martos has compellingly demonstrated in his book
Deconstructing Catholic Theology and Reconstructing Catholic Ritual
(Resource Publications / Wipf and Stock), the language used to speak about sacraments, in common use in the Church for more than 850 years, is no longer the language of the present day. Even if in some cases the words remain the same, their understanding and nuance have changed. The result is that those words are no longer intelligible. And in this, the Church has a choice to make. Allow me to present a concrete example of the dynamic at work here.
I was born into a family of Belgian origin, my father having emigrated to Canada in 1910 at the age of 10, my mother the first-born child of a Belgian couple who emigrated in 1912. Flemish was the language commonly spoken in our home during my early childhood, and hence my first language, with English a very close, and soon more common, second.
I am now 70 years of age, and have not been in a Flemish environment for many years. Yet when I visit my relatives in Belgium, in the area my parents and grandparents came from, I can within a day or two converse comfortably in Flemish. (When I move any more than 20 km away, I run into problems, with friends in Leuven saying "Oh Ray, you talk so funny!") When I am chatting with my relatives or others, however, I will often notice a look of surprise on their faces. It quickly becomes clear that they know what I am saying, but the words I have just used, and their connotations, are to them 'ancient'. I am, after all, using language from 1910, the last time my family experienced being in a truly Flemish community. In Belgium I am, in effect, a walking museum piece! The language I use is no longer fully intelligible to these people. My language has remained fixed in time, theirs has moved on. What was comfortably intelligible to them no longer is, having been replaced by different understandings of those same words, or entirely new words with different meanings to describe the same realities, albeit from new perspectives.
At that point, I face a choice. I can either attempt to persuade my relatives and their neighbours that they need to understand my words as I use them, so that we can carry on a solid conversation. Or, I can learn their language and its connotations, and begin to speak about reality in their terms.
I suggest the former is akin to an exercise well suited for the academy, with little interest or value to people caught up in day-to-day life. The latter is personally challenging, as it requires a great deal of work, in the form of listening, learning and practicing, but it presents opportunities to enter into a conversation on reality as experienced today, in the language of today.
I suggest the Church, today, faces a similar reality. The words that were once used have, at the very least and in many cases, different connotations. As an example, the Latin word
, which was understood as a thing in itself, is now used primarily as an adjective or adverb, e.g. something is substantial, or substantially the same or different. In addition, new words have developed, which carry within them new perspectives unimaginable in the past. And so, as Church, we face a similar choice.
We can continue to use the language appropriate to yesteryear (itself a term from a different era), trying to explain our words to people whose language is markedly different from ours, and hope we can entice them into exploring God and the reality of faith in the way we know it. Or, we can begin to learn the language of the people of today, listening for signs of new nuances and new words, developing new understandings, so we can talk with people of the realities of faith in language they, with their contemporary perspectives, can understand. I suggest the latter, while far more challenging for those of us who grew up with the language of an earlier era, is far more likely to engender and nurture faith in Christ, faith in the living God, both in the people with whom we converse, and in ourselves.
It is here where I believe young people of today hold great hope for the Church. It's not because I believe they have more energy, more technological skills to spread the Good News - though those may all be true. It is because they are no longer caught up in the language of yesterday. They are talking about realities they experience, the same realities we have experienced, but doing so in words and language of contemporary society. As such, they have a greater capacity to speak about the realities of faith in a way which connects with their peers.
When I say young people, I am thinking of those who are perhaps 35 years of age or younger. It has been about 60 years since we saw the Church enter into a new era, and a new connection with reality, through the work of Vatican II. The children of that era (people like me), still steeped in the language of the previous 850 years, have grown up and had children of their own. Those children in turn have, by and large, grown up in a world with different words, different understandings.
It is, I suggest, our happy (and challenging) task to converse with those young folks, not to lead them to faith, but to learn from them the language, and its meanings, which they use to talk about the same experiences, the same realities of faith, that we experienced, but spoke of differently.
Sometimes those conversations will show us that the words used still carry the same connotations, the same understandings, that we have. We will be comforted by that. At other times, however, we will find that the same words carry different meanings. Not wrong, just different ways of speaking of real experiences, shining light on new but still valid understandings. At still other times, we will find that different words are used to speak of the same experience.
If we remain true to this task, we may well find ourselves exploring a further area, one which could have rich consequences for the journey to Christian unity.
An ever-growing number of marriages are taking place across denominational lines, with Catholics (who hold a rich tradition of Aristotelian and Scholastic metaphysics) marrying people who over centuries developed a different language of faith containing different words, different nuances. Many of these couples go well beyond the usual understanding of mixed marriages, and become what is known as 'interchurch', marriages in which both spouses retain their original church membership, but so far as they are able are committed to live, worship and participate in their spouse's church also. If they have children, as parents they exercise a joint responsibility under God for their religious and spiritual upbringing, teaching them by word and example to appreciate both their Christian traditions. Within the unity of their marriage, such couples receive as gift, and grow into, an understanding of each other's language, complete with the meanings those languages carry. They do this as two persons, made one by God, in the 'domestic church' of their home.
That is already a significant step. But the key point of contact is their children who, having received the 'pearl of great price' that is the experience of faith of each of their parents, now carry both traditions, both languages, within one body.
It may be that in such interchurch children, we find developing a new language of faith, new understandings of timeless realities, which will enlighten our churches, enabling them to take the next steps toward the unity for which Christ prayed.
If what we believe of the sacraments, and of faith, is real and true, then if we, the Church, can accept the challenge to converse in an atmosphere of receptive learning, we, both old and young, across all seeming demarcation lines, will come to know, by experience, that the Good News of God is ever real, ever true, ever ancient, ever new.