by Scott Fitzgerald
People often trivialize language. They use one word when actually they mean another. Plus different areas of the country have different words that refer to the same thing. This is certainly true on the ‘common-sense’ level of language. When I first went to Appalachia in 1990 and heard what I knew as a shopping ‘cart’ referred to as a ‘buggy’, I was taken aback. The person was referring to the same thing I was, but with a word I had never heard used in that context. As we move up from the ‘common-sense’ level of language to a more technical sense of language, our words begin to take on a more specific meaning. The more technical the matter, the more specific the meaning. This grows to the point to which, in whatever profession you specialize in and work in, your work has its own ‘technical language’, its own ‘jargon’.
In the technical realm of language, there are no synonyms per se; every word is nuanced with its own kind of meaning. Thus writers or speakers often have to define a word that might have one kind of meaning in one context, but would be intended differently in this particular context, be it common-sense or technical.
An extreme example of this, which was made fun of in the media a few years ago, was President Clinton’s statement during his impeachment trial: “…that depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” This takes me back to the title of this article. People often refer to the worshipers at liturgy as an ‘audience’ or a ‘congregation’ or an ‘assembly’. In the common sense realm, those three words might be said to refer to the same thing, and indeed in many ways they do. But in the technical sense, they are quite different.
An ‘assembly’ is simply a group of people who have come together, gathered in one place. There is no active sense of purpose in the word—the word itself is passive, not implying any action on the part of the people assembled. This is not true of the word ‘audience’. This word is less passive; it means ‘those who hear something’. So an audience is a group of people gathered to hear something. Therefore, at a concert there are performers (those who perform a function) and an audience (those who hear that action performed). Whereas the word ‘congregation’ has, still, a less passive meaning: it means those who have come together to become a unit.
Liturgy has no ‘audience’. We do listen at liturgy—actively and critically, but that is not our defining purpose with our presence. At liturgy, everyone has a role to play, to perform, and that role is different for different people. At liturgy, no one is passive, we are all doers. The priest presides, the lector proclaims the Word, the Communion ministers distribute Holy Communion, the cantor leads the singing, etc. But the congregation is also integral to the worship—it is the congregation who performs the prayer of the people. It is they (you) who bring your gifts, talents, and needs to bear in the one eternal act of sacrifice we call “The Mass”.
How important is this? It is so important that a priest under normal circumstances cannot celebrate Mass without a congregation present. The picture isn’t complete. This is the emphasis of Vatican II. We no longer go to ‘hear Mass’. The priest no longer ‘says Mass’. Mass is celebrated, it is offered, it is shared, it is performed. It is active—and all who come to this great feast are do-ers, act-ors, perform-ers. This is both our right and our obligation according to our baptism in Christ [cf. Vatican II]. “Be doers of the word and not hearers only.” [James 1:22]