Fr. William Messenger
An old American Indian proverb speaks of walking a mile in another’s moccasins as a way of true understanding and a means of avoiding pre-judgment. Unless we try to place ourselves in another’s situation, it is often difficult to understand someone else’s feelings and experiences. So it is with inclusive language.
Most men do not appreciate the exclusion many women feel when only male words are used to express the community at worship--this, in spite of the fact that women have been expressing their alienation and frustration for years. Technical linguistic issues aside, the word “men”, in practice, does not also include women. In liturgical theology this is known as horizontal inclusive language.
Additionally, there is concern over gender language used to address or speak about God. Certainly God cannot be defined in sexual terms. Nor, does it seem, can God be defined exclusively in male terms. Yes, Jesus was a male. But what about the first and third persons of the Trinity? The Bible speaks of God in both male and female terms, i.e. God is imaged as both father and mother. Especially when it comes to the Holy Spirit, certainly we cannot speak only in male terms. In liturgical theology this is known as vertical inclusive language.
In recent years, the Catholic Church has engaged a number of efforts to use inclusive horizontal language, both in the prayers of the liturgy and the translation of the Scriptures. That is a step in the right direction. However, more needs to be done so that the language we use in worship embraces all our members.
There are some easy steps we can take that do not damage the integrity of our community worship. In a simple and practical way, the following three recommendations provide both an initial step and the experience that might open us to more inclusive prayer in the future.
The opening greeting:
Celebrant: May the grace of our Lord Jesus, the love of God, our father and mother, and the communion of the Holy Spirit with you all
Following the Preparation of the Gifts:
Celebrant: Pray, my sisters and brothers, that God will find our celebration pleasing.
Congregation: May the Lord accept this sacrifice at our hands for the praise and glory of God’s name, for our good, and the good of all the Church.
Before the Preface of the Eucharist Prayer:
Celebrant: The Lord be with you
Congregation: And also with you
Celebrant: Lift up your hearts
Congregation: We lift them up to the Lord
Celebrant: Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God
Congregation: It is right to give God thanks and praise
Not unlike Vatican II's call for the use of the vernacular in worship, for many people the acceptance of more inclusive language will come with experience. The above examples are some that I have used for many years and that were readily and easily accepted by the community. There are many more examples that could be presented, and indeed the Church needs to continue to find ways to address the issue of inclusive language--both horizontal and vertical.
The process needs to be engaged with both a prayerfulness and a spirit openness. This is not something that one person can or even should achieve alone. To be effective and reflect the whole church, many people should be engaged in finding ways to more accurately express the makeup of the entire community. This would include participation by biblical scholars, liturgists, theologians, and especially women. A broad participation might sageguard against an attempt at inclusive language that could prove offensive or even insipid.
(Fr. William Messenger is a priest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles)