Language Can Build Community22 Dec

by Sister Mary Schmuck, RSM

Sr. Mary Schmuck, RSM

The recent and much reported Catholic community experience of changes in our language during the “source and summit” expression of our faith, Liturgy of the Eucharist, often referred to as Mass, has reminded me yet again of the importance of language.

Another big learning:  how long it took me at least to adjust to these changes.   For 6 weeks I firmly intended to respond, “and with your spirit” the 5 times of greeting in each Mass.   Finally it took!    This also reminded me of the power of repetition over 40 years (x 365 days x 5 usages in each Mass).   Quite possibly this is another lesson about the speed of learning as the years add on, too.

Years ago our United Nations Development Programme alerted us about the power of “the” – how it can first of all depersonalize a group of human persons and then “grease the skids” to demonizing them.   I suspect I have made hundreds of contacts since then to share UNDP’s wisdom and urging with others – most recently as two days ago.

However, my second personal learning of late helps me somewhat to understand why so few have heeded that advice.   These slow responders include much respected colleagues, religious community and other friends, various media people.   All that is fine – except that our society becomes so coarse, our attitudes toward other human persons so disrespectful.

Perhaps the biggest example of this disrespect is the wording in our U.S. immigration law that refers to “illegal aliens”.   Are they from another planet or universe or something?   When I have recommended more respectful language, the response has been, “But that’s the law!”   To which I respond:   our laws have been made by human persons who thus can adjust the law and its language.     If we don’t want to do that, what else is going on among us?    At root, how dare we talk like that to and about other human persons, sisters and brothers all in our human community? Much older parents might be looking around for some soap and water to apply to a speaker’s mouth!

It took me a couple decades but now I realize that our language usage is built on a fair mountain of assumptions – about myself, groups of which I am a member, other people.   So often these assumptions are unconscious.   Thus the first response to any challenge about language usage is push back.   Later on, usage challenges can help if they bring about a surfacing of those assumptions, then examination of them, consideration of proposed changes, and then change in practice – awkward though that is at first.

Then there is the matter of teasing where psychology people maintain we say challenging things to/about others that we wouldn’t in non-teasing conversations.

There is also the matter of what currently passes for “comedy” – which often seems to specialize in insulting people.

Who was it who first said, ‘Out of the heart the mouth speaks’?

The task though is that our language, our word choices, serve to build up people, not belittle them.   Isn’t this what lessons in courtesy are all about – everything from “please,”  “Congratulations”  to “Yes, Ma’am” – that we remember who we are and who other persons are – sisters and brothers in this pretty unique planetary community in our solar system, galaxy and universe (and other universes?).

One helpful  practical action:  as we struggle through the coming eleven months of our national process for selecting leaders,  let us work much harder to be careful about our words and what they are doing to others and to our sense of national community.  It is after all up to each of us in this our time.

This whole language care effort could be one of the biggest and best gifts we can give one another in this special season and new year.

Sr. Mary Schmuck RSM works for Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Louisville as the Coordinator for the Bardstown area of the Catholic Identity and External Relations Department


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