Many groups have a tendency to use words that make sense to their members but are unintelligible to outsiders. I have sometimes had to decode “Church-speak” for recent converts.

For example, one time I proudly announced, “RCIA classes will begin next week, so if you know anyone who is interested in attending please fill out an information card on the table just outside the sacristy door.” I thought I’d been perfectly clear, but then a new member approached me after Mass to inquire about the availability of classes to become Catholic and when they would begin. Wondering if she’d forgotten the announcement I reminded her what I had said about RCIA classes. She looked at me blankly. “Oh,” I said, “Let me explain what I mean by RCIA.” After I did so, I mentioned that she could pick up a flyer over by the sacristy door. Again I got a blank stare, followed by the question “What’s a sacristy?” Did I dare tell her that the classes would be held in the rectory?

I’ve had a similar reaction when announcing CCD classes. One angry parent called me to protest that she had been told by the DRE (more Church-speak) that her daughter could not make her First Holy Communion unless she started attending CCD. The mother, the non-Catholic wife of a less-than-practicing Catholic husband, had no idea what CCD meant and why it should be required in order for her daughter to receive Holy Communion. She had never connected the term CCD with Sunday school or any form of religious instruction.

Over my years as a priest I have become more and more aware that although I use what I would call ordinary terms of traditional Catholicism, given the poor catechesis (another Church word, meaning religious training, by the way) of so many, the meaning of what I am saying is lost. For example, I have discovered that some Catholics think that “mortal sin” refers only to killing someone. Even the expression “grave sin” is nebulous to many; they know it isn’t good, but aren’t really sure what it means. “Venial sin” is even less understood!

Other words such as covenant, matrimony, incarnation, transubstantiation, liturgy, oration, epistle, gospel, Collect, Sanctus, chalice, paten, alb, Holy Orders, theological, missal, Monsignor, and Eucharistic, while meaningful to many in the Church, are often only vaguely understood by others in the Church, not to mention the unchurched (is that another Church word?).

Once at daily Mass I was preaching based on a reading from the First Letter of John and was attempting to make the point that our faith is “incarnational.” I noticed vacant looks out in the pews. And so I asked the small group gathered that day if anyone knew what “incarnational” meant; no one did. I went on to explain that it meant that the Word of God had to become flesh in us; it had to become real in the way we live our lives. To me, the word “incarnational” captured the concept perfectly, but most of the people didn’t even really know for sure what “incarnation” meant, let alone “incarnational.”

Ah, Church-speak!

During my years in the seminary the art of Church-speak seemed to rise to new levels. I remember that many of my professors, while railing against the use of Latin in the liturgy, had a strange fascination with Greek-based terminology. Mass was out, Eucharist was in. “Going to mass” was out, “confecting the synaxis” was in. Canon was out, “anamnesis” and “anaphora” were in. Communion was out, koinonia was in. Mystagogia, catechumenate, mysterion, epikaia, protoevangelion, hapax legomenon, epiklesis, synderesis, eschatology, Parousia, and apakatastasis were all in. These are necessary words, I suppose, but surely opaque to most parishioners. Church-speak indeed, or should I say ekklesia-legomenon.

Ah, Church-speak! Here is an online list of many other Church words for your edification (and amusement): Church words defined

At any rate, I have learned to be a little more careful when speaking so as to avoid too much Church-speak, too many insider terms, too many older terms, without carefully explaining them. I think we can and should learn many of them, but we should not assume that most people know them.

The great and Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said that he discovered early on that he often got credit for being learned when in fact he was merely being obscure. And for any who knew him in his later years, especially through his television show, he was always very careful to explain Church teaching in a way that made it accessible to the masses. It’s good advice for all of us: a little less of the CCD and RCIA jargon and little more of the clear “religious instruction” can help others to decode our Church-speak.

I would not argue that we should “dumb down” our vocabulary, for indeed it is a precious patrimony in many cases. But we need to do more explaining rather than merely presuming that most people will know what some of our terms mean.

This video has a lot of gibberish in it, but it illustrates how we can sound at times if we’re not careful!