"Celebration" and the pitfalls of language


When posting on Twitter about celebrating Mass at the Lady altar at Bournemouth (above) I was taken to task for using the expression "celebrate Mass" instead of a better choice such as "offering the Holy Sacrifice." The expression "celebrate Mass" is very Novus Ordo language apparently.

It is easy to defend oneself against such a criticism. Celebrare was used in the third century throughout his writings by St Cyprian, one of the first ecclesiastical writers to use Latin; the traditional prayer of intention for the priest before Mass begins "Ego volo celebrare Missam ..."

St Thomas Aquinas quotes (ST 3a 83.1 corp) the Secret which is in the traditional Missal for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost:
"quoties huius hostiae commemoratio celebratur, opus nostrae redemptionis exercetur"
and indeed there are many uses of celebrare in the prayers of the Roman Missal. A fine example is the collect for the feast of St Simon and St Jude which goes back to the 8th century Gelasian sacramentary:
Deus, qui nos per beatos Apostolos tuos Simonem et Judam, ad agnitionem tui nominis venire tribuisti: da nobis eorum gloriam sempiternam et proficiendo celebrare, et celebrando proficere.

(O God who granted us through your blessed Apostles Simon and Jude, to come to the knowlege of your name: grant us to celebrate their eternal glory by professing it and to profess it by celebrating it.)
A slam dunk argument against the proposition that "celebrate" is a novusordoist innovation is that St Pius V used the expression celebrare throughout the Apostolic Constitution Quo Primum of 1570 in which he granted to all priests of the Latin Rite in perpetuity the right to celebrate the Mass according to the traditional Missal which he approved.

HOWEVER ...

It would be fair to say that the English word "celebrate" has had various meanings over time just as the Latin word celebrare did in ancient times. Examining these, we can see why the ecclesiastical Latin writers used celebrare for the liturgy and why it became and remains a stable usage in ecclesiastical Latin - and looking at the English usage, we can see that there are some problems with using "celebrate" in the same way.

Lewis and Short shows how celebrare in Latin originally meant to go to a place in great numbers. It came to mean also the gathering for a festival, or the solemnising of the festival itself. By the time of St Cyprian and the emergence of Christian latinity, celebrare would have been a suitable word to use for the carrying out of the solemn ceremonies of the Mass.

In English, "celebrate" is used to indicate the esteem given to someone - a celebrated singer, for example, a use that has now descended in one form to "celebrity." The more general use of "celebrate" in modern English is to have a good time in recognition of an event or festivity - an occasion for having fun that might well involve an excess of food and drink, accompanied with dancing, waving or jumping about.

In English dictionaries, the use of "celebrate" to mean the carrying out of religious rites or ceremonies is still often recognised, but the problem is that this older meaning of celebration has, in my lifetime, been corrupted by those who should have preserved it. As an adolescent in the 1970s, I experienced ghastly liturgies with inappropriate beat music and general informality justified by priests who said that we have to remember that Mass is A CELEBRATION!

Hence I take the point and can understand why Paul posted this clip:
So should we drop the use of "celebrate"? It would be a pity, but we probably do need to recognise the way that the word is normally used in English and explain to people from time to time that we are using the word in the older, and still legitimate sense of the solemn execution of the ceremonies that are proper to a religious rite.

Indeed changes of meaning present a challenge with other words. Notoriously the history of the word "temptation" is fatally misunderstood in many discussions of the penultimate clause of the Pater Noster. But that is a post for another day.

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