June 27, 2011

Can you give me an 'Ah-men'?

Blessed Pope John XXIII revived a custom in Rome of visiting 40 “station churches” during Lent. The North American College, the bishops’ American seminary in Rome, has embraced this devotion with great seriousness and each morning about 6 a.m. the seminarians start trekking to the church du jour.  And they walk briskly. I don’t think this is just a way of reminding the older guys like me that the years have not been kind, but sometimes it feels that way.

This Lent I was concelebrated Mass at San Giorgio, a church which supposedly has a relic of its titular saint and is about 1500 years old. Concelebrating with more than 50 priests, I realized today that one of the most difficult changes related to the New Missal for me is saying “Ah-men” instead of “Ay-man,” as I usually do in English. When I said the second pronunciation, I stood out in the crowd, linguistically speaking. And the crowd was mostly American.

I had no trouble saying it right in Spanish, and I even remember when Catholics used to say “Ah-men” when I was a boy, before the Mass of Paul VI. The movie “The Lilies of the Field” has a kind of shtick about the way the German nuns out in the desert in the Southwest say “ah-men” and Sidney Poitier sings “ay-men.”

Because my father was Protestant, I always was watchful for the differences in ideas and worship and was aware of the “ah-men, ay-men” difference. I remember wondering how we could get the Protestants back to saying it our way.

Then, American Catholics started saying “ay-men,” too. I guess it was the English liturgy that caused it, but in other countries that was not so. A Canadian priest told me recently that he can always tell when there are Americans visiting in his church because of the way they say “Amen.”

Some argue that we have accepted the latter use of a movement within Protestantism, and not generalized among them, either. Fowler’s English Usage commented on the fact that the Catholics had preserved the original translation, but that changed around my neck of the woods.

The pronunciation is not of great moment, of course. What does it matter if we have a slight accent, I suppose you could ask. However, sensitivity about the pronunciation can stimulate some thought about what we are doing when we say, “Amen.”

An acerbic priest noted about the new Missal, “The whole idea of the new translation is idiotic, but if it makes us think about everything we are saying, it can be put to good use.” I do not think the improved translation “idiotic,” but I agree with Father’s conclusion. By taking pains about each word we pronounce as we talk to God, we should improve the sincerity of our prayer.

“Amen” is one of the few Hebrew words almost everybody in the world knows, just like “alleluia.” It was not translated into Greek in the Gospels, where it occurs 57 times. Then, when the early Christian liturgy was in Greek, the last vestige of which is the “Kyrie eleison” (“Lord, have mercy”) prayer, “amen” continued to be used. It was preserved in the Latin prayer of the Church, also, not just liturgically, but even in private prayers, which end with “amen.”

The word comes from the Hebrew verb “‘aman,” which means to affirm or support. There are distinct uses for the word in the Bible, but the Jewish people used it as a response to public prayer. This passed over to Christian prayer, and, indeed, “amin” is also part of prayer in Islam.

But what does it mean when you say “amen”? This question could take us back to other, even more basic ones: What does it mean to pray? What does it mean to prayer together? What does it mean that in this community at prayer I say “amen”?

The New Missal is especially about what it means to talk to God. The new translation implicitly tells us that we will talk to God in a way that continues the tradition of centuries. Also, that the discourse with which we speak to the Almighty requires a theological insight.

Who is speaking to Whom? In the new translation of the collects, the opening prayers of the Mass, this is emphasized very much. One liturgical expert says that we will have to learn to beseech God to graciously hear us, and that emphasizes humility.

The New Missal is much more reverent in that its more formal address to God is clear about “who the Creator is and who the created” as I heard this liturgist said. That sounds good to me. There was an article in the Herald Tribune here in Europe recently saying that we Americans have taken self-esteem to new levels. The new translation might be good to give us back some perspective.

A lot of things about the Mass have to do with attitude. There is a new book on the liturgy in Italian that asks, “How can you go to Mass without losing your faith? The author thinks that was have been victims of too much “personalization” of the Mass.

The liturgy has been abused by some people who think that it must fit us, instead of us trying to fit into the scheme of things as God wills for us. God is always waiting for our prayer, as was expressed so beautifully by St. Josemaria, the founder of Opus Dei. He loves us infinitely, and is always ready to hear from us.

But that should mean more awareness of Him and less of us in our prayer. “He must increase and we must decrease,” as St. John the Baptist said of Jesus. And that is expressed in language that is given to us. We learn to pray from the Church. Our private prayer mirrors the relationship with God that we are given through the sacraments.

When we try to make our prayer so “ours,” in a sense of special or peculiar, it can become more about us than about God or his Church. The Body of Christ gathered at prayer is not something we have discovered or invented, but something we have been given. We accept this saying “amen.” And the personal “amen” of each one of us is a commitment to the community that prayers together in this way.

The Catechism of the Council of Trent spoke about the word “amen” in this way: "So frequent was this Hebrew in the mouth of Our Savior, that it pleased the Holy Ghost to have it perpetuated in the Church of God.”

Something as simple as saying “amen” is an imitation of Jesus Christ, because he used that word. As it always should, reflection about the liturgy brings us back to our personal relationship with Jesus our Savior, a relationship born and kept alive by its connection to the Church.

That is something that we ought to meditate on. And if we pronounce it the “new” way, really the “old” way, we are closer to the way that He said it. Can I hear an “ah-men.”

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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