I recently came across the article, “Be Aware of Your Language” by Justin Knowles, in which he warns about not assuming that our young people have any “real background of the Bible, its stories or any of this church talk that many of us keep using.”
While not written from a Catholic point of view, this article gets at the heart of the New Evangelization, which tells us that we must not assume that those we are catechizing have any real knowledge of the story of Salvation that for so many of us is engraved in our hearts and minds. Recently, I was speaking with a friend who has begun teaching introductory-level theology at a Catholic college in the Southwest. She told me that none of her students had even a rudimentary understanding of the Scripture story of Creation, which they were studying as part of their exploration of revelation. She was not disheartened, however, but instead saw it as an opportunity to evangelize!
I wrote about this very issue in my book, A Church on the Move: 52 Ways to Get Mission and Mercy in Motion:
We Catholics like our vocabulary. In many ways, we speak a different language, and that’s good. Unfortunately, we too often assume that everyone who sets foot on parish grounds understands Catholic-speak. And so we blithely announce that, for those interested in becoming catechumens, RCIA sessions will begin in the rectory; the Confirmandi should assemble in the sacristy for Kairos; the next CHRP retreat will begin after vespers on Sunday; and that copies of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church will be on sale in the narthex, with proceeds going to support the work of CRS and CCHD.
I’m not suggesting that we not use our rich vocabulary. On the contrary, I believe that we can use it as a tool for evangelization. We must be constantly catechizing—unpacking the meaning of what we say and do. In practical terms, this means that our use of Catholic vocabulary should be accompanied by a “translation” for those who may not be familiar with the terms we use. Otherwise we make them feel like outsiders who don’t belong. Pope Francis said that we sometimes lose people because they don’t understand what we’re talking about!
So, moving forward, let’s watch our language and make every effort to translate Catholic vocabulary for folks who don’t normally speak that language!