Decades ago, when I was just getting started in my legal career, I was a law clerk for a six-foot, four-inch, immensely imposing judge. Everyone called him “Your Honor.” I was a very junior law clerk, but even the most senior of his clerks, a man who had been with the judge for over a quarter-century, would never dream of suggesting to anyone that the judge should be called anything other than “Your Honor.” The title and its prerogatives belonged to the judge, and not to anyone else who worked for him.
When I was a child in Catholic parochial school, the nuns drilled us in English grammar with their usual efficiency. One of the things they taught us were the linguistic prerogatives of the Almighty. “God,” they told us, “is always capitalized. And so are His pronouns.” When I left that parochial school, I found that most folks followed the grammatical rule that the nuns taught. But as the decades passed, that linguistic respect diminished, even in the most unexpected places.
All this came to mind on a recent Sunday, when we were first permitted back at Mass. There was social distancing, no handshakes, no holy water, and no missalettes. As a result, our wise pastor selected only old classics: “Holy, Holy, Holy”; “Lord, I Am Not Worthy”; and “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.” Everyone knows these hymns by heart, and so we were all able to sing along, masks notwithstanding. Secretly, I felt relief, and something akin to triumph over an unseen but implacable adversary. Who is this adversary? Whoever it is at Oregon Press, main publisher of the ubiquitous missalettes, who has made it his business to turn every single capital “H” into a lowercase “h” whenever “He” refers to God. Not content with monkeying with “He,” this person has turned their relentless attention to “You/you” and (horrors!) to “Thou/thou.”
This enemy in the publishing house didn’t have to work too hard on changing the capitalization of “Thou,” because for the last couple of decades, people have systematically been changing “Thou” to “you” whenever and wherever they could…but the removal of ancient and reverent language, as part of the ongoing de-sacralization of our liturgy, is a story for another day.
I don’t know who authorized this ongoing demotion of the Almighty’s linguistic prerogatives, but even if it was the pope himself, I know that he greatly exceeded his authority. Why should we care about something so minor? First, because it is not minor to give away the prerogatives of any of our superiors, let alone those of the Almighty Himself.
Also, it’s not a minor thing because, in a society that takes pronoun use deadly seriously, some functionary had to make a real effort to do this. It’s not a small project to change the capitalization in hundreds of hymns. One can’t simply click one key, because sometimes he/you/thou are at the beginning of a sentence and must be capitalized. Did someone write a computer program just for this purpose? Or worse, was someone employed to chase down each capital H and Y and T individually? It boggles the mind. It’s a part, admittedly tiny, of the on-going, relentless “renewal” that has succeeded in virtually emptying our churches. Finally, it’s not minor because tiny bit by tiny bit is how we are gradually, but surely, moved away from a mindset that puts God above all other considerations.
Why should Catholic parishes continue to patronize those who have gone to such lengths to disrespect God Himself? If we can sing our old classic hymns (no copyright issues there!) when we can’t have missalettes, why can’t we sing them all the time if that’s what it takes to say “no” to the destruction of the linguistic prerogatives of God?
Grace Holder is a wife, a mom to five mostly grown children, and a public interest lawyer in Pennsylvania.