I noticed the feature post by William Mahrt at the CMAA blog, “Word, Words,” and especially his leadoff take on how to describe the people who gather/assemble/congregate to celebrate/hear/attend Mass. An excerpt:
Take, for example, two words: assembly and congregation. “Congregation” was used before the council, but has largely been replaced by “assembly.” Etymologically there are subtle differences. “Assembly” derives from ad + simul, a coming together, making similar. “Congregation” comes from con + grex (flock), a gathering together in a flock. Some would object to calling the people in church a flock, as in a flock of sheep, who are simply herded around without exercising their own independent judgment. But I would suggest that the difference between the two terms is more functional: “assembly” implies bringing people together without distinction, being made similar; “congregation” implies being brought together under the guidance of a shepherd.
The word study here is interesting. I also know that non-Catholics, especially some Protestants also use the term “congregation” to designate not only a worshipping body, but the overall group of people shepherded in ministry by a pastor. It has always struck me that “liturgical assembly,” the full term, communicates an accuracy when we need to speak of the people, the faithful, who celebrate the liturgy.
In addition to a word study, I would urge an examination of the GIRM (It’s coming to Catholic Sensibility … eventually.) And if we turn to the beginning of Chapter 2, we read in section 27:
At Mass—that is, the Lord’s Supper—the People of God is called together, with a priest presiding and acting in the person of Christ, to celebrate the memorial of the Lord, the Eucharistic Sacrifice. For this reason Christ’s promise applies in an outstanding way to such a local gathering of the holy Church: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst” (Mt 18:20). For in the celebration of Mass, in which the Sacrifice of the Cross is perpetuated, Christ is really present in the very liturgical assembly gathered in his name, in the person of the minister, in his word, and indeed substantially and continuously under the eucharistic species.
This section seems to cover the whole ballpark: presidency, celebration, sacrifice, gathering, liturgical assembly, presence. If you continue in the GIRM, you’ll see a frequent use of both terms to describe the people at Mass: assembly and congregation. Actually, if you look at the revised order of Mass, the more common terms for the liturgical assembly are populo, rendered as “People,” and fideles, rendered as “faithful.” An early draft of the document leads off with “Populo congregato,” which was/is translated as “When the people are gathered.”
While I appreciate Dr Mahrt’s effort to emphasize the sacred and rid references of “secular connotations,” I think what’s really in evidence here is the way language is used politically. And more than the use of congregation/assembly, that choice of usage brings a very definite non-sacred tone into the discussion. If I were less apolitical, I might suggest retiring both “congregation” and “assembly” and aiming for a new, third way: the faithful.
That said, my suggestion is to closely examine how the liturgy itself uses words, and not just the instructional documents, but the very Missal itself. In the case of the people, I’m feeling more inclined to use the term “faithful,” which in basic English connotes “faith,” a quality that is decidedly sacred. So, yes, while the use of “assembly” might bring to mind a school gathering, or “congregation” might drop a hint of a Roman dicastery, if not the Lutherans next door, I think we’re adult enough to judge context of our discussions on liturgy. And maybe we can feel free to make use of the wonderful English language we share and use a broad and wide vocabulary to communicate things of God. Without the things of Earth.