From a seminarian:
I wanted to know if the lector should keep eye contact while
proclaiming the word of God at Holy Mass? Many parish guidelines say that it’s important to keep eye contact.
Keep eye contact… presumably with the “audience” to which the lectoress is “playing”?
Here’s my view. There is a thin line between reading the Word of God in an articulate, intelligible, thoughtful way, and a performance. While Holy Mass is the greatest drama even in earthly terms, our roles are not dramatic roles.
I was an actor in a former life. I know the temptation to “play” the crowd. Keeping eye-contact, for most people, will lead them into problems, in my opinion. Unless they are quite disciplined, they will lend to their reading the overtone that that reading is about the reader and not the Word. In all our reading in Scripture, the Word is both speaking and being spoken, raised to the Father.
“Keeping eye-contact” is not something that I would push. I would push proper pronunciation of the words, the phrasing, the meaning.
Perhaps we can, under the gravitational pull of the Extraordinary Form, take a cue from how the priest was trained to say Holy Mass. Even though the priest knows most of the texts by heart, he is to keep his eye in contact with the texts printed on the pages of the Missale Romanum or on the altar cards. A priest does well, for the sake of prudence, to follow the printed texts even when they are something he has said everyday of his life for decades. The texts are important. They are Christ speaking. The priest ought not stumble over them, scramble them, lose his place.
I think all of us have had the experience of poor readings by poorly prepared or simply untalented readers. We have also have the experience of readers who read as if for a Victorian melodrama. They soon become ridiculous and, sadly, don’t realize it.
Women religious of a certain age, I have noted, easily fall prey to this. Could they be channeling their years of teaching elementary school? They sometimes are involved in the training of readers in parishes and they pass along all their skill in “reading with meaning“.
Okay, that last part was a digression, a shot leveled from my battle-scarred personal experience. I’ve had to watch, listen to, suffer from ghastly, overblown, prating proclamations from women religious, with their Sears’ pants suits and lapel pins and hairdos, usually named Sr. Randi, now grinning, now frowning, sawing the air, thus, vivisecting the texts with pregnant pauses, pivoting their aggressive eye-contact from side to side with the intensity of a coastline lighthouse in a fog, who clearly wanted to be at the altar, not the ambo.
I’ll drop it now. And yes, I have heard some men do the same. But not, by far, in the same numbers. Nowhere like. And I have heard many women, even religious, read well.
Moreover, no matter how well some people may read, there are some men who are officially installed as Lectors. They read with a difference.
On an additional point, I will also give a little advice to readers.
LISTEN TO YOURSELF when reading. Tune your ear to listen to the sound of your voice for a few seconds when you start to read. Listen for whether or not your voice, by itself or amplified, is filling the space. Are you to soft? Too loud? Therefore, mind your use of the microphone. Some mics require that you be positioned immediately in front of them. Some need you to be very close. Some are more sensitive. Mind the sound of your voice coming back to you. Once you have the right balance, and this should take no more than two or three syllables, not words, then pay attention to your text again.
Finally… unless the book, the Lectionary, is set to the wrong page and you can’t find the text, use the Lectionary and not the missalette.
Bottom line: Focus primarily on proper diction, phrasing, comprehension, not the congregation – they aren’t in a theater – and not, with the exception of checking your sound, on yourself. And remember the old actor’s adage: less is more.
And when Mass is over….
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Very, very good advice.
I have been an actor also, and a trial lawyer, and in radio. I do read occasionally at Mass.
Less IS more. Especially at Mass. You are not playing a role, you are not the point. An even, clear, neutral delivery with careful pronunciation and a natural, quiet manner is best. Eyes on the text, or if you look forward in order to be heard, over the heads of the congregation and lightly focussed on a point on the rear wall.
Best advice I ever received was from a fellow reader: God is speaking, you are simply the messenger.
Bravo, Fr. Z ;-)
Yes, good advice. I was told by my pastor during training that I had to make eye contact every few words. I remember wondering why since almost everyone (myself included) seemed to look down or away during the reading (presumably thinking about what was being said).
Let us not forget that the ideal (although not often actualized in the Ordinary Form) is that the readings be sung/chanted — another way in which the lector becomes diminished, becoming a servant of the sacred text, not a dramatic show(wo)man. Is one is to follow the notes, one couldn’t possibly keep eye contact.
That should read: “IF one is to follow the notes…” strike “is”. Sorry for not proofreading prior to posting.
Father, your paragraph on “wymyn” religious in their Sears pantsuits made me laugh out loud. In our parish, only men are present on the altar, including the readings of the day. No one seems to mind this. The readers keep their eyes on the text and not on the “audience.” But I have also suffered through torturous readings which focused on the reader and not on the Word of God.
Fine article. If you are a not confident reader, try breaking the sentences up into short 3, 4 or 5 word phrases, with minimal pause for hesitation, or breath, between. This gives you time to read ahead. Try listening to Queen Elizabeth II, she has this down to a fine art in her speeches, and it lends a sort of detached formality, which is well fitted to the Word of God, which is above all a Sacramental, not a story, nor a performance. The proclamation of the Word of God should not have expression!
MYSTIC MONK ALERT! – all the four links you give in this post just open up the .jpg file. None leads to the site for buying it, as in the sidebar. [Thanks! Corrected. Go buy coffee now.]
Thank you Father. I am a reader at our church, and find it very difficult to look away from the text. I am glad to hear I don’t have to!
I listen to my voice also – I read the text as I would like to hear it read. I also like the sound of my own reading voice which, since I had whooping cough last year, has dropped at least an octave.
I also enjoy listening to your own voice on Radio Sabina – I hope you broadcast again soon!
I haven’t had this problem up here in Chicago yet, but at my former parish in Georgia, the lectors were taught to look at the whole congregation before they started reading. It was ridiculous.
May I make another suggestion, as it’s something I recently observed at Mass, which I found somewhat annoying and distracting.
If you’re reading and happen to lose your place, can you please not speak your thinking under your breath into the microphone as you try to find your place again? Hearing, “Hmm… here… let’s see… where am I? Ok, here we go” in the middle of the reading is like hearing nails on a chalkboard.
Women religious of a certain age, I have noted, easily fall prey to this. Could they be channeling their years of teaching elementary school?
Yes! This drives me nuts! It’s as if the reader reads the reading as if he/she was reading a story to a class of primary grade students. All that’s missing is the oscillating of the book to show us the pictures. Grr!
I abhor reading at Mass. The only time I do it is when I get forced/guilted into it at family funerals. I have a voice that doesn’t need a mic. Even when I whisper, it’s loud so no matter how quietly I speak into the mic (which always seem to be of poor quality and making static sounds in the background) I can hear myself as if I’m shouting.
In my previous parish I was a reader (not an instituted lector). I made it a point to be familiar with the readings ahead of time so that I would be able to read them at Mass clearly and correctly. This allowed me to lift my head up from the Lectionary to look at the congregation in whose presence I was reading. (Of course I was reading in God’s presence too.)
Sometimes the people I was looking at would be looking at me too instead of at, say, a missalette, or the priest, or altar, or tabernacle, or something else. I never considered them my audience, and I certainly did not “play” to them, nor “perform” the readings. I read them, or — as the phrase goes lately — proclaimed them. I read them as a proclamation of the works of God. I never considered the duty of reading the Scriptures to be about me.
I’m aware that the priest celebrating the EF is instructed (whether in the rubrics or in commentary on the Mass, I do not recall) to look down and not at the congregation when he turns to face them (e.g. to say “Dominus vobiscum”). I presume this is so that he is not distracted or perhaps scandalized by something he sees. (I also presume there are no bugs crawling on the floor where he looks, lest he be distracted or scandalized.) I would not consider this to be of the essence of the Mass; I would certainly expect that Jesus looked at those to whom He was ministering.
I am not sure what you mean when you say that instituted Lectors “read with a difference.” Apart from the one fulfilling the liturgical munus of reading Scripture, what is the difference with which they read? I don’t see how this compares to a priest vs. a non-priest praying the Eucharistic Prayer, for example.
Focus primarily on proper diction, phrasing, comprehension, not the congregation
I agree with this summation: focus primarily on proper diction, phrasing, comprehension, not [primarily on] the congregation. But I would not exclude the congregation from my focus or consideration.
To Josephus Muris Saliensis: why do you say that “[t]he proclamation of the Word of God should not have expression”?
At the Brompton Oratory – where I am blessed to be able to attend – there is a very limited amount of eye contact during the readings, but there is a rather marked eye-catching during the homily, the eyes of the priest wandering here and there with several pew-sitters whilst he makes his points. This is, though, never forced or meant to transform the homily in the celebrant’s show; rather, it is the natural result of talking to an attentive audience.
All this stays in marked contrast to the female readers I had the displeasure of hearing in Westminster Cathedral, pouring an utterly exaggerated emotionalism on their words and at the same time making you feel like a little child who would otherwise be unable to understand the meaning of the words the lady is reading.
Whenever I assist to such performances, I can’t avoid thinking of what would become of the Church if these ladies were allowed to become “priestesses”: we’d have the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Kindergarten before we can say “and with your gentle and kind spirit”.
It’s kind of symptomatic overall of the notion that the very best service a lay person could render to parish is to be visibly on altar. If it’s primarily for the affirmation or other’s perception that we have some kind of power or authority from that it sort of negates the actual service.
We hear the readings through listening. Whatever the person looks like, their characteristics, their attempts to interact with us, their expression and clothing, should all be at the service of the word. When these take on a ‘life of their own’, reflecting one person’s preference, then they work against the listening that is necessary. The readings are already all things to all people, the word speaks already. The word ‘sells itself’ by the points Fr. Z describes, not by someone personally and actively selling to audience.
If read I think a more flat reserved affect allows for as many people in as diverse circumstances as possible to enter into the listening.
If I get to vote though I vote for chanted. Very beautiful, very effective.
I love it when they start shaking/nodding their heads and using the same goofy expressions that cantors use. You know they all learned it in Liturgical Workshop 101. “Make them feel it”.
I feel like a 3 year-old being read a bedtime story. I’m reminded it’s scripture when the closing is “The Word of the Lord” instead of “And they lived happily ever after.”
Good one, Rich! Although, as bad as that is, it will always be better than old mother hen (oops, I mean Cantor) flapping her wings to incite her brood to sing louder and with feeling those dreadful responsorial psalms! [St. Augustine of Hippo uses the image of a bird flapping its wings to encourage its young to describe himself in encouraging the newly baptized.]
Overall, I think this is good advice, Father — although I would be inclined to cut some charitable slack to a religious sister who’s been coping with grade school kids for decades and has been marked for life by the experience. [No. No slack. Zero. That is exactly the slack we were cut by them in seminary.] (I know one who can’t stop doing head counts, even when traveling with groups of adults. Obviously, she’s led more field trips than a normal person should have to.)
In addition to your recommendation to “Focus primarily on proper diction, phrasing, comprehension,” I’d also suggest: read slower. Many lay lectors go too fast. This is especially important when reading from the Epistles of Saint Paul: go too fast through one of his sentences and you will be gasping for breath before you finish. [Pace is tricky. But in general, people can hear pretty fast, if you get my drift. It is a temptation to slow down too much, for the sake of meaning. Acoustics matter as well. A booming echoing church requires a different pace.]
I don’t usually look at the congregation very much, until I get to “The Word of the Lord” — I’m too afraid of losing my place.
To offer a suggestion from the East (which of course until recently was also practiced in the West), why not resume the practice of chanting the readings? [A suggesting made above as well. And a good one it is.]
I have found that it is much harder for the reader to intrude his (yes, his– this is the East, after all) own personality on the text, and it is also more difficult to use visual dramatics such as eye contact, when one chants the text. In order both to read the words and intone the chant, one has to put all of one’s attention on the text and music, rather than on the dramatics.
Besides, you guys have such lovely Gregorian chant melodies for the epistle, the psalms, and the gospel. It’s rather a pity that you seldom make use of them.
I’m afraid to ask- but any tips for those of us who do cantor and must sing those “dreadful” psalms? [No, that would be a rabbit hole, right? We have no advice about that here, for that is a different topic which requires another entry. Let this discussion play out for a while and perhaps I can start another discussion on that if the right question is sent in. It could be interesting.]
The best most listenable readers seem to be those with exceptionally good reading comprehension. These are able to proclaim the reading in a way that is simple and straightforward but makes the text more fully understandable. If the readers read, pray with and practice the readings ahead of time this also helps, reading at a moderate to slow speaking pace also helps. Any kind of theatrical or emotional reading is distracting, and I think both the reader and others would be distracted if they were looking at the people. When I sometimes have to give “crash” instruction to readers my formulaic instruction is “read clearly, with dignity, and with a certain humility.”
I suggest that if there are people who are excellent readers, they should be specifically asked or encouraged to read, but not praised, definitely do not gush over the way someone reads. Being a reader should not be just a way to involve people, to the point of indifference about whether the reading is done well, it matters a lot for people to hear and understand the readings as well as possible.
I read that in the EF Mass, the readings are directed toward God, they are offered back to God in some sense. If that is so then chanting them is very appropriate, but in terms of people being able to listen and understand I don’t think chanting is the most helpful even in English. Though, it is very beautiful sometimes if the Gospel is chanted skillfully.
Weeeeeell, there is a sort of happy medium between reading in a monotone and reading with exaggeration. It’s really sad when somebody is reading one of the great beautiful verses of the Bible in some sort of Dick and Jane way. There are a lot of people who apparently tune out every single verse of the Bible that they ever hear at Mass, and this is part of the reason they can do this.
OTOH, despite the fact that it really really is hard to read it out loud any other way, it was wrong of me to succumb to temptation, that one time, and read the negotiations between Abraham and God in more of a dramatic way than was wise. (Though I was sorta volunteered on the spur of the moment, and didn’t have time to overcome my baser urgings. And I didn’t go really over the top; I was just too lively for church.)
We have to remember that the Lord’s House is a house of prayer and of focus on Him, and that people are very very easy to distract. Priests (and deacons and servers) wear vestments so that people can look past them to Him. Lectors and cantors and ushers and so forth — we have to be even more “transparent” or “invisible” to people’s thoughts, like what we do just happens.
Like the puppeteers at Japanese bunraku puppet plays, who stand in full view of the audience. But they wear black clothes and all their attention is on what they’re doing; so the audiences only notice the puppet play and not six guys in black desperately waving their arms around in weird positions.
Re: chanting the readings — Chanting is satisfactory to both the liturgical and narrative/literary demands, and it does make you a transparent person doing the universal thing. You’d have to be pretty good about enunciating, though.
In general, if somebody is audible, understandable, and reads in a smoothish way, God will do the rest. I know the people that go to workshops mean well, by directing you to grab people’s attention by “drawing them in with eye contact” and making arm gestures and stuff, but it really is silly in practice and makes people determined to ignore you. (Or to pay attention to you like it’s all a theater show, which is Not the Point.) Looking at the book, or looking over people’s heads at the back wall (or the side wall, depending on ambo-orientation), are perfectly sufficient.
Look down for texts of the Church — look up for the texts of your homily.
I read at Mass, and about 70% of our lectors are also female. We will be having a “commissioning” of lectors after our training workshop this month (let’s hope eye contact isn’t mentioned during the workshop–they have been positive experiences so far). I wonder if anyone in the parish will notice/understand that they used the word “commissioning,” not “instituting” or “installing.” I’m betting most people think they’re the same thing.
How about trying this:
No non-clergy lectors.
*hides under chair*
Here I have the “Workbook for Lectors, Gospel Readers, and Proclaimers of the Word” — an LTP publication. It’s been the training manual in most parishes I’ve been in. Tell me what you think.
In the Introduction it says: “Making eye contact with the assembly and speaking in a strong, deliberate way will engage your listeners.
It also tells us how to read the readings. For example, the Christmas Vigil reading from the Acts of the Apostles:
Pause noticeably after “to speak,” so as to make it obvious that what follows is Paul’s speech. Deliver Paul’s speech making eye contact with the assembly as much as possible.
Speak Jesus’ name clearly and with reverence on this evening when we celebrate the Vigil of Christmas.
Pause noticeably after “I am not he.” Then, with humility in your voice, proclaim John’s announcement of Jesus coming.
Or this one from Deuteronomy:
Make eye contact with the assembly as you strongly proclaim the opening line, calling them to listen to the words to follow. (The opening line is “Moses said to the people:”)
Distinguish between blessing and curse by using a lighter tone of voice for blessing and a darker, heavier tone for curse.
Pause noticeably before the final sentence. Offer Moses’ general instructions with care. Make eye contact with the assembly as you do.
I have the same book as Volange. Lectors at our church have been using it for about 4 or 5 years now. I’ve been a lector since I was a teenager and in those 20+ years, it’s one of the only sources of instruction I’ve ever received. Simply put, the book is too much! I think it encourages lectors become actors. I am lector at tomorrow’s Mass. In preparation for the first reading the writer instructs the lector to make sure to “make eye contact with the assembly on ‘You’. Direct the word to the assembly in a serious manner that conveys the significant responsibility they have to bring others to faith….Express disappointment at the decision others make to turn from their evil ways. Contrast the disappointment with relief at the salvation of the watchman.” There are many words highlighted in bold throughout that I am supposed to emphasize also. Quite dramatic, no? I love the idea of not using eye contact and just reading well. I love even more the idea of chanting.
I did attend a diocesan conference where one of the topics was entitled “Speak to the Isrealites! Lectors as God’s Prophets For Our Time.” Father Pat taught that lectors were God’s messengers today. Recognize that if the prophets were important to the people, then we as lectors are important to the people also. We were speaking for God and quoted Ezekiel 3:17 and warned that we can become like false prophets if we read incorrectly, pronounced words falsely, changed words, made the words ridiculous or even dull.
For those of you Lectors who worry about losing your place: Two priests who regularly say Mass at the chapel where I serve keep both hands on the Lectionary, moving down the page as they read, line by line. “They don’t make much eye contact , but if they happen to look up because of a sneeze or a noise, for example, they can immediately find their place by seeing where their hands are placed.
They were classmates in the same seminary. I don’t do that when I read, but I should.
It is a wonder that I read to the last of these posts. I believe that I agree with Jeffery Pinyan.
As a cantor and occasional lector, I follow the instrutions from the LTP book…..and also from a male Jewish cnator. Funny how everyone knows that the lector is looking at them – where is your focus? I would have to remind many of you, that whatever good traits you have when it comes to being a lector, were probably taught to you by ‘religous’ who now where Sears pantwuits…..
Lectors who see punctuation and use it are good to hear.
Readings which become run on sentences with mispronounciations are very bad.
Looking at the congregation during the responsorial psalm responses is OK?
I think Jeffrey Pinyan expresses a balanced approach, and expresses it very well.
I use the LTP book. It is very useful prep tool. I pay very little attention to the stage direction, phrasing, etc… element (that would be excessive – all one needs to do is speak reasonably normally). It helps in pronunciation and the readings are laid out more in verse than in prose (as seen in the pew missalettes).
“If one is to follow the notes, one couldn’t possibly keep eye contact.”
How, then, does a choir maintain eye contact with their director?
It is my opinion, since our Bishops have decided not to (with rare exceptions in the U.S.) permit Lay Instituted Lectors, that the Priest should be reading all of the readings. Or possibly the Deacon, if one is available. How does it work in the Extraordinary Form? Does the priest make eye contact with the people when reading the Epistle and the Gospel? Does the priest make eye contact when saying the, “Dominus Vobiscum”,? Does the priest may eye contact when entering the church or Altar? Get the idea.
Perhaps one could note two general rules for lectors and even for the clergy when reading texts from Scripture. 1) when reading Scripture you are God’s loudspeaker — nothing more or less. And 2) think of yourself as speaking on the radio and not on television.
A seminarian in Rome recently told me of his experience as a Lector at the Papal Mass earlier this year. The Papal MC, Mgr Marini instructed him that he was not to worry about making eye contact with the congregation but to focus on the sacred text – on which he was told to meditate prayerfully beforehand. So your advice is supported at the highest level.
I kind of suspect that using hula dancing for the reading has already been done.
How, then, does a choir maintain eye contact with their director?
You don’t really “maintain” it. You watch the director intermittently. And peripherally – not really making eye contact but just watching his hands out of the corner of your eye.
If you sing a lot of Renaissance music, you are “self-directed” – i.e. listening and balancing the parts all the time. The director is simply indicating the beat, and you can get that from peripheral vision.
But you can’t have your nose buried in your music, either, because then you can’t be heard. That’s why most singers have their music lifted up pretty high – you can watch the director over the top of the folder while reading and still project the sound. They’re really not trying to look precious, even if it seems that way.
I think we ought to have a mass indignation meeting and burn all those awful lector guidebooks. That is not good advice.
We had a “dramatic” reader today — she must be a new one, because normally our readers just read the lesson and then sit down. If the “dramatic” readers knew just how embarrassing they sound, they would stop it right now.
Many women are good, humble, and orthodox readers and EMHCs. But good grief, when you’ve got a bad one! I’ve only seen one man who ever came close to the typical progressive drama queen who wants to hog the stage (excuse me, altar.) I’m a woman, and I still don’t understand it. I look at them and see pride, and lust for power. It’s embarrassing to see and hear the hungry ego on display. That’s the wymynpriests’ complaint, that priests won’t give up their prideful, powerful place to them. Classic projection. What I see in poor priests are vanity and complacency, which are both egotism. If the roles were reversed, I’m not sure that men wouldn’t be just as unattractive about their desire for the “power” position.
Sometimes, though, Fr. Z’s disdain for these women comes across pretty strong. It has made me feel ashamed a few times, like being a woman is a lowly thing. I agree with his assessment of what should and shouldn’t be. Women and men are different, and should have different roles. That doesn’t mean women are beneath certain roles, just different. I would like to see Fr. Z be more careful in his phrasing. He may not worry about offending Sister Pantsuit, but he should worry about wounding the faithful and orthodox women who want to do right.
The faithful and orthodox women shouldn’t worry. Women are not fungible (isn’t that what all the feminist fuss is about?) The ones who are misbehaving know who they are, and the rest of us know who we aren’t.
The Pantsuit Sisters are a menace and should be decried by everybody. If they get you in a position where they have any kind of hold over you . . . look out! Thankfully they have no influence with me or mine, but not everyone has been so lucky.
Foreign accents so thick we can’t understand the reader unless it’s Sunday and we can look at the missalette. Why has nobody commented on that excruciating experience?
I suspect the whole ‘eye contact’ business comes from recommendations about public speaking (Dale Carnegie perhaps?) and is misinformed.
For me there is a simple rule to be followed: If the words are yours (an address, a lecture, a homily) yes, make eye contact with the audience. If the words are not yours (as in: being a Reader at Mass), don’t! Only at the end raise yours eyes when saying “The Word of the Lord”.
Tone, speed of delivery etc. are other issues. But can we at least enjoin on readers that they prepare for reading ahead of time? I cringe when people stumble over biblical names and places, mangling them in the process.
Some time ago I encountered, in the parish of my youth, a lector who memorized the texts she was reading; she maintained eye contact throughout the reading. I saw another lector do this at the seminary I attended, while visiting after I left the program. It had everyone’s undivided attention… it was effective… if the focus should have been on the performance of the lector.
At the same parish, two lectors, a married couple, would take turns reading lines during a reading. Another man used hand gestures. At the parish I currently attend, one lector uses laughter in some of her delivery. It helps to read the upcoming schedule in the bulletin so as to avoid when she is lector.
I’ve seen the ubiquitous lector training workbook; you’d think it was a drama class text.
For a very short time I was a lector, both in parish, and in seminary, where we all had to take turns. I do not feel myself called to be a lector, and I wish I had known that when I was. Any critique I received involved increasing eye contact. One person told me, “Your eyes are glued to the book.” Not a bad book to which to have my eyes glued, I should think.
Dear lectors, and cantors, and liturgical musicians, or pastoral musicians, whatever you call yourselves, get over yourselves. It’s not about you. It’s not about me. It’s not about us.