ASK FATHER: People say Mass prayers together with the priest

priestFrom a reader…


I’ve been attending daily mass when I can at a particular parish. When at Mass I often hear some people in the pews who whisper to themselves every single word the priest says at mass.

I would like to know what these people are getting out of repeating everything the priest is saying? Does it help their spirituality?

Perhaps the best way to know what they are getting out of it would be to ask them.  Your planet’s yellow sun didn’t give me the power to read their minds from this distance.

But for those who may be doing this, let’s drill in a bit.

In the rubrics of the Mass, there are directions, rubrics, texts (the priest says thus and so, the people respond thus and so).

For someone who is not a priest to presume to verbalize the priest’s prayers would seem to involve either some hubris or a lack of understanding of what is going on.  To offer those prayers mentally along with the priest, while praying with one’s hand missal, could be a holy and wholesome thing to do. But to verbalize…. that seems a step too far in my mind.

“But Father! But Father!”, you pseudo-Lutherans wail, “You are just lording it over us! Haven’t you ever heard what the Spirit of Vatican II says? By baptism we are all priests! Next year is the big Lutheran year when we will honor Luther and he said that every man is his own priest! NO WAIT… every person is a priest!  And we aren’t speciesist either: our pets and the butterflies are priests of Mother Earth!  You are trying to keep prayers away from us because YOU HATE VATICAN II!”

Luther (failed priest and heretic) didn’t, in fact, write that every man is his own priest, but that phrase summarizes both his view and that of most of the writers of the National Schismatic Reporter (aka Fishwrap) and probably also the LCWR.  His radical view of the priesthood of all believers effectively reduces ordained priesthood to a role that community gives to him to do various things.  This is what modernists such as Edward Schillebeeckx wrote, which infected a generation of seminary profs and, hence, priests and, subsequently, people in the pews.

Back to Vatican II. I have actually read the documents of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, as Card. Burke unfailingly calls it.  Let’s look at Lumen gentium, a document which obliges every Catholic to believe that there is a divinely instituted hierarchy:

10. … Though they differ from one another in essence and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are nonetheless interrelated: each of them in its own special way is a participation in the one priesthood of Christ. The ministerial priest, by the sacred power he enjoys, teaches and rules the priestly people; acting in the person of Christ, he makes present the eucharistic sacrifice, and offers it to God in the name of all the people. But the faithful, in virtue of their royal priesthood, join in the offering of the Eucharist. They likewise exercise that priesthood in receiving the sacraments, in prayer and thanksgiving, in the witness of a holy life, and by self-denial and active charity.

Note first that the priesthood we have is Christ’s, who shares it with us in two different ways.  All the baptized share in Christ’s priesthood, but by ordination the priest is a priest in a way that is qualitatively different.  It is not just an “add on” which gives him the role or authorization to say the prayers up there.  The sacrament of Orders changed him in an essential way so that when he acts in and for the Church, it is Christ who is acting.  By his ordination he is alter Christus, another Christ.   But, as LG 10 points out, his priesthood is enmeshed with the priesthood of the laity.  The laity, with their baptismal priesthood can offer spiritual sacrifices that are pleasing to God.  Also, they are enabled to receive the Eucharist, especially, from the priest.  “They likewise exercise that priesthood in receiving the sacraments…”.  The Church has its Head and its Body, together they are, as Augustine would put it in writing about who speaks in the psalms, Christus totus.  But in the Church, for her sacred liturgical worship when we are gathered as a Church, the priest speaks those things which pertain to his role as the Head and the people speak those things which pertain to their role as the Body.  Sometimes they speak together, Christus totus.  And in that supreme moment of actual participation when the Body moves forward to receive from the Head, they are at the deeply significant meeting place, the Communion rail.  Remember that the most perfect form of active actual participation is the reception of Communion by the baptized person in the state of grace.  Even in his own reception of Communion, the priest, who is simultaneously the victim at the altar, acknowledges his total reliance as a pardoned sinner on God.

Oh, and another thing: Lay people, any number of lay people, a stadium full of lay people, could whisper, shout, or Siberian throat sing the words of consecration for days, weeks, months, years, until the bitter end.  What would be on the altar would still be just bread and just wine until such time as the least worthy, least eloquent or clever, even perhaps unrepentant, validly ordained priest stumbled in and muttered them a single time with intention to consecrate.

Priests aren’t personally holier by Holy Orders.  They are, though unworthy, simply chosen by Christ to do His work for you, especially in administration of the sacrament and teaching and governing.  As Augustine said, I am a bishop for you but a Christian with you.

So, recitation of the priest’s prayers by the laity….

Could it be piety run amok.

Is it an erroneous misunderstanding of priesthood.

Perhaps they just haven’t been told any better.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. ConstantlyConverting says:

    When I was in elementary school we lived in an area with a church at the end of the street. I went to daily mass and memorized every prayer the priest prayed, mouthing the words along with him as he spoke. I don’t think it was anything other than wanting to participate. I never had the idea of being a priest. (I’m female and it just wouldn’t have occurred to me.) I don’t think I was trying to appear pious. I can’t say for sure, I was really young. I think I just wanted to pray with him, to know what the words were, to memorize, to understand. It was really important to me. I remember the distinct desire to know. Each. Word.

    I know, as an adult, I do it subconsciously. I don’t think it comes from a place of hyper piety, although it could. I certainly have no desire to be a priest. Maybe I’m proud? That isn’t my intention, that I’m aware of. I suppose it is presumptuous, although I don’t think I can consecrate anything. I just… I don’t know, maybe I’m Lutheran and I’m unaware. Maybe I don’t understand participation or involvement correctly. I’m open to critique. I don’t see the harm, except that it might be distracting, which would be rude, so I guess I shouldn’t. It just seemed to me, when I was a kid, that was the best way to be, and to be paying real attention. As an adult, it isn’t enough to pray a prayer but to discover the meaning in the words (Jesus prayer), so maybe saying the words in my head with the priest helps me to continually discover the words. Liturgy is after all, mainly taken from the bible.

  2. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    I don’t suppose the usual practice which lies behind St. Augustine’s surprise at seeing St. Ambrose reading silently, lies behind much, if any, of it – though I find myself reading something aloud sometimes to try to understand it better or aid my concentration in daily life, and can imagine something like that could be a factor in some such liturgical cases.

  3. Alice says:

    The people I’ve seen do this are little kids or older daily Mass attendees who are likely hard of hearing. Also people whose native language isn’t English and the occasional curmudgeon who’s going to hear the prayers of the Mass in Latin if he has to say them himself. Considering the age of most of the people I’ve observed doing it, I suspect that the Sisters drilled it into them that they must pray the Mass with the priest using the handmissal OR ELSE and they just took it a bit far.

  4. majuscule says:

    The venerable Eye of the Tiber has a post on this:

    I wonder if people did it when the Mass was in Latin and the priest was barely audible?

  5. Fr. Hamilton says:

    Thanks for the hearty laugh!

    The image of a stadium full of lay people Siberian throat singing the words of consecration is an image that won’t soon leave me!


  6. John Ed says:

    Can’t speak for anyone else but if someone close by was saying the priest’s prayers it would distract my focus away from the altar.

  7. un-ionized says:

    I heard a young man do this once, recently. It wasn’t just the consecration though, it was some of the other prayers too. I was going to ask him about it but didn’t.

  8. Fr. Reader says:

    …our pets and the butterflies are priests of Mother Earth…….!!!!

  9. cwillia1 says:

    It seems like a harmless practice as long as it doesn’t distract others. Who knows why people do it? They may not even know why they are doing it or that they are doing it.

  10. APX says:

    Many moons ago back in the 90s, when Masses were still sung and priests only used the Roman Canon, and I was still pretty young, I used to quietly sing the Preface and Canon along with the Priest until my dad caught on to what I was doing and put an abrupt stop to it.

    if they’re just whispering to themselves, I don’t see the issue aside from the distraction on hearing whispering. It could be worse; they could be having an entire conversation with someone during the homily while sitting directly behind you, or whistling to themselves… (yes, I have experienced both of these, at the Latin Mass no less.)

  11. Volanges says:

    I’ve attended Mass in several parishes where the people in the pews are expected to recite some of the prayers along with the priest. In fact this was happening in my present parish when I first moved here. Most commonly heard: the Doxology of the Eucharistic Prayer and the Doxology of the Lord’s Prayer recited out loud by everyone at the priest’s invitation.

  12. VexillaRegis says:

    We had a problem with this in our parish som time ago. Two persons were “shadow reading” – one in our native language and one in a foreign one. The celebrant asked them to stop and they were sad. They thought (I asked them about it) that it wasn’t audible, but I gently told them that I could hear them 10 meters away… They thanked me and stopped doing this :-). During further discussion of this topic with them, they told me, that had both learnt to perform this pious reading at their respective Catholic schools on the Continent – before VII!
    It might be that this practice works in a big cathedral when in the EF, when music is sung or played during the silent prayers of the priest, but it’s quite annoying to the bystanders in the OF.

  13. Ben Kenobi says:

    I will do this myself, but not for all the prayers. Has nothing to do with ‘authority of the priest’, etc. For me – it’s just one part, “this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant which will be shed for you and for all”. It’s also not because, “I’m better than everyone else”. For me, it’s a reminder of my confirmation, the promises I made then, and when I first understood precisely what those words *meant*, that Christ was bodily present.

    I have had a friend criticize me over this in the past and he asked me why I did it and I gave him a similar explanation.

    The part that does bother me is that our bishop won’t have us bow at the consecration. :( Everyone stands and I am the one bowing before our Lord and savior as I was instructed many years ago.

    [Bow? Surely you meant kneel.]

  14. gracie says:

    One way around this is for the priest to sing more of the words instead of just saying them. It used to be a common practice. There’s an older priest who occasionally says Sunday Mass at my Church who does just that. There’s no way anyone is going to sing along with him because no one knows exactly where he’s going with his melody so most people clam up rather than squawk out of tune. Also, the words have a haunting quality that people are silenced by as they experience a transcendence that the spoken words usually don’t deliver. Though there is the occasional priest who has a beautiful speaking voice, most of his confreres drone on as if they’re reading bus schedules on their way to appointments they’re late for.

  15. Gerard Plourde says:

    “To offer those prayers mentally along with the priest, while praying with one’s hand missal, could be a holy and wholesome thing to do.”

    Absolutely. Listening attentively and taking the prayers into one’s heart by reading the words of the priest unite us more fully in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Our “Amen” at the conclusion is all the verbalization that is required.

  16. jaykay says:

    “Our Amen at the conclusion is all the verbalisation that is required”

    And “Amen” to that, Gerard Plourde! It’s what I was taught in school, by Priests, back circa 1971: the “Amen” is the peoples’ affirmation of the preceding prayer of the Priest. No need for extra verbalisation, over and above that which is already specified in the rubrics.

  17. Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda says:

    I remember noticing this phenomenon a lot among especially older very pious grandmothers at daily Mass in grade school. I don’t think any of these now dead or nonogenerian women were trying to usurp the ministerial priesthood.

    This doesn’t seem to be a temptation for me at the Extraordinary Form Mass I attend. I don’t know nor do I need to know word for word when Father is saying specific things during Mass. When he turns and speaks to me, I respond. When he is facing and speaking to God, I’m not too wrapped up in every whisper, although I often mentally read the beautiful words of the Roman Canon and other prayers in the Missal.

    I think for some people at the vernacular Mass, their minds assimilate the information being repeatedly delivered Mass after Mass by mouthing the repeated words. Like a song we know that we find ourselves mouthing or singing to ourselves. I think this is just a natural human response to someone performing something over and over to to our faces, we naturally imitate them.

    That said, I have also previously attended extremely unorthodox parish Masses where frumpy aging liberal nuns were speaking loudly the myriad eucharistic prayers with the priest and extending their hands during the consecration as if to concelebrate. I don’t think their intent was as benign as the old ladies I mention above, but who am I to judge?

  18. marthawrites says:

    I attend daily Mass in a small chapel with approximately 40 people. I find hearing a few congregants saying the prayers of the priest very distracting. I’ve noticed that those who do this have characteristics in common: they are elderly, they are hard of hearing, and they are converts. These same people whisper to each other whenever they please throughout the Mass when they are not praying sotto voce with the priest. I don’t mean to be harsh, but my guess is that a bad habit has never been checked–gently– by someone in authority.

  19. NomenDeiAdmirabileEst says:

    I’ve occasionally noticed people whispering the words along with the priest. In my experience, many of them are just faithful Catholics striving to “pray Holy Mass,” as St. Pius X instructed, but who have gotten carried away.

    I’ve been encouraged, and encouraged others, to *silently* pray the words of the Mass as a means for uniting our individual hearts to that of the priest who, in the person of Christ, offers the one sacrifice on behalf of all mankind. This advice, though, has always been in the context of Latin Mass. When Mass is in English, it becomes much easier to replace the attitude of prayer with one of mere repetition or worse, assumed equality of roles. This issue is actually one of my core arguments for a return to Latin as the normative language for Mass.

  20. The Masked Chicken says:

    Sometimes, when I’ve had a tough night of sleep, my brain is in a semi-conscious state at early Mass (I don’t drink coffee) and, occasionally, I will say a word of two along with the priest as a way of focusing back to the real world. I don’t say the prayers in their entirety, which might be borderline sinful, since it could confuse nearby listeners into thinking that I thought my saying the prayers was like singing backup for the priest.

    I suspect that many people were just poorly taught that by saying the prayers out loud they were actively participating in the Mass. Gentle correction is all that is needed.

    I pity the Benedictines who got at 3:00 am to pray Matins.

    The Chicken

  21. Stephen Matthew says:

    I have attended several Ordinary Form masses where different people (invariably old men in each case) audibly recited all the Latin prayers, even the Eucharist prayers, from an old TLM hand missal.

    I myself accidentally joined in the chanting of a part of the Eucharistic prayers in a abbey church. I had learned them from repetition, and without thinking joined the many con-celebrating priests. I was quite mortified when I suddenly realized what I was doing. Doubly so since the people around me seemed to realize at the same time. The clock tower at that place chimes every quarter hour, how anyone gets sufficient sleep there is beyond me.

  22. Volanges says:

    The Masked Chicken says:
    I pity the Benedictines who got at 3:00 am to pray Matins.

    Oh, I thought I was tough while on holidays, getting up to go to the Abbey for Matins at 5 a.m.

  23. Sometimes I will quietly say or sing a part to get the starting note for the responses , if the priest can’t sing well…

  24. JohnNYC says:

    Thank you for this topic. I have been meaning to inform myself if my own occasional practice is in any way inappropriate. Sometimes when assisting at TLM (Low, Solemnis or Cantata) I pray along (sotto voce if no one is near me or silently if others are near) with some words of the Celebrant .
    There are some parts that I would not mouth because the Celebrant/Deacon is directly addressing us/me in the 2nd person (E.g. Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum), and expects me/us/the servers to respond.

    When I mouth the words prayed by the Celebrant or Deacon I typically change the person of the verbs and the pronouns in an attempt not to offend God.

    Sometimes I may make a prayer simultaneous with the the prayer of the Deacon: “Munda cor eius ac labia eius, omnipotens Deus, qui labia Isaiae prophetae calculo mundasti ignito: ita eum tua grata miseratione dignare mundare, ut sanctum Evangelium tuum digne valeat nuntiare”.

    Then maybe I would also pray simultaneously with the Celebrant: “Dominus sit in corde eius et in labiis eius: ut digne et competenter annuntiet Evangelium Eius” (and here I would omit from my prayer the blessing imparted by the Celebrant at “In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen” because…. well….. the priest gives the blessing to the deacon and I am just a layman praying to God that He help the Deacon in that moment to do well that which he is preparing himself to do in the Mass. Is this in any way unfitting?

    Similarly, in the canon, I sometimes pray the following prayer simultaneous with the celebrant: “…quod ille indignus sumere praesumit, non ei proveniat in iudicium et condemnationem: sed pro tua pietate prosit ei…”
    Then, if I intend to receive Communion, before I go up I might repeat that same prayer in the 1st person singular for my own self, or even in the 1st plural if there are others assisting at Mass.

    God forbid that I as a layman should ever think to presume the role of the Celebrant or sacred ministers but is it somehow unfitting to ask God in silence to effect that which the sacred ministers are also praying for God to effect?

  25. Riddley says:

    Interesting. I think I’m in the habit of muttering along with some of the priest’s prayers, simply because I find it helps me to feel connected to what he’s saying. I do it almost inaudibly I think, and I certainly don’t think I’m helping him out or doing anything at all priestly.

    I’m quite word-minded, and if we’re meant to be uniting ourselves with what the priest is doing at the altar then it make sense to me to linger over the words he’s using. I don’t think I do the same at the TLM, though I certainly do say the Gloria, Creed and Paternoster along with him, very much under my breath. I wouldn’t have thought that was problematic?

    I think partly it’s just an impulse in many people, myself included, to join in with things that are familiar. If I hear a familiar tune I often end up humming along to it softly, or singing along to a familiar song, and the same impulse happens with familiar dialogue in films and so on.

  26. Christ_opher says:

    For us in France, it’s the Elderly ladies that do this. Our Priest has stopped the mass at a small chapel before and asked them to stop it, so i assume the he knows what he is doing.

    Can anyone answer the following? A lad begs outside our church on a Sunday, he told my wife yesterday that he is a lost lamb and we hope and pray that things get better for him in the sense that he enters the Church for mass rather than listening from outside.

    Sadly, someone an elderly lady said to him yesterday that he shouldn’t be begging outside of the house of God and something along the lines that it was sacrilegious, we weren’t there when this happened but he was pretty cut up about this. Is the woman correct or incorrect to say this? I’m guessing incorrect because our Priest knows that this man comes to the Church and hasn’t said anything to discourage him but before we try and discover who did this, it would be prudent to check with others that know the faith better.

  27. EoinOBolguidhir says:

    It’s an old problem:

    “And Mary and Aaron spoke against Moses, because of his wife the Ethiopian, [2] And they said: Hath the Lord spoken by Moses only? hath he not also spoken to us in like manner?”

    In the short term, her presumption, very much analogous to that discussed in this post, didn’t work out so well for the Prophetess Miriam. Once chastised, and benefitting from the intercessory words of Moses to the Almighty, she faired much better.

    Makes ya think.

  28. drforjc says:

    I think a fair amount of this can simply be chalked up to folks who have a habit of “thinking out loud,” vs. attributing bad motives to them. I agree that it’s irritating though.

    I’m sure the other type occurs at times, too, but I think it is less frequent.

  29. un-ionized says:

    Christ-opher, this brings to mind the saying attributed to St. John Chrysostom which is probably a distillation of a sermon of his on Matthew. “If you cannot see Christ in the beggar outside the church door, you will not find him in the chalice.” The woman was just plain wrong. Churches have traditionally been places where the poor could come to help. Before government agencies. She was especially wrong if he was not being disruptive in any way. We had a problem with people treating the poor like this at my former parish in the inner city.

  30. cl00bie says:

    Whenever father says during the consecration “through Christ our Lord” some people reflexively answer “Amen”.

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