The priest’s voice and the “priest voice” during Holy Mass. Wherein Fr. Z rants.

My kind of concelebration.

At NLM, Peter Kwasniewski dedicated a post to: “The Parish Low Mass Is Not a “Silent” Mass: The Rubrics on Clara Voce”. Note well that he specified “parish Mass”, in contrast to a “monastic Mass”.

In a monastic setting, or else a clerical house where in the chapel there are multiple altars for priests to say individual Masses, or for another example, in St. Peter’s Basilica (where I said morning Mass for many years daily) where priests are at altars sort of near each other, you keep your voice down, so that you don’t disturb other priests or people with them.

In a parish it might also be – though this is pretty rare now – TLMs talking place at side altars of the church while a scheduled Mass for the parish is being celebrated at the main altar. This is the case in Rome at, for example, Ss. Trinità dei Pelegrini, where I say Mass when I am in Urbe. If other men are at side altars, I keep my voice down. If Mass is at the main altar and I am at a side altar, I keep my voice down.

If, however, I am saying a scheduled parish Mass, I follow the rubrics laid out in the Missal for the level of voice to be used at different times.

This is more pronounced in Masses that are sung, but it is still a contrasting and meaningful feature of the Low Mass, not sung.

The point is this: even in the Low Mass, the priest is directed to use all his speaking voices, at different levels for different prayers.

Sometimes he speaks so quietly that only he can hear, or the “secret” voice, the submissa vox.  Let me stress this: he must say the words, pronounced them, not just sort of look at the page and think them.  Yes, there is some sub-vocalization involved even in doing that, but it is clear that the words are intended to be spoken, lips and breath moving, etc., but not so loud that they reasonably can be heard by others nearby.

Sometimes he speaks with the vox conveniens, that is, “appropriate”, “useful”, which is just loud enough for the servers to hear when they are to make responses, but not so loud as the fill the entire space, as it were.  For example, at the beginning of Holy Mass when I say the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, if the sanctuary has more servers or clerics in choro, I say them a little louder than if there are only one or two servers kneeling next to me at the steps.  Loud enough for them, but not so loud as to be heard in the back pews (depending on the size of the place).

Then there is the vox clara, or intelligibilis. This level of voice is used for prayers that are to be heard by everyone (depending, of course, on the size of the church). This means distinct and audible, but not shouted or hollered. The priest should always speak with gravitas, in a tone nor more or less suited to the circumstances (e.g., the number of people present, how close they are, the size of the space, outside noise, dead or lively acoustics, Dem thugs hunting for you, etc.). More on this point, below, where I shall rant.

At the reading of Peter’s aforementioned article some people jumped up and down with their hair on fire suggesting that he was advocating what they – falsely – perceived as a Bugninian camel nose under the tent of all that’s good, true and beautiful.  They thought he was advocating the “dialogue Mass”, which they think was the beginning of the end.

In fact, in a subsequent piece, responding, Peter showed that the rubrics of a 1920 Missal described the different levels of voice in the rubrics precisely for the Low Mass.  This wasn’t made up by Bugnini and company to destroy the Roman Rite as we know it.

Back in the day our forebears weren’t stupid.  They understood what ars celebrandi, of which Benedict XVI wrote in Sacramentum caritatis, meant in the dynamic exchange (admirabile commercium?) which develops between the ordained priest at the altar, mediator, father, brother, and the baptized in the pews who share in their way in Christ’s priesthood.

Yes, our forebears got this long before it became all the rage later on.  That’s why they enshrined their understanding in the rubrics: precisely so that people could, as they chose and willed, actually and even outwardly to participate in moments such as obvious dialogues during Mass, local customs, etc., being observed.  They polished the rubrics and handed them down as gifts.

One of the disastrous things that was perpetrated in the name of the Council was, in the newer, post-Conciliar books to remove the moral dimension of rubrics.  Rubrics are, in a sense, a matter of moral theology.

It was ever understood, and rightly, that willful violation of rubrics was at least venial sin and often, depending on the defect, mortal sin.  That was right in the front part of the Missale Romanum!   If, among some who had “Jansenist” proclivities, that lead to the occasional overly scrupulous celebrant, the removal of that moral dimension of rubrics from the Missal itself opened the floodgate of illicit creativity and abuses.   

This matter of rubrics and their moral implications is serious business.

Back in the day, moral theologians agreed that it would be grave sin to recite the whole of the Canon, or just the words of consecration, aloud, that is in the clara or conveniens vox, rather than secrete, with the submissa vox.  The Council of Trent went so far as to say that if a priest didn’t use the submissa vox, then anathema sit and that act was “damnandum”.  On the other hand, were the priest not to pronounce the words at all, physically, with breath and movement of the lips, etc., that too would be a grave sin, for he would be risking sacramental nullity, an invalid, ineffective consecration due to lack of proper form.  Knowledge of rubrics and obedience to them relieves the priest from worries.   Think of this analogy.  Think of those who allow children to approach their First Confession without proper preparation, with a form to follow, what to do and say.  The kids are genuinely frightened and rightly so!  They know this is important, for children are inherently liturgical and sensitive.  Those parents and teachers are to be blamed and roundly for being so cruel to those children through neglect.  So too, the celebrant of Holy Mass must be taught how to say Mass, so he is at ease and can act as a normal man, but one doing something of grave, of supernatural significance, with gravitas, but not abnormally.

Priestly, not prissily.

So, in short, the priest should follow the rubrics for the Low Mass and obey the rubrics for the level of voice to be used.

If Father is at the main altar celebrating a regularly scheduled public Mass and if – seated reasonably close and not in the 60th pew in the back corner – you can’t hear anything … that’s a serious problem.  NB: SERIOUS PROBLEM.

I don’t have to argue that.  It’s manifestly clear from the rubrics.  SAY – in the appropriate voice – the Black and Do the Red.

However, I must bring up what I really wanted to stress in this post. 

And this is directly to seminarians, and to my brother priests and to bishops.

Fathers, use your normal voice when saying Mass.  Don’t use a “priest voice”, different from your normal voice.

As Fortescue O’Connell (1962) says,

“The celebrant, while eschewing affection or any suggestion of formal declamation, [think of Hamlet’s admonition to the players] should so read the prayers and other parts of the Mass formulary, with such attention to punctuation, accentuation, pauses and voice inflections, as to make clear that he understands what he is saying and desires to render it as intelligible as possible to others, and that he recites the text with the reverence due to words so sacred… and in a tone which gives a lead to and encourages the people to talk out.”

By 1962, what Popes of the 20th century desired, more vocal participation founded in interior drive to respond, is being advanced.  Fine.  But the main point here, Fathers, is to use a natural, and not affected, voice.

What I find appalling, and surely this is what Fortescue O’Connell is describing and inveighing against, is the “priest voice”, which is often pitched higher – not to be better heard but rather for… damn, I dunno why!   I think it is a subtle affectation.  And sometimes it’s not so subtle.  It out-Herods Herod.

This “priest voice” is often higher, sing-song, cloying, such that you feel like someone is dripping Karo Syrup on you.  You hear this all the time, to one degree or another.  This is the vocal equivalent of slouching around, shoulders hunched as if the weight of your amazing piety is too much to be bourne, or flitting and nearly pirouetting about with slips and slides leading with the head, or, just as bad, robotic angularity like an mannequin dancer or mime.  Blech.  Get over yourself!

BTW… pitching your voice higher is an old technique of the orator before the time of microphones and artificial amplification.  The higher voice carries farther.  That’s a different matter.  That’s not what I am talking about.  You can still speak with your normal voice at a slightly higher pitch to be heard, just as you can force your voice downward a bit so as not to be heard, like “golf announcer voice”.  Moreover, I warmly agree with McLuhan about the damn microphone doing untold damage to sacred worship and, therefore, to people’s identity and faith.


Stand up straight.  Move normally and with comfort without being rigid.  Use your normal voice.  Read with comprehension and for comprehension.  Don’t know Latin?  Then STUDY Latin! And at least review the prayers for their meaning, not just pronunciation before Mass begins.

In the Roman Rite, when the priest sits down, he sits sideways to the congregation.  It isn’t about him.  When the priest enters, turns to the people, exits, he is to keep his eyes lowered.  The lowering of the eyes is described in the same terms as the low, or “secret” voice of Mass (demissis… submissa).  Remember that there are distinctions to be made about gestures.  There are three levels of bows, three levels of voice, three levels of eye position (cast down, or lowered, looking at the texts, and raised heavenward ad Deum).  The old adage is “qui bene distinguit bene docet… he who makes distinctions well, teaches well.  Teach with your ars celebrandi. Every word and gesture teaches.  Think about how 7 of 10 Catholics don’t believe in the Real Presence and Transubstantiation.  The way we priests say Mass has a lot to do with that.

If the occasion – Holy Mass – is special, then let the text shine by getting yourself out of the way.  People in the pews will thank you.

Fathers, please, get rid of the “priest voice”.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Lurker 59 says:

    —>is the “priest voice”, which is often pitched higher – not to be better heard but rather for… damn, I dunno why! I think it is a subtle affectation. And sometimes it’s not so subtle. <—

    The reason is psychological. The lower-pitched male voice is instinctually heard to be more authoritative than a higher-pitched voice. One of my male friends has a certain type of job where he works in a subordinate position with an (incompetent) female boss with many other female co-workers of a certain political stripe. He has talked about how he needs to inflect his voice higher to get taken seriously and not get accused of stepping on people's toes and incurring petty jealousies.

    I'd categorize the "priest's voice" rather as the "pastoral voice". It is not necessarily effeminate, but it is done to present oneself as pastoral and accompanying in a non-threatening sort of way. This is opposed to a more commanding "dogmatic" authoritative voice. The former is spoken from high in the chest or throat while the latter is spoken from low in the diaphragm. There is a place for both types of voices. The problem that we have is that some priests think that the "pastoral voice" is appropriate for Mass, especially the homily when they are to be teaching. It really is not as one is subconsciously telling people not to take the teaching seriously.

  2. Ellen says:

    Thank you Father Z. I have not been subjected to this in my parish, but I have heard it while travelling. All types of affected voices bother me. There’s a Liturgy of the Hours podcast that I tried to use but one of the readers has such a syrupy and unctuous voice that I was having unkind thoughts every time she spoke.

  3. Imrahil says:

    Back in the day, moral theologians agreed that it would be grave sin to recite the whole of the Canon, or just the words of consecration, aloud, that is in the clara or conveniens vox, rather than secrete, with the submissa vox.

    Did they? Interesting. I mean the “or just the words of consecration”.

    Our EF pastor always pronounces the words of consecration, and only them, in a voice of normal or next to normal loudness. I might say personally that I rather like that, personally, and if it indeed was forbidden, I think – needless to say: with my limited information – that this one thing might have been a thing that really could have been changed and possibly should have been changed. After all, the recipient of the sacrament might perhaps hear the form of the Sacrament, and an act of this importance should perhaps have witnesses (if not the whole congregation, at least the altar servers) that it really was confected.

    Whence my question: is there a rationale why even these words were meant not to be heard, that is apart from the obviously valid reason that the law says so?


    To the main point: Very good point.

    Since I rather like the book The Belief of Catholics by Msgr. Knox, I might add a quote from him which, I guess, illustrates your point by describing the appeal the Catholic manner, as opposed to (in his eyes, and probably, back then in fact) Protestant-only parson mannerisms, holds on unbelievers:

    From a different angle, the outside observer is apt to conceive of Catholicism as being at least a business-like religion. The ministers of most Christian denominations affect he finds, a slowness of walk and of movement while they are in church- they talk either in deliberately earnest tones or in a kind of professional drawl; their enunciation, their gestures, even the look on their faces is expressive of unction. Nay, even out of church, he detects (or thinks he detects) a certain professionalism of manner, a “parsonified air,” which repels him. It seems to him that he finds, among the other Christianities, a deliberate attempt to be impressive- and, Briton-like, he suspects unreality behind these calculated “demarches.” Good wine, he reminds himself, needs no bush; and if there were really any truth behind the doctrines which these teachers profess, they would not be so desperately anxious to parade their conviction of it. Whereas, if he has strayed into a Catholic church, he finds these airs of professionalism absent; there are no unnatural tones in the voice, there is no obtrusive deliberation of manner; the priest goes about his work with the briskness, the matter-of-factness, of a shopkeeper or an operating surgeon; the whole performance seems to be, for the initiated, something quite natural, something which they take for granted. And, though it may all mean to him no more than the liturgy of mumbo-jumbo, he is favourably impressed with the convictions of men and women who can thus hold commerce with the other world without inhuman deportment. “They seem to know what they are about, these people,” is his criticism; and perhaps there is something in it.

  4. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Of course, a priest with reasonable tone production can always chant the Mass prayers, even in English. And then you don’t have to worry about personal tone of voice, just the loudness.

    [Sung liturgy – which is, after all, the default – has many advantages.]

  5. In a not-unrelated topic, for as long as we have to put up with lectors in the Novus Ordo Missae, they need to knock it off with the dramatic renditions of the readings. In the first place, they’re making it about them, when it’s not supposed to be about them. In the second place, none of them is any good at drama anyway. They all sound like graduates of the William Shatner School of Overacting.

    [Related, yes. But I want to keep this focused on priests.]

  6. ex seaxe says:

    Thank you Father. I find it immensly irritating when people who define themselves as traditionalists just do as they please without regard the rubrics. About 30 years ago I used to attend an NO Mass in Latin. When that was discontinued I tried a local TLM, but discovered that they paid no heed to the rubrics about vox clara. 3 points :-
    1/ The instructions about vox clara are the same in 1962 as all the missals I have checked back to the first editio typica in 1574. So it is definitely not a new thing!
    2/ Your comments about pitching the voice so that it is heard by those needing to hear it without disturbing those who do not, seem perfectly reasonable. But I don’t see anything in the rubrics that mentions a vox conveniens. All the references seem just to be vox clara. The older missals define the vox clara as being loud enough to be understood by the circumstantes.
    3/ That vox clara includes the prayers at the foot of the altar. Fortescue in 1918 writes (p45) :-
    “Three tones of voice are used at Low Mass. All that, at High Mass, would be sung by the celebrant, at Low Mass is said ALOUD, so as to be heard distinctly by all who assist. The preparatory prayers are said in the same loud voice.” (His emphasis)

  7. The Cobbler says:

    Shatner would have overemphasized but at least emphasized what makes sense; the typical Novus Ordo lector’s choice of pauses and emphases seem to be designed, if anything, to disrupt actually following the text.

    At one point my father signed up to lector at one of those parishes and we were all surprised to discover that the lector’s copy of the readings actually specifies the bizarre positions of these mannerisms to create that unnatural effect. (It has been many years since, but as far as I recall, I want to say he ignored those instructions entirely and read naturally, as though he cared what he was reading, and was complimented on the good effect made by it.)

    I wonder what the intention behind those designs was. A failed attempt to recreate the experience of Jewish chant, without actually chanting and without considering that the choice of emphasis probably made sense in the original? A deliberate sabotage to the attention of those listening? Being on crack? I’ll probably never know.

  8. The Cobbler says:

    Lurker 59,

    If I were in your friend’s position, I’d be mighty tempted to get a new job lined up, then accuse those coworkers of discrimination based on their gender stereotypes about masculinity and command (which I presume they believe are socially learned), drag HR into it, and generally make as big a mess of their hypocrisy as possible before leaving for the other employer. If it’s a war they want…

  9. TonyO says:

    Cobbler, good point about the discrimination. But he should definitely get a new job lined up first.

    Imrahil, I feel much the same way about the words said in secret: if that’s what the rubrics had, the priest should follow that to the letter, but WHY did the rubrics have that?

    As far as saying words conveniens so the altar boys (and other clerics assisting) can hear so they can give the appropriate responses: can it be suggested that this probably only developed when Latin ceased to be the vernacular for most of the people present, and that in the year 200 or 300 probably all of the congregation gave the responses that later were relegated to the alter boys? If so, then the whole basis restricting the voice so that the altar boys could hear it would have been based on a prior pragmatic local condition relating to who is capable of responding, not an intrinsic aspect of the Mass qua Latin rite. If either the prayer was converted into the vernacular, or the people were educated to know and understand Latin, the lower vocalization would have no particular purpose (if my hypothesis is correct. If there is some other reason the habit of using a lower vocalization conveniens for those prayers and responses came about, then my suggestion may be moot.)

    In a similar vein, I believe it is reasonable to suspect that having only the priest saying the Credo (assuming not a sung Mass) was also a result of Latin no longer being the vernacular. Unlike with the Confiteor (where the priest says that he confesses HIS sins, and then the servers (presumably on behalf of the people) confess their sins, in the Credo the words mean “I believe” and yet the words are meant for everyone to believe. To me it seems most likely true that originally the congregation said them with the priest. I cannot come up with any rationale to explain why they would not be said out loud (i.e. vox clara) because the words make sense as a publicly joined prayer.

    So, if there were to be a reform of the Mass along the lines of an assumption that the congregation knew Latin, there would have been room for revising which voice the priest used at various places.

  10. supercooper says:

    Even more off-putting to me than Priest Voice (In the Ordinary Form, I’ve never witnessed any type of priest voice in the Extraordinary Form) is Bishop’s Voice. [It’s the same thing.]

    It seems like nearly every Bishop I’ve heard prays and preaches with the same high pitched, yet slow and condescending voice, like they are speaking to a room full of six year olds. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has experienced this. It’s an even more exaggerated form of the priest voice. I feel like seminaries must have taught this once upon a time, and may still be doing so.

  11. Kerry says:

    My dear TonyO. Posted for your enjoyment, this link to Fr. John Hunwicke’s blog,, Mutual Enrichment, for all his posts on, “The Great Christine Mohrmann”. “Who showed: ‘Liturgical Latin, as constituted towards the end of Christian Antiquity and preserved unchanged – in its main lines at least – is a deliberately sacral stylisation of Early Christian Latin as it gradually developed in the Christian communities of the West. The Latin Christians were comparatively late in creating a liturgical language. When they did so, the Christian idiom had already reached full maturity and circumstances rendered it possible to draw, for purposes of style, on the ancient sacral heritage of [pagan] Rome … As regards the plea which we hear so often for vernacular versions of the prayer texts, I think … that we are justified in asking whether, at the present time, the the introduction of the vernacular would be suitable for the composition of sacral prayer style. As I have pointed out, the early Christian West waited a long time before adopting the use of Latin. It waited until the Christian language possessed the resources necessary to create an official ecclesiastical prayer language. … the modern, so-called Western languages … are less suitable for sacred stylisation. And yet we must realise that sacral stylisation forms an essential element of every official prayer language and that this sacral, hieratic character cannot, and should never, be relinquished. From the point of view of the general development of the Western languages – to say nothing of the problems raised by other languages – the present time is certainly not propitious for the abandonment of Latin’.
    Here,, will be found more Mohrmann, some repeated, including a fine exposition of a particular falsehood, which I post. ““In the Early Church, Worship was always in the same everyday language that common people used all the time. So, in Rome, as soon as Greek became less common as a language, Latin, the prevailing vernacular, replaced it. Sadly, as the centuries passed, Latin in turn became incomprehensible to most. So, happily, the Second Vatican Council decreed that all worship should be in the vernacular again. And in the simplest possible language so that the greatest number of people could understand it. Because this would serve the cause of Active Participation.”

    You are waiting impatiently to explain to me that the last three sentences represent a complete travesty of what Vatican II decreed. Well done….”

    Lastly, to your musing, “Why did the rubrics have that?” Do you mean “submissa vox…secrete” for the words of consecration, or rubrics specifying voice? Regardless, I point you to Fr. Z’s quote from C.S. Lewis’ ‘Preface to Paradise Lost’ over to your right of the screen. Translating into lingua Zedsdorf, “Say the Black, Do the Red”.

    Christine Mohrmann’s book is: Liturgical Latin, its origins and character; three lectures. It is available on Amazon, and elsewhere. Hardcover, $80 bucks.
    One last thing, the tones in what is called Gregorian Chant, derived from the sounds of spoken Latin. If I recall correctly, it is a language of vowel sounds, in contrast to English, which is stressed and unstressed sounds. Transferring the tones of “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus” into the sound of the sung English word, and behold, (be-heard), always produces the sharp, (as distinguished from flat), “Holeeeee, Holeeeee, Holeeeee.” (The Fair Penelope with voice training, was instructed to pronounce any sung ‘E’ sound as an ‘A’ sound, Mary became “Mar-a”. For an example of terrific, based on Anglo-Saxon, stressed and unstressed, The Ballad of The White Horse, of Chesterton. And poetry in English should be read aloud.
    My apologies for going on.

  12. Dear TonyO,

    Having done some research on the liturgical and religious history, I think I can explain the origin of the three levels of voice rubrics. First thing to remember is that from the earliest period for which we have evidence, the liturgy was chanted in a manner similar to the practice of the synagogue (and public pagan worship). The melodies were simple, and the dialogues between bishop (priest) and congregation were short and simple as well: “The Lord be with you.” “And with your spirit.” Eventually, probably first between the readings, more complex chants were introduced and sung by a schola cantorum.

    By the 1100s, the audible parts of the Mass had the form that you know from the Tridentine Mass. In monasteries all choral parts were sung by the monks. In cathedrals and large churches, this was done by a schola, although the people continued singing the “easy responses” until the late middle ages. I discuss this in my book Cities of God. The first “Low Masses” appeared in this period, but were restricted to monasteries, where many priests had to say Mass each day at multiple altars near each other. All parish Masses were sung, sometimes with only a single cantor or cleric singing the Ordinary and Propers (and the Epistle).

    During this same period, private priestly prayers were introduced, and these sometimes had a dialogue format (the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, the Orate fratres, etc.). The private priestly prayers were “silent” so as not to disturb the music. The dialogue prayers had to be a little louder so that those saying them could hear each other. Thus we have the three “voces”: nearly silent, heard only by those making them in dialogue, and loud enough (i.e., sung) to be heard in the whole Church.

    When said Mass started to appear in parishes in the 1400s even as the principal Mass, the same levels remained: silent, loud enough to be heard only by the ministers (server), and loud enough to be heard by everyone, even though the “vox clara” parts were no long sung. As priests are lazy, “Low Mass” became the vogue. The practice of people making the short responses was eventually stamped out (I give examples of this in Italy in my book). This process accelerated after Trent—the concern to eliminate any Protestant Priesthood of All Believers ideas lies behind this development. The prayers of priest and laity were to be as different as possible.

    In a fine book by William Christianson on Spanish Catholicism during the reign of Philip II, he shows how, at the beginning of the reign, commissions found that 90% of the laity said their prayers (Pater, Ave) in Latin. By the end of the reign 90% said them in Spanish. Now only priests were to pray in Latin. And the people did not need to hear it—thus the growth of the “silent” Low Mass, during which people prayed the Rosary, etc., in the vernacular and ignored Mass and altar until the bell rang. Or, perhaps, they focused on the Tabernacle, while ignoring what the priest was doing. The Mass was “his” prayer; lay prayer was to be different and not “priestly.”

    The Sung Mass became problematic for this spirituality: the clerical sung Latin prayer intruded on the laity’s “personal and private” prayers in the vernacular. The rubrics preserved the medieval spirituality—much eventually to many people’s dissatisfaction. Thus the widespread disobedience.

  13. Sandy says:

    “Rubrics are in a sense, a matter of moral theology.” Wonderful statement as is the whole essay, Father. I would love to give it to the new priest at my parish. He has made the Mass “all about him”, walks around in front of the church for the homily, leaves the altar at the sign of peace, etc. Just more suffering to offer up on my part. Seems to get worse all the time, as I whisper to the Lord, “Please give back what has been taken from us, Oh Lord!” It’s really sad when you know what “it used to be like”, not perfect everywhere, but so much more reverence generally.

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