Priestly, not prissily.

In another post, I directed you to Michael Matt’s video.  In that video he touches on several points.  In my other post I underscored one theme.  Here, I’ll underscore what he says, pretty disparagingly, about priests who talk in a certain way.   Start at about 7:29.

What Michael is talking about has to do with a certain pitch, timber of voice often adopted by priests and bishops.

It is, to my mind, when used my men the vocal equivalent of a “French manicure”.

This is what I wrote about it some time back.

___

19 Sept 2019

[T]he 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.

Fathers…

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”.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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18 Responses to Priestly, not prissily.

  1. G1j says:

    Something to add…Please speak/pray slowly as to not have the congregation twisting their tongues when praying the Gloria, Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. I keep asking our pastor after Mass…”What’s the hurry?” It never makes a difference though.

  2. Kathleen10 says:

    This is actually my field. It is an affectation. Unless we know the priest personally we don’t know what they sound like outside of Mass. If they use that voice during Mass or just in specific contexts it is an affectation, something they put on like vestments. I have heard people say that effeminate speech can be turned off like a switch if the man desires. Some men speak like that all the time, so for those men it is not an affectation but the speech pattern they have learned and now it is habit.
    I have to think this probably happens more with boys raised by single moms, I’ve never read a study on it, but it makes sense. They didn’t hear enough male speech patterns to imitate. Still, this isn’t always the case, back in the day boys were raised by single moms and didn’t end up sounding like mom. Not many boys walked around in the 30’s with effeminate speech patterns and some were raised by single moms or grandmothers.
    It is a softening of the voice itself, it becomes quieter and more “gentle”, the pitch rises and falls in a feminine manner, and there may be some lengthening of sounds within words. I would have to hear the examples in particular but generally this is what happens.
    If priests want to change their speech pattern they can. Anybody can if they are willing to put some time into it. Project a deeper voice, a bit louder, and more from the stomach or chest than from the throat and definitely not, the nose. Don’t soften the voice! Watch your pitch, it should sound natural but your sentences should not end with a rising pitch, which makes it sound as if you are asking a question.

  3. Hidden One says:

    Please, Fathers, when celebrating Mass in the Ordinary Form, if you can’t stand to speak with your normal voice… chant!

  4. Tara Tremuit says:

    Amen, preach it, Fr. Z! Even in the Nordo, a priest could avoid almost all taking and blasted microphone use for everything but the homily by just singing the Mass. Unless a man is completely tone-deaf, singing the Mass solves every one of these issues. As Salazar said of Columbus’s tuneless sailors, “Presently begins the Salve, and we are all singers, for we all have a throat.”

  5. Having been trained in voice (for a career as a radio announcer, no less) by some of the best (probably the most useful thing I learned at Fordham back in the day) voice and theater coaches in NY at the time was that the most effective way to project is to speak from your diaphragm, not your throat. That gives your voice (and it doesn’t matter if you’re competing with James Earl Jones to take over Darth Vader’s speaking part or of somewhat higher pitch), if you use the structure the Lord gave you, a ‘full’ and resonant voice quality without sounding ‘squeaky’ or ‘prissy’ is achievable.

    I think the worst thing to come along is the overamplification of microphones at every position in the church. Most naves are not the size of St. Peter’s where the furthest pew is in the next county; I’ve seen churches in the round of 20 rows deep that had the choir (sitting in the front 5 pews) have mics every 5 people) mic’d like it was a TV chat show. Moses didn’t need a mic when he came down from the mountain, and the folks heard plainly enough what he had to say. We’ve let the technology become a crutch that allows for sloppy projection.

    I attended Mass Saturday night and there were NO mics, except for the ambo. I was in the back. Father was ad orientem. I heard him just fine without a mic. And guess what…people had to LISTEN (which meant being QUIET).

  6. JEF5570 says:

    Not exactly the same, but along the same lines. I grew up in rural Texas. When I was a kid I served at the altar a couple of times a month. I never liked shaking priests’ hands. All the men in that I knew, had rough and calloused hands, even the old ones. The priests’ hands felt like a woman’s. Fathers, act like men.

  7. Spinmamma says:

    Thank you for bringing this up. The affected, high pitched sing-song takes second place only to shouting. The liturgy is so beautiful, the words so fraught with meaning, a heartfelt, normal voice is the only way to go. Nothing else is needed. A good (albeit houmous) example of a “priest voice” is the priest with the lisp in the mawwage scene of “The Princess Bride.” Imagine my surprise and amusement when I heard a Church of England priest in a broadcast event that spoke exactly like that. At the time, I wondered if he were the inspiration for the fictional priest. I am grateful that our two current priests read the liturgy beautifully and with great meaning .

  8. I for one don’t like having to discern the August Sacrifice through the prism of a priest’s personality. It’s like trying to look at a beautiful landscape through a filthy window, or listen to a symphony with somebody yapping in my ear. Sorry, Fathers, but it’s not you I come to Mass for.

  9. capchoirgirl says:

    Bryan is exactly correct–you need to use your diaphragm to project. Classically trained vocalists know this from the time they start training.
    And actually a higher pitch is *harder* to hear than a lower pitch, which is why I generally can hear and understand men better than women!
    But, no mics create a huge problem for those of us who are hearing impaired. Mics and a good sound system are necessary.

  10. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Your entire body is a speaker system.

    Unless a church has been acoustically deadened, the roof and walls and floor of the nave and sanctuary are also a speaker system.

    Both the speaking and singing voice are concert instruments, which do not require electronic amplification in most indoor situations.

  11. mamajen says:

    Goodness. Affecting a voice to seem somehow theatrical is one thing. I’ve seen mass done like a Broadway production. I think people, even kids, know inauthenticity when they see it. This is what Father’s comments bring to mind for me.

    I feel like several commenters are taking things quite a bit too far and the conclusions drawn from limited observation of individuals are unfortunate.

    Microphones…very much appreciated by myself and many others. I have a type of hearing loss that is genetic and has affected much of my family starting in childhood. A good acoustic system is everything… especially when mass is ad orientem (-:

  12. Pingback: Canon212 Update: What the Hell Happened Seven Years Ago? – The Stumbling Block

  13. Simon_GNR says:

    I’m glad to say that in my part of the world (Northern England), prissy “priest voices” seem to be very rare indeed – perhaps it’s just an American thing. I can think of one or two slightly effete voices, but I’ve never got the impression that this was an affectation they were putting on for Church, it just happened to be the way they spoke.
    When preaching, as opposed to reciting the canon of the Mass, a bit of theatricality can be a good thing – occasionally, as long as it’s not overdone. There’s a risk of it becoming the “Father [name] Show” rather than a sermon!

  14. Ages says:

    A church that is built for the proper acoustics will have no need for microphones. The problem is that acoustical experts are almost never consulted in the design phase. If they are brought in at all, it’s afterwards. So they have to just mitigate the bad architecture, deaden the space and place speakers around, rather than let the architecture direct the voice.

    If you ever have occasion to be on a building committee, insist that an acoustics expert reviews all plans in the early stage!

  15. mamajen says:

    Ages: Curious–can you cite any good examples where mics are not needed? Architecture is my field and I would be interested to see this.

  16. Shonkin says:

    My Diocese’s cathedral was completed in 1924. It is a beautiful Gothic church, modeled on the Votive Church in Vienna.
    The design of the building was done with absolutely no consideration of acoustics. Echos? We got ’em! Until a few years ago, if you were sitting in certain parts of the nave, you couldn’t make out what the celebrant was saying. It didn’t matter so much during the Canon of the Mass, because everyone knew (or should have known) what was being said. But during the Scriptural readings and the sermon, it could be a total loss.
    They finally installed a sound system. Deo gratias!

  17. KateD says:

    Mamajen,

    Your question to Ages got me looking around the internet and I found some structures you may find interesting. It’s a top ten list on The Spaces website. I’m not tech savvy so you’ll have to see if the site seems safe to you. But the acoustic structures are really fascinating. From the Tvísöngur of Iceland and the Forrest Megaphones of Estonia to the Whipserimg Gallery of St. Paul’s Cathedral, it’s a really interesting list.

  18. The Masked Chicken says:

    Dear mamajen,

    Although I am not an architectural acoustician, I am a musical acoustician and the two areas overlap. The question of acoustics in churches is a fascinating topic. It has definitely influenced music. For instance, Giovanni Gabrieli wrote his so-called Tower music or antiphonal brass music because of the dual choir lofts in some late Renaissance Venetian churches. To my knowledge, there has been no comprehensive study of the acoustics of historical Catholic churches. It would make a good dissertation topic.

    If you want to learn a bit about architectural acoustics, a place to start might be the free book by a colleague, Tom Rossing, The Springer Handbook of Acoustics. It can be downloaded from here:

    https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007%2F978-0-387-30425-0.pdf

    The print edition is $399, so this is a good deal.

    There are several ways to approach the subject of sound transmission in a building. The most common way has been to use experimental or rule-of-thumb methods, but theoretical methods are being used more and more. Experimentally, the most famous name is Wallace Sabine. He was a Harvard physicist and along with Dayton C. Miller at Case Institute of Technology (now, Case Western Reserve University), the Englishman, Lord Rayleigh, and the German, Hermann von Helmholtz, from about 1860- 1925, basically founded the field of acoustics as we know it. His Sabine equation gives the reverberation time for a room, given its volume, surface area, and material absorption:

    https://www.thermaxxjackets.com/sabine-modern-architectural/

    The best theoretical method for studying room acoustics is computationally intensive and involves solving the 3- dimensional wave equation. Without a supercomputer, this method is impractical, so architectural acousticians have substituted a trick used in 3-d optics, called, ray-tracing, which treats each sound wave as traveling a straight-line path. The results are good, for most cases. There are some other ways to approximately solve the wave equation using finite element or finite difference methods.

    A good free software package is i-Simpa.

    All that being said, very, very few churches can support unmicrophoned preaching. The optimal decay time for speech is about 1 second and most churches have decay times much longer than this so that individual words blend together. Is it possible to design such a church? For smaller churches, the answer is, yes. For larger churches, the more people in the pew, the more sound energy is absorbed and the speech intelligibility goes up.

    The Chicken