Reading the Word Sotto VoceDEACON DOUGLAS MCMANAMAN
Reading the word of God in the context of a Mass is radically different from public speaking.
The human word has great power, but it does not always and necessarily achieve the end the speaker intends it to achieve, which is why speakers are often emphatic, dramatic, and even eloquent. But God's word always and necessarily realizes the end He intends for it to achieve: "For just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to him who sows and bread to him who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it" (Is 55, 10-11).
We see the inherent effectiveness of the divine word from the beginning to the end of Scripture: "Then God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light….Then God said, 'Let the earth bring forth vegetation: every kind of plant that bears seed and every kind of fruit tree on earth that bears fruit with its seed in it.' And so it happened" (Gn 1, 3, 11). Christ is the divine Person of the Word, and He joined a human nature. But the human words he speaks are, by virtue of the hypostatic union, divine words, and so they enjoy the inherent effectiveness that is proper to the divine word: "Who then is this, who commands even the winds and the sea, and they obey him?"(Lk 8, 25).
This inherent effectiveness is referred to -- in Catholic theological parlance -- as the opus operatum of the word. Because each sacrament is a composite of divine word and sign (i.e., bread and wine, and 'this is my body…this is my blood'), their validity does not depend on the holiness of the minister.
There are important implications to these theological principles that lectors, deacons, and priests ought to keep in mind. One implication that follows from the above is that there is no need to dramatize the reading of the word. To add one's own inflections is to treat the word of God as a merely human word that stands in need of dramatic intonation in order to be effective.
Seminarians of a previous era were often instructed to say Mass sotto voce (Italian: 'under voice'), that is, in low voice (not low in volume, but 'low in profile'), because there was a real appreciation for the opus operatum of the entire liturgy, and a corresponding appreciation for the minister's duty to become less and less ostentatious, after the manner of John the Baptist's "He must increase; I must decrease" (Jn 3, 30). To stress engaging eye contact, intonation, inflection, and to seek to move and emote are all rooted in a basic theological error that regards the written word of God as a dead letter that stands in need of a grandiloquent orator to bring it life. But it is the word that brings life to man, not vice versa: "Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Mt 4, 3).
The more a reader puts himself and his own personality into the word he proclaims -- that is, the more he increases -- , the more he stifles the Holy Spirit of God (cf. 1 Thess 5, 19) by distracting the listener, turning him from a prayerful attention to God's word towards the talent and idiosyncrasies of the reader.
But the reader must forget himself. He must read sotto voce, albeit slowly, clearly, and with sufficient volume. Indeed, poor reading in its turn can distract the listener, making it difficult for him to concentrate, but poor reading does much less harm than even a slightly theatrical reading; the former merely hampers concentration, the latter "steals the show", which is what the liturgy often becomes for those with a flare for the dramatic.
Finally, when readers look up periodically, they must address the congregation as a single entity, not making eye contact with individuals within the congregation; for eye contact only makes the reader unfittingly self-conscious, and causes a degree of self-consciousness unbecoming of the faithful, who do not need to be engaged as if they were unmotivated adolescents passively waiting to be animated. They engage themselves through an active readiness to lose themselves in the proclamation of the word.
Reading the word of God in the context of a Mass is radically different from public speaking; for public speakers do not serve the word they speak, but exercise a kind of dominion over their own words unbefitting of God's word. In short, public speakers are manufacturers, not servants. The proper effect of God's word cannot be manufactured, but channelled, as the empty bore of a flute channels the breath that alone produces the sounds pleasing to the ears of all who hear.
Douglas McManaman. "Reading the Word Sotto Voce."(April 3, 2009).
Reprinted with permission of Douglas McManaman.
Copyright © 2009 Douglas McManaman
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