Friday, February 05, 2016


Russell Saltzman has an article at First Things on reading at Mass. There's nothing wrong with the advice given, but I confess that I am utterly ambivalent at it all.

I was a reader at Mass for several years; I stopped doing it because it was a task that can never please everyone and for which the communal support and preparation is always inadequate regardless of how one prepares as an individual reader. It is irrational to expect readers to work magic, but this is precisely the standard to which they are held. I did extremely well as a reader, but it has been heavenly not to have to do it.

The truth of the matter is that there is no special method for reading at Mass. The notion that having the right method or approach is the solution to everything is a modern temptation which should be resisted more often than it is. We like to hide the fact that there is no special method with an insider's jargon. We see this in the constant desire to want to talk about 'proclaiming the Word'. It's an accurate phrase; but there is a particular mentality that likes to pretend that it somehow conveys a special specialness, a spiritual quality, involved in the reading. But in reality 'proclamation' is just stating something in public in an official capacity, and when the GIRM says, "The lector is instituted to proclaim the readings from Sacred Scripture...", the original literally means no more than that the reader is appointed to say the readings out loud. The reader or lector just reads the text in public so that people can hear it. That's the whole task. There are some specific guidelines that are supposed to be met in doing so: e.g., the voice should be loud and clear, the tone should be appropriate to genre and occasion, and the characteristics of the local language and culture should be considered in the delivery. But these are all just specifications of the original point, which is to read it out loud so that people can hear it.

It's not a minor task, mind you. But that's all. This is, in fact, the great secret to most ministry in the Church: just do what actually and really needs to be done and stop trying to make it something special. Doing it in a 'spiritual' way is not your responsibility. The Spirit blows where He wills. You are only there to address a practical need to the best of your ability.*

One of the reasons for insisting on this fact is that the single most important goal for reading in Mass is that people actually be able to hear and follow the readings. Nothing, and I mean nothing, else is of any importance in comparison. There is a common tendency among people who mount up proscriptions and prescriptions for readers to give as their justification that it is the text of Scripture that matters, not the reader, so the reader should vanish. As Saltzman says:

It is the text—familiar though it may be—that must capture our attention, not the reader. The reader, so to speak, must stand aside. The lector’s job is to speak the text in such a way that it may catch us and thereby speak to us.

All well and good, and true enough. But this sort of claim somehow always comes with advice that is entirely about the lector, as if the lector were indeed the one who was capturing attention. And Saltzman's article, despite a certain sobriety that makes it better than much of the advice given lectors, is not an exception. After telling us that the text, not the reader, must capture our attention, he then keeps giving advice that is quite clearly about how the lector can capture attention and then (although this part is a bit murkier) draw it somehow to the text. This is not standing aside; it's playing middleman.

Readings can of course go wrong. It's worth keeping in mind that it's often not the fault of the reader, since the texts are not always easy to read aloud. And last-minute substitutions among readers are common in our highly mobile society. Training for lectors is often very limited, and when it is not, it is often very poor. And everyone's a critic, and lectors are easy targets. Sometimes people wander into ministries that they shouldn't be in, to be sure, but if you're regularly criticizing people in a ministry, you should be volunteering for it because you're apparently an expert. Although, of course, lectors do it themselves, as well. I once attended a meeting that was supposed to be for training and encouraging new readers, and the whole meeting devolved into an arbitrary list of pet peeves to avoid, none of which was suitable for the purpose. The only questions of much importance, though, are: Did you hear the Scripture? Could you follow what it said?


* It's worthwhile remembering this going into Lent, I think. The reason we fast is that we need discipline; the reason we give alms is that we need to help our neighbor; the reason we pray is that we need God. These are practical needs to which the penitential practices are practical responses. It's not our job to make them spiritually significant, or measure them out so that they involve experiences that are somehow just right, or to pursue some special kind of feeling in doing them. Our responsibility is to recognize the needs and act in a practical way in response to them.

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