Flat Liturgical expression


An older priest, one trained during the heyday of liturgical abuses in the '60s-'70s, said in his homily at the noon mass that lay readers have to avoid “theatrics” in the readings. For years I was mystified by the dull, flat, expressionless tone the majority of readers assume, which is one of the things that leaves the faithful feeling that mass is dull or meaningless. It turns out that this absence of inflection or intensity was in fact the way that post-V2 priests and liturgists understood the instruction to read simply without theatrics to mean. Further – and it was clear he was quoting from his own training – he said that in order to have the faithful speaking “with one voice” during the liturgy, we had to take care not to be louder or softer than our neighbors, so we should be listening to them so we would sound exactly like them.

This disastrous misunderstanding of the very goal of vernacular in the liturgy is what turns so many people off at mass; they hear dull reading, and the readings appear to have no life or meaning at all. They hear the people around them all striving for monotone, and they assume everyone is bored.

Authentic liturgical expression, though, among the congregation would have everyone responding from the place where they are meeting Christ. If moved with fervor, then fervently; it with sorrow, then with quiet sorrow and hope; if with deep joy, then with joyful warmth. There should always be reverence, but the sort of technical manipulation of congregational responses that this particular generation of pastor was schooled in is so typical of that whole terrible socio-technocratic generation, in which the pastors were not pastors at all, but tinkerers whose job it was to create a uniformity and monotony as if that were what Our Lord meant by union and unity.


Lord. We suffered through one reader last Sunday that inflected so much, I felt whooped by the dang readings by the time she finished!
He is right. It isn’t theatrics. But, getting that across with how to use your voice is misunderstood by some.
We had drums one Sunday. sigh


It is an art. Some people can do it well where others can’t. That’s all I am saying. Those that can’t should just read and leave it be.


This is what I’ve always heard as well. The person proclaiming the readings in participating in liturgy. It’s not theatrical, it’s not story-telling, it’s not dramatic. You proclaim clearly and with proper emphasis, but you’re not acting.

he said that in order to have the faithful speaking “with one voice” during the liturgy, we had to take care not to be louder or softer than our neighbors, so we should be listening to them so we would sound exactly like them.

One of the things I love about prayer in my monastery is that this is what the monks practice. In the guest rooms you’ll find an invitation to participate in their various prayer times along with an instruction that the goal is for everyone to blend together and speak with one voice.

When you’re involved in communal prayer, the goal is to form a community. We adopt the same posture – one person doesn’t stand while another sits even if that’s what they feel like doing. And we adopt the same prayers at the same pace. One person may want to pray faster or slower, but the goal is to be in union with each other.

None of this means prayer has to be bland. It means that we are praying as one.


In the monastic tradition, there’s always a reading at meals in the refectory. Different things are read. At the local abbey that I’m associated with, it’s the daily passage from the martyrology, a chapter of the Rule of Saint Benedict, and a book or two. It could be a spiritual book, or just any book (though not fiction).

The reader reads “recto-tono” that is in a monotone. The idea is that the reader does not impose his prejudices by emphasizing the reading in certain ways.

At Mass (and at the Divine Office), the readings are chanted. The inflections in the melody are simply based on punctuation and the flow of the text. Again, this is so that the one proclaiming the reading lets the text do the talking.

When I pray the Office of Readings, I always chant the reading aloud. I use recto-tono as well as they are long texts. When I do lectio divina, I start by chanting the passage I am going to study, usually using punctuation-based inflections as the texts are shorter; I use punctuation-based inflections for the shorter readings of the Liturgy of the Hours. Reading passages aloud even privately, I find helps chase away distraction.

As far as chanting in the liturgy, chanting with one voice, with no single voice dominating, is what Gregorian chant is all about; as was mentioned Gregorian chant in particular, and the liturgy in general, is community prayer. We sing with restraint, and without trying to show off or stand out; our emotions shouldn’t be part of the equation because a foundational principle of liturgy is “it’s not about me”. The liturgy is not always happy clappy when we’re happy clappy, and not always sad when we’re sad. Sometimes it’s joyful when we’re sad, and sometimes sad when we’re joyful. But we are singing the liturgy for all, including those happy or sad, which is why it’s not about our own emotions.

I sing Gregorian chant in a small schola. Singing as one voice, in unison, is what we strive for. It’s just as important as being technically correct and on the right note. It requires mastery of volume, cadence and the ability to listen and match our voice to what we’re hearing. It takes a lot of training and most importantly, rehearsing together as a team; it takes time for a schola’s “voice” to develop. I’ve been in different monasteries using chant, and each one has its own “voice” that is distinct, even though they are singing exactly the same melody.


A Mass should always be said with the deepest of reverence, AND using the punctuation marks that are in the books. But, there are persons who don’t have an ear for inflections in the text. This does not exclude one to use the deepest reverence and to be aware of the gravity of what is happening through his (the priest) hands.
That’s why in the old days there was a time of prayer and preparation before and after Holy Mass, that was obligatory.
The Church speaks of three levels:

  1. Ritus servandi (following the rubrics of the ritual)
  2. Ars orandi (the art of praying)
  3. Ars celebrandi (the art of celebrating, i.e. Mass or other Rites. This one unites the two of the above)
    To celebrate a Holy Mass with dignity and reverence one must observe these two: respect what the Missal says, i.e. say exactly what the text says, don’t invent prayers or change words during Mass, and pray, not just utter them, those text that are in.
    As for the readers at Holy Mass, respect is due for the Word of God, aka one must not jiggle :smiley: while he reads it.
    God bless!


Proclaiming the word should not be monotone or dull. But there is a big difference between proclaiming and dramatic reading.

As for the faithful praying “with one voice”, I would say that applies to pace much more than volume. In our religious ed classes, we have the kids practice praying together and not each at his own speed. But in Mass, you will have plenty of people who pray softly and then you have the four year old praying as loud as he can since he now knows all the words to the Our Father. :smiley: Both should be encouraged and not squelched.


I don’t think monotony is good, but permit me to say, a large percentage of the time the readings are done in a way that reminds me of a kindergarten teacher: “NOW, children, we’re going to listen to story time!”

Formal (ie non-entertainment) public speaking should never, ever, ever, ever, ever sound unnatural.

Humans naturally speak in varying tones, and that has a place in liturgy obviously, but I think the readings should be marked by a notable atmosphere of sobriety and solemnity.


those who read the readings should proclaim the readings so that those hearing the Word of God can understand it.

It’s not a drama, your not reading as others read, you are proclaiming. I would say it is simply reading it in a normal speaking tone loud enough for all to hear but not so loud that you lose the quality of what is being said.


But isn’t doing this excluding the beautiful polyphonic music such as that of Palestrina? I’ve heard choirs actually say that was more challenging and thus less boring, going along with the OP’s concerns?


Our schola only does Gregorian. Polyphony is a different style.


OraLabora was referring to the singing of a particular monastery, in unison, and to Gregorian Chant in particular. In the mass, singing of a congregation should generally be in unison, what the choir does may be something different such as adding harmony to the congregation or singing without the congregation if the piece is more difficult.

Since the OP was specifically asking about the proclamation of the readings I don’t see how polyphonic music applies. Readings may be chanted by an individual but I’ve never heard the Word of God proclaimed in more than one voice, with the exception of the refrain of the Responsorial Psalm when choirs add harmony. To try to use multiple lines of music in presenting the readings would probably just muddy the waters as it takes exceptional talent and rehearsal to make each word intelligible in polyphony. To then take it to the level of being able to convey an entire reading with some sense of the meaning of the text preserved is asking an awful lot of any composer, much less choir or schola.


Extended chant, such as that done in the Introit and Gradual in the EF, is not going to be sung by the average pewsitter. Several voices tops. The only chance of complete unison is with the Kyrie, Credo III and such arrangements. Yes, Palestrina would take work even for small choirs, much more an entire congregation. But, hey, I’ve heard entire audiences sing parts of Handel’s Messiah in different voices (soprano, alto, etc.) so it’s not impossible. Once I heard hymns sung where the males would sing the first verse, females the second verse, and everyone the third verse and so on. It does get people more interested in the music.


But this thread is about proclaiming the readings and praying together, not about music.

The readings and/or prayers may be chanted, but that’s not the same thing.

Do you think people praying together at Mass should try to blend their voices so they sound as one, or should people “do their own thing” based on how they feel that day?


People pray in cadences, and sing in syllables, yet they think at different speeds. How much more in unison can they get? I’ve heard criticisms questioning whether that is really praying. I haven’t made such judgements.


The Introit and Gradual are done in the OF too :wink:

Usually in the monastery, for the Introit, the schola sings the antiphon the first time as the monks process into their stalls, and then sings the psalm verse. Then as the monks are in their places, the entire community repeats the antiphon. For short antiphons sometimes they chant a second psalm verse.

For the Gradual, the schola intones the Gradual up to the asterisk (usually the first word or couple of words), then the entire community chants until the psalm verse. The psalm verse in a Gradual is the most difficult part, so the schola alone chants that.

There are usually about 30 or so monks total at Mass. The schola is about 6 or 7 monks


I agree.

Monotone voice tends to put me to sleep or make me feel like I am going into some kind of trance. Perhaps the monotone voice of the first pastor I remember was a result of his training but I found it very off-putting. (I think it was just his voice because he always spoke that way.)

I was under the impression that chant styles tended to follow the ebb and flow and rise and fall of breathing that most of us put into speech. Perhaps that is a difference between Gregorian chant and other styles?

In any case, I think proclaiming can be very dramatic. But it’s not acting in the sense we think of in poetry readings or “radio plays”. It’s more a subtle “authority punch” to the words which suggests they are important but doesn’t try to interpret them.

I’ve heard people do it well and I’ve heard people who completely missed the mark.


Gregorian chant does indeed follow the ebb and flow, sense and structure of the text. It is not by any means monotone (but in psalmody, is very repetitive in structure). But the emphasis is supposed to come from the text as it is written rather than the prejudices of the person(s) chanting it. As such the schola has to develop great discipline so that everyone arrives at the same place, at the same time, uses the same pitch, and blends in thoroughly with the rest of the schola.

Monotone (or chanting recto-tono) does exist in Gregorian chant. For instance at the abbey I’m associated with, it is used for the psalmody of Vigils and the minor hours. Yes it can be trance-like. I think that might be part of the desired effect: it’s a thoroughly Christian form of “mantra”, that draws one out of the realm of the material world into the spiritual world. At least that’s the effect it has on me. “Chant” starts at the very simple monotone recto-tono chanting, through simple Gregorian melodies, through to the very ornate chants of the Propers of the Mass.

Even psalmody on the 8 regular plus the archaic psalm tones has a very repetitive pattern: the flex, median and finale of a psalm verse are the same from verse to verse. When I chant the LOTH, I do it in Latin from an antiphonary with the antiphons using the rules of Latin psalmody. Then I read the same psalm in French, silently (it’s a Latin-French antiphonary). The Latin chanting helps to cut me off from the world so that I may better absorb the text. Then the physical silence while I read the text appeases.

The Rosary is another example of spiritual meditation, Christian-style, with its repetitive prayers and meditative focus on the key elements of the life of Jesus.


I thik recto-tono helps to establish prayer time form regulatr reading but I also try to use simple tones such as:

I use a thumb piano to help get the tones right

But not being a natural singing talent recto-tono is easier.


There isn’t too much that will drive me nuts, batty, and over the edge faster than someone leading a rosary in a sing-song voice. For several years I would occasionally go to Mass on Saturday evening in a different parish, and get there early to go to confession, and say Vespers. And if I got there a bit late, Vespers would not be finished before an older group of men and a few women would arrive to say the rosary before Mass. I would get up and walk out, because trying to say Vespers while they were praying was difficult; but the greater reason was because the leader had a repetitive, sing-song approach - I couldn’t pray the rosary with them without massive distraction caused by his method.

This wasn’t drama; monotone would have been far preferable (and I don’t say the rosary monotone).

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