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Presider’s Tone of Voice

Date: January 30, 2022
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: How should the words of the Mass said aloud by the priest celebrant be uttered? In an expressive tone, or an expressionless tone? Should the words be said in such a way that the meaning of the words is enhanced by varied emphasis or tone of voice, or not? I am asking about Mass said in English; the question occurs because at Masses said in Latin that I have attended the words are said in an expressionless tone. The question affects the liturgical nature of the relationship between the celebrant and the congregation. – P.R., Adelaide, Australia

A: Although it does not enter into precise details, the missal offers some indications regarding the manner of proclaiming the texts. Also, a historical understanding of the development of some prayers can also assist us.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal suggests the following:

“32. The nature of the ‘presidential’ parts requires that they be spoken in a loud and clear voice and that everyone listen to them attentively. Therefore, while the Priest is pronouncing them, there should be no other prayers or singing, and the organ or other musical instruments should be silent.

33. For the Priest, as the one who presides, expresses prayers in the name of the Church and of the assembled community; but at times he prays only in his own name, asking that he may exercise his ministry with greater attention and devotion. Prayers of this kind, which occur before the reading of the Gospel, at the Preparation of the Gifts, and also before and after the Communion of the Priest, are said quietly.

With respect to the manner of proclamation:

“38. In texts that are to be pronounced in a loud and clear voice, whether by the Priest or the Deacon, or by a reader, or by everyone, the voice should correspond to the genre of the text itself, that is, depending upon whether it is a reading, a prayer, an explanatory comment, an acclamation, or a sung text; it should also be suited to the form of celebration and to the solemnity of the gathering. Consideration should also be given to the characteristics of different languages and of the culture of different peoples. Therefore, in the rubrics and in the norms that follow, words such as ‘say’ and ‘proclaim’ are to be understood either of singing or of reciting, with due regard for the principles stated here above.

“The Importance of Singing

“39. The Christian faithful who come together as one in expectation of the Lord’s coming are instructed by the Apostle Paul to sing together Psalms, hymns, and spiritual canticles (cf. Col 3:16). Singing is the sign of the heart’s joy (cf. Acts 2:46). Thus St. Augustine says rightly, ‘Singing is for one who loves,’ and there is also an ancient proverb: ‘Whoever sings well prays twice over.’”

The rubrics of the missal are more circumspect. One note refers to the words of the consecration: “In the formulas that follow, the words of the Lord should be pronounced clearly and distinctly, as the nature of these words requires.”

The fact that the missal offers strong encouragement to the priest to sing the principal presidential prayers, the preface, and some other parts is a clear pointer to how they should be proclaimed orally. While the liturgical tones are usually fairly simple, they are also quite expressive of the meaning of the text. Therefore, I believe that when these texts are proclaimed without singing, a middle ground should be struck that expresses the meaning of the prayer while avoiding theatrics or exaggeration.

The fact that some priests use what our reader terms an expressionless tone in Latin probably stems from the historical use of the texts, especially of the Eucharistic Prayer.

The Roman Canon, which until 1970 was the only Eucharistic Prayer in use in the Roman rite, was composed using the Latin rules of rhetoric with carefully balanced phrases pleasing to the ear. Hence it was almost certainly composed to be spoken aloud although, in all probability, only those closest to the altar would actually be able to hear it proclaimed.

Over time, it became a custom, and then a norm, to recite the Canon in a low voice audible only to the celebrant. This, and, in some cases, an imperfect understanding of the Latin probably led to the use of the expressionless tone still used by those celebrating in Latin today even when praying audibly.

As we saw above, the current liturgy, whether in Latin or in the vernacular, calls for a clear proclamation of the text that reflects its meaning.

Indeed, we could say that, beyond any questions of rhetorical style, what is most important is that the celebrant truly prays the text and does not merely repeat it.

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Readers may send questions to zenit.liturgy@gmail.com. Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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