The One Word of God in Many Voices

Our parish has an annual workshop for liturgical ministers (lectors, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, and those who write and lead the Universal Prayer) at which we have about 45 minutes to an hour of reflection on ministry in the liturgy and then some time refreshing everyone on the technical aspects of their specific ministries. This is required not just of new ministers, but even of long-time veterans.

The lectors spend some time practicing with other lectors scattered around the church giving feedback. This year, all were using the first reading for the First Sunday of Advent to practice, so I heard the same text proclaimed by about a dozen different people. Our readers range from highly-competent to truly outstanding in terms of their skill in proclamation, so I did not have to focus too much on technical problems. Rather, I was struck about half ways through by how different the impact of identical words could be, depending on the reader.

Some voices were old, some were young, some were male, some were female; each spoke with a distinct accent, ranging from from Flemish to Balmerese (our local dialect, hon). I experienced a profound sense of gratitude that the one word of God could be proclaimed by such diverse voices. I thought back to hearing Meghan Jones, a young woman with Downs Syndrome, proclaim the reading from Philippians as the papal canonization Mass of Junipero Serra in Washington DC. I thought of Thomas Aquinas’s claim that God made a universe filled with diverse kinds and species because a finite world characterized by diversity better mirrored the infinite perfection of God than did a universe with only one kind of thing in it. I thought of how the diversity of voices that proclaim our Scriptures in the liturgy is a kind of aural icon of the infinite fulness of the Word spoken in eternity.

One of the changes that came in with the post-conciliar liturgical reforms was the opportunity for a variety of voices in the liturgy–not simply different speaking roles (which the pre-conciliar liturgy already possessed, at least at Solemn Mass, in the roles of priest, deacon, subdeacon, and choir), but the diversity of those who take up those roles. Of course, this led in some cases to badly-proclaimed readings that were nearly unintelligible (though, of course, not as unintelligible as the readings done in Latin), or sometimes clear-but-monotonous. But for all of the challenges posed by opening up this role in the liturgy, I thank God for this change, which offers one small reminder that, as the poet put it,

…Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.


  1. If the lector ministry is treated as a minimal-effort way to break in parishioners to greater involvement, as a means to some other more valued end, the parish will get mediocrity across the board and even disregard what competence and excellence may have been present. If that ministry is treated as a goal in its own right, as one of the presences of Christ in the liturgy, there will be imitation and multiplication. Fritz is right: it takes attention and vision.

  2. I would never liken a reading done in another language to one done so poorly in my own as to be unintelligible.

    1. OK, I suppose I was being gratuitously snarky. Let’s distinguish the intrinsically unintelligible (the mumbled reading) from the contingently unintelligible (a reading done in a language I don’t happen to understand). Unfortunately, at some of the EF Masses I’ve attended the Scriptures have, for most of the congregation, been afflicted by both sorts of unintelligibility.

  3. If I’m at a liturgy in another language, Latin or otherwise, odds are, I’ve got my handy Sunday Missal with me, and I’m contentedly following along. Heck, if I’m at an English liturgy, I prefer to have my pew missal in front of me because I process content better if I’m reading it.

  4. I like this post a lot. It is an example of one reason we should listen to the Word instead of reading along. When you read it yourself, you are very likely to read it the same way every time. But God speaks in many different ways.

    Who is the poet?

    1. Comments like that aren’t exactly charitable to people with auditory processing issues, you know–let alone the hearing impaired. For similar reasons, I generally watch television shows with the closed captioning on; if I like a song, I always go read the lyrics. I can hear just fine. I simply process what people are saying more clearly if I can also engage the content with my eyes.

      As a former teacher, I’m also painfully aware that people miss a large percentage of whatever I say, even if I say it multiple times and slowly.

      1. I myself am not opposed to reading along, unless one is forced to do so because of the poor quality of the proclamation. I suspect that many who read along now might be less inclined to do so if lectors were more skilled. But I think there is a subset of people for whom reading would remain helpful even with the most skilled of lectors.

      2. We can all make allowances for people with impaired hearing or whose first language is not the language of the particular celebration. Apart from that, when I’m up reading I like to see people listening, not with their noses stuck in a book.

      3. On the other hand, you really can’t see people listening. They may gaze as if they are listening, but tons of people have a good handle on the visual illusion of listening. They may be listening better if you can’t see their faces directed at you. So, having an expectation about what good listening looks like may be a distraction itself.

      4. Shaughn – Of course I agree with you if that is what works best for you. I am by no means suggesting that people who read are not holy and are not receiving the Word. I do think that if you can listen effectively it is beneficial for the most part to do so. My practice is to read the readings myself before Mass and then listen while at Mass. Sometimes I get nothing I didn’t get in my own reading, but other times I get a new insight that I would not get if I was reading along. I just find it beneficial and worth thinking about if you haven’t considered it before.

  5. Can’t one of the “many voices” be my own reading along to myself in a missal or service leaflet with the reader?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.