Dramatic Readings at Mass


Dramatic Readings at Mass

ROME, 14 JUNE 2005 (ZENIT)

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: If a reader at the Mass proclaims the passage with appropriate facial expressions, sufficient gestures of hands and right modulation of voice, only to bring out different characters and emotions concealed in the passage, would it go against the spirit of liturgy? — M.G., Bangalore, India

A: The General Instruction of the Roman Missal touches upon this subject in No. 38 regarding "The Vocal Expression of the Different Texts":

"In texts that are to be spoken in a loud and clear voice, whether by the priest or the deacon, or by the lector, or by all, the tone of voice should correspond to the genre of the text itself, that is, depending upon whether it is a reading, a prayer, a commentary, an acclamation, or a sung text; the tone should also be suited to the form of celebration and to the solemnity of the gathering. Consideration should also be given to the idiom of different languages and the culture of different peoples.

"In the rubrics and in the norms that follow, words such as 'say' and 'proclaim' are to be understood of both singing and reciting, according to the principles just stated above."

Thus the text refers above all to tone of voice and makes no mention of accompanying a reading with facial expressions or gestures.

This would be in conformity with the traditional sobriety of the Roman Rite and with the ministerial nature of such services as reading.

The fundamental criterion is, I believe, that of service to God's Word. The task of the lector is to bring out and proclaim the sense of the divine message to the best of his or her ability while avoiding drawing attention to the person doing the reading either by dress or manner.

There is also perhaps some danger of a reader imposing his or her interpretation of the emotions concealed in the passage rather than allowing God's word to speak heart-to-heart to each member of the assembly.

Hence some variation in intonation is desirable in order to clarify the sense of the text, distinguish a question from an admonition, a cry for mercy from its granting, etc.

Using an unvarying deadpan tone, or monotonous drawl for every passage is a disservice to God's Word and to the assembly. But any hint of acting, whether by facial expressions, gestures, changing intonation or voices for different characters, should be avoided as they tend to draw attention away from the text and toward the reader.

The traditional Latin tones for singing the readings could suggest a model for reading the sacred texts, or even compose new vernacular tones for singing the Scripture as has been successfully achieved in some languages.

Singing the texts, at least on solemn occasions, reminds us that this is no ordinary text but God's Word to us. It also fixes the attention very much on the Word itself.

The traditional tones come in several variations. There are slightly different tones used for the Old Testament, the epistles and for the Gospels. Within the reading, slight variations of rhythm and intonation bring out questions and different characters so as to highlight the meaning of the text.

At the same time, the need to submit oneself to singing a simple but common tone eliminates most of the reader/cantor's personal traits while emphasizing the attitude of service to something greater than oneself. ZE05061423

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Follow-up: Dramatic Readings at Mass [06-28-2005]

Our piece on dramatizing the readings (June 14) brought in some interesting annotations.

An English-speaking priest writing from Belgium offered the following valuable suggestion based on experience:

"When teaching lectors and seminarians, I have found it useful to tell them to think of themselves as 'being on the radio' rather than 'performing on TV.' This causes them to think how best to use their voice to proclaim the Word of the Lord, undistracted by 'looking at the congregation, facial movements, gestures, etc. This approach allows the reader to take account of the listeners, making as clear as possible the sense of the text in front of them — when God is speaking via their mouth. It also allows them to realize that the 'spoken Word' they speak is God's Word alive and so the most important thing. It also avoids the temptation to 'dramatize the text.'"

Another priest, hailing from Australia, asked: "Is there a special case for the reading of the Passion on Palm/Passion Sunday and on Good Friday? The lectionary approved for use in Australia has the parts marked for various readers. Is this not dramatic reading? Is it permissible?"

In a sense the reading of the Passion on Palm Sunday and Good Friday are exceptions that allow for certain dramatic elements while still falling far short of acting. The readers or cantors retain the traditional sobriety of the rite and avoid facial expressions and gestures.

These readings may be rendered using three readers, or cantors, each taking the part of specific characters. One reader takes the role of narrator, another, usually the priest, speaks the words of Our Lord, and another all of the other characters.

In some cases a choir or even the assembly may be added to undertake the part of the multitude or when several Gospel characters speak at once.

The "dramatic" and spiritual effect on the assembly when it is they, and not just a reader, who cry out "Crucify him" can be quite moving and might bring out more clearly the responsibility of each one's personal sinfulness for our Lord's Passion.

At the Vatican, the Passion on Palm Sunday has been sung, for several years now, in Italian, by three deacons and a choir. The deacons maintain a sober tone although with slight variations for each personage. The choir sings the part of the multitude in polyphony.

On Good Friday the same process is followed but using the traditional Latin chants with the Sistine Choir doing the solemn polyphony. In both cases the Passion lasts about 50 minutes.

This system of dividing up the readings into parts is also sometimes allowed for Masses with children if such a process facilitates comprehension (see No. 47 of the Directory for Masses with Children). ZE05062820

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