Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Utilitarian Arguments Against Lay Lectors


One of the most notable characteristics of the Novus Ordo Missae is the utilization of members of the congregation in roles that were formerly filled by clerics in Minor Orders. This change was brought about due to a misguided understanding of "active participation", a phrase whose pre-Vatican II definition had meant something more akin to "full engagement of mind and heart" but which in the post-Conciliar regime came to mean "everybody moving around doing stuff." There is an excellent little exegesis on the pedigree of the phrase participatio actuosa in Dr. Peter Kwasniewski's book Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright (which I will be reviewing in the near future, Lord willing). For those of you who don't have the book, I recommend this article from Dr. Kwaskniewski at New Liturgical Movement.

While there are many examples of congregants being substituted for clerics in the new Mass, here I'd like to focus on the role of the lector in the Novus Ordo, specifically in utilitarian terms. That is, there are many good arguments that it is more uniquely fitting for clergy to lector; here I am going to present an argument for the same based on the fact that congregants are generally bad at doing the readings.

Before we examine this, I want to reference from the Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 45, on mistakes made when doing the readings. St. Benedict wrote:

Should anyone make a mistake in a psalm, responsory, refrain or reading, he must make satisfaction there before all. If he does not use this occasion to humble himself, he will be subjected to more severe punishment for failing to correct by humility the wrong committed through negligence. Children, however, are to be whipped for such a fault.

Granted, this passage is not directly applicable. Benedict is referring specifically to monastic life, and the passage refers not to the celebration of the liturgy but to the readings done in the Oratory or during mealtime in the Refectory.  Still, even if the particulars are not directly applicable, it is still relevant on principle―the Sacred Scriptures are the very words of God, the public recitation of which demands skill, attentiveness, and excellence. To treat the public recitation of the Word of God as something common place profoundly devalues the place of the Scriptures in the economy of salvation. We are blameworthy if we do so, and hence the Rule of St. Benedict proscribes a penalty for anyone who errs when readings, whether through neglect or honest accident. The recitation of the Word of God in the liturgy deserves the highest attentiveness and formal excellence on the part of the lector.

Given this basic principle, let us consider how the readings are often done in the Novus Ordo. 

In the first place, it is evident that the lay lectors are often unfamiliar with the specific biblical text they are reading. This is evidenced in the endemic mispronuncation of biblical names. Even relatively simple names like Jezreel or Bartimaeus give many a lector pause. Some names are morphed into others, like when the text says Simeon but the lector lazily says Simon, or Mattathias becomes Matthias. The lector fumbles to say Nebuchadnezzar or Melchizedek. And if a word like Mahershalhashbaz or Zaphnathpaaneah comes up, it's game over. 

The quality of the delivery is often shoddy as well. Pitch is monotone, cadence indiscernible, and punctuation in the text is slurred over because the lector doesn't understand how all the subordinate clauses run together. There's no particular emphasis on any aspect of the text―or conversely, if there is, it is often melodramatic and cringy. In other words, it's exactly what you'd expect when people who are uaccustomed to reading publicly are asked to read publicly. It oftens seems like the first time a lector sees the text he or she is reading is when they step up to the ambo.

Furthermore, it frequently happens that a lector is chosen who honestly does not have sufficient eyesight or audio-verbal coordination to be reading publicly. I am reminded of a Mass I attended where an elderly gentleman lector consistently said "the Godfather" instead of "God the Father." Whether the problem was age, dyselxia, or some other cause, the fact was somewhere in the cognitive process the words were getting jumbled, resulting in calling the First Person of the Trinity "The Godfather", and other similar embarassing errors.  

And all of these problems are compounded when a parish decides to also let children lector, which is unfortunately common.

Finally, we must also note the problem of lay lectors approaching the ambo in clothes that are much too casual for the office they are fulfilling, especially in the case of daily Masses where the lector is likely to be wearing jeans or other street clothes. The solemn proclamation by the Word of God creates a cognitive dissonance between what is supposed to be happening and the reality we are seeing. Although to be honest, even if the lector is impeccably dressed, he is still not vested for the specifically liturgical function he or she is ultimately performing, which is a whole other discussion.

I grant that these objections are anecdotal. One's experience with a lector is going to vary depending on the particular lector. And some Novus Ordo parishes do a good job vetting their lectors, and these lectors are attentive to reviewing and meditating on the text prior to taking the ambo. So this is not meant to disparage those of you who may be serving as lay lectors and putting a lot of attentiveness and work into the reading. Nevertheless, anecdotes are anecdotes for a reason, and the fact that some lectors do a good job in the Novus Ordo is no argument against the ubiquity of the problems I have described above.

One reason for the subpar lectoring in the Novus Ordo is that, once you admit the principle that the readings should be done by a layperson, you must now find a constant supply of laypeople to do this for every set of readings: day after day, week after week, year after year. Even assuming one lector is going to read multiple times during a month, this is still a tall order. To keep the assembly line of lay lectors flowing uninterrupted, a pastor cannot afford to be choosy with whom he admits to the ambo. Even though canonically the pastor has total discretion over who can fulfill this function, in practice any warm body who wants to lector is going to be permitted.

The problems I enunciated above are all non-issues in the Traditional Latin Mass. Granted, it is still possible that a cleric may stumble over a word like Merodachbaladan or Tigleth-pileser. But really, who is less likely to mispronounce Bible names: a cleric who studied the Scriptures for years prior to ordination, preaches on them daily, and meditates on them privately multiple times of day in the Office...or a lay person whose only interaction with the Bible may be on Sunday? Obviously a cleric is much less likely fumble just based on his training of manner of life. Even someone in Minor Orders is going to be far better equipped to deal with a reading than a lay person. Yes, lay people can study Scriptures and be very biblically literate, but like everything else in the Novus Ordo, this is entirely dependent upon the particular lector. Should the quality of our readings be held hostage to the skill of a particular individual every week?

Furthermore, a priest or deacon who preaches regularly, essentially speaking in public for a living, is going to have a better quality of delivery. Pitch, cadence, emphasis, timbre, and all of it is going to be superior to your average lay lector who probably never has to read publicly. A priest who encounters the Scriptures on a daily basis in public liturgy and private study is also a lot less likely to juxtapose phrases or commit an error like "The Godfather" example mentioned above. Someone who has studied the Scriptures for years is going to be intimately familiar with the texts in a way that gives them a certain comfort or naturalness about reading them aloud. 

And obviously a cleric is going to be properly vested for the office he is performing, which eliminates the cognitive dissonance I mentioned above when a layperson saunters up in their street clothes to proclaim the divine revelation of the Word of God. Furthermore, reserving the readings to the few clergy associated with a parish solves the problem of needing to find an unending supply of laypersons to lector.

In critique all this, I can anticipate the rebuttal that God does not care about our education level, or how eloquently we speak, or whether we stumble over a word. God only cares about the heart! After all, "When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the word of God in eloquence or human wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:1), and "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal" (1 Cor. 13:1). To insist on some kind of external, formal excellence in how one reads is Pharisaical. Didn't Jesus come for the poor and uneducated? 

In the first place, the verses above do not pertain to the liturgy specifically. In liturgical worship, externals do matter very much given that it is the public worship of the Church. General Christian precepts about personal prayer often do not apply to the liturgy, which has its own standards. For example, Jesus clearly says "But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret" (Matt. 6:6). Yet, clearly this does not apply to the liturgy, which by definition is public worship. If we applied Jesus' dictum to pray in secret to our liturgy, we wouldn't even be able to have a Mass. It is sloppy, lazy scholarship to take biblical passages that were never meant to apply to the liturgy and derive liturgical norms from them. That's how you end up with people going barefoot at Mass because God once told Moses to take his shoes off, or parishioners dancing in the sanctuary because David danced before the ark

And even though many of us might struggle to pronounce Mahershalalhashbaz or Chushanrishathaim when we come across them in our private reading, our private reading is not the public proclamation of the Word of God in the liturgy. I might also read the Bible privately while sitting comfortably in my pajamas but it would be absurd to say that the same standard applies to the liturgy. The excessive focus on "Aw, but his heart is in the right place" and "C'mon, she's doing her best" reveals the degree to which the Novus Ordo approach to liturgy is so anthropocentric it cannot even fathom the idea of the Mass being God-directed.

But more to the point: granted that by every objectively measurable criterion a cleric is better suited to do the readings than a layperson, what counter-argument is there for preferring lay lectors despite all the defects we mentioned? What principle is weighty enough to override the avalanche of problems that come with lay lectoring? What can be so important that we accept the standard of mediocrity? The only plausible answer is that it is all worth it in order to include laypeople in the liturgy. And thus we see that, again, the true North Star of the Novus Ordo is the flawed principle of active participation. It's a kind of liturgical affirmative action: a cleric can objectively "do the job" better, but a less qualified person is chosen, not based on their ability, but solely on their identity. The fittingness of the liturgical celebration comes second; attending to lay "representation" in the ritual is first. It is a perfect example of the schizophrenia of the Novus Ordo mentality―to prefer a watered-down, banal experience that is objectively slipshod and detrimental to faith so long as people can feel like they are "doing something."

In conclusion, it seems evident that the public worship of the Church demands the highest level of excellence possible for the proclamation of the Word of God. The reliance on lay lectors in the Novus Ordo completly subverts this standard by prioritizing the physical involvement of laypersons―regardless of their capabilities―over the objective quality of the liturgy. It is the total inversion of the principle we saw enunciated in the Rule of St. Benedict and which has always been at the heart of the Church's public worship.

For another take on this same problem please see "How Typical Lector Praxis Transmits a Protestant and Pelagian Message" from New Liturgical Movement (Jan. 2018)

Friday, November 13, 2020

California Days

I recently took a trip out to Southern California and had a very edifying time visiting various churches and religious sites. Though Southern California is obviously a hotbed of progressive nonsense politically, for the devout Catholic, it's also a rich paradise of cultural, historic, and religious sites.

Last Friday in particular I devoted the entire day to pilgrimage. I began by making a drive into the hills up to Silverado in Orange County to visit the Norbertine monastery of St. Michael. The monastery grounds were gorgeous; unfortunately the building was from the 1970s and not very aesthetic. But a brother I met in the parking lot quickly told me about a new building they were soon going to be moving in to, one in the more traditional style. He invited me to attend mid-day prayers in the chapel, which was a huge grace. While I waited for the prayers to begin, the brothers quietly emerged from various doors and passages and glided into their choir stalls. I was surprised not only at their number (I counted 30), but also their relative youth. Of the 30 brothers I saw, I counted 14 that looked to me to be in their twenties. I also noticed a few novices and postulants sitting off to the side who were also all young men. 

They began their prayers, all chant, all Latin. It was lovely. I am pretty sure this was a Novus Ordo community, but how nice it was to see youthful brothers in their full traditional habits chanting the office in Latin. And to see their community was growing and would soon be in better quarters! After prayers, one of the older members of the community, a priest named Fr. Steven, spoke with me at length about the new building and asked me to take a drive out to the new location and take a look at it. I followed his advice and took a picture of the new St. Michaels. The brothers will be moving in before Christmas, Lord willing:


If you want to do more research on the Norbertines of St. Michael, their website can be found here.

After my morning with the Norbertines, I drove down to San Juan Capistrano to visit the mission there, one of the famous California missions founded by St. Junipero Serra (1713-1784). I had been to the mission before, but it had been several years. When I was last here I was in a group and had to stick with the group, so now I was looking forward to exploring it alone and at my own pace. The mission architecture and grounds are of course beautiful, as is the case with all the historic California missions. I had a great deal of peace and spiritual refreshment exploring the grounds, stopping to pray or just sit in the various little corners of beauty, and strolling the porticoes. The weather was fine, sunny but cool and breezy. 


The mission chapel is particularly noteworthy. Though much of it is reconstructed, the reconstructions were done using materials from the same period taken from other similar structures and based on historical drawings and photographs. It is a very accurate representation of what St. Junipero must have seen when he offered Mass here:



I was able to spend quite a bit of time in here in prayer. The mission was a little quieter than usual due to Covid I was told and I had the place to myself for some time. What a grace!

After this I wanted to make a trip up to the San Gabriel Mission, but I was informed by a docent that it had regrettably been destroyed over the summer in an apparent act of anti-Catholic arson

Now it was late afternoon and I drove  from San Juan Capistrano over to Costa Mesa, where several friends had recommended I visit the parish of St. John the Baptist, a Norbertine parish that was reputed to have a very beautiful sanctuary and a Perpetual Adoration chapel. I was disappointed to find when I arrived that the Adoration chapel was closed due to Covid restrictions. So I went to pray in the church instead. As I walked in, I noticed there was an old woman kneeling on the sidewalk praying the Rosary. I was like "Um...okay I guess that's what they do here" and went past her. When I got into the church, I was blessed to find there was a wedding going on. I obviously kept my distance as not wanting to intrude on their special moment, but I walked in at the very end when the Bride and Groom are kneeling and getting ready to receive the final blessing from the priest after Communion. I snapped a picture of it because I thought it was such a lovely scene:



After the Bride and Groom left, I was able to spend some time praying alone in the sanctuary, just myself and some Filipino ladies who were saying the Rosary. I also walked about the parish grounds a bit and found this charming statue of Our Lady of Lavang, which is one of my favorite non-European depictions of the Blessed Virgin:



As I saw this image, I was really struck by the Catholicity of the Church. Here I was visiting a parish in the United States, an English speaking country. The bride at the wedding and her whole family seemed to be native Spanish speakers, while the groom and his side seemed to be native English speakers. Then there's these Filipino ladies praying in the chapel and a statue of a Vietnamese depiction of Mary in the back. 

As I was leaving, I noticed the old lady was still kneeling outside praying the Rosary. Then I saw other people were kneeling in the grass, in the parking lot. It was super bizarre, so I turned to see what they were all kneeling towards. That was when I noticed the Blessed Sacrament was being displayed from the second story window of a building next door to the Church, presumably the Rectory. When Covid restrictions closed the Adoration chapel, the pastor had moved the sacrament to the rectory, which allowed people to adore from the parking lot. I immediately dropped to my knees, embarrassed that I had walked back and forth across this area multiple times without realizing what was going on. I took this picture, which I found profoundly moving:



After the day was over, I felt a great peace in my soul. This was only a few days after the election, and everything nationally seemed to be in chaos. None of that seemed to matter though. It was so refreshing to see Catholic life going on as usual in all these places: monks chanting the Divine Office as they have since the time of St. Benedict; sitting in prayer before an altar upon which Masses were said before a United States of America ever existed; quietly fellowshipping with other Catholics of diverse backgrounds in the worship of the King of Kings in the Blessed Sacrament. Basically, experiencing the cliché but very true maxim that "God is still on the throne."