Since Vatican II descended on the Church in the early 1960s like a revelation from God that left it up to us to somehow implement, laymen and women have had a much greater access to what Teddy Roosevelt called the Bully Pulpit.
Lay people’s major use of the priestly pulpit has been as the lector for most Masses, daily and Sunday. I was invited to be one of our lectors during our parish’s extraordinary Pilgrimage to the Churches of Italy several years ago. When the female factotum of our pastor, Monsignor Richard Stika, now the Bishop of Knoxville, asked me to do one of the many Masses on the trip, I aimed high and shot for St. Peter’s Basilica, but that had been promised to one of the parish’s prominent heart surgeons.
So I was given Orivieto, which was an idyllic Italian town located approximately 120 miles from Rome, our final destination. To access the town we had to ride a breath-taking Funiculi, Funicula. The celebrant for my Mass was Father Jack Hickel, a spry priest in his late seventies. He was riding shotgun for the future Bishop.
It was only my third time to serve as a lector at Mass. But I had no fear because I had experienced several years as a teacher, lecturer and public speaker, not to mention my many years on the air with my own shows or as a regular guest host for Phyllis Schlafly. So my reading was clear, enthusiastic and very audible because of my loud, projecting voice. After all, as most readings remind us at the end, this is the Word of God.
On the way out of the Church, Father Jack accosted me and complemented me on my reading and suggested I should lector for our parish. When I started to mumble and hem and haw, his voice became almost threatening when he said, if you are going to tell me, you do not feel yourself worthy, I am going to sock you!
I could see that his fist was already half-cocked, so I said in a disarming voice, Father how would this look if after saying such a beautiful Mass for all our parishioners the celebrant punches his lector in the mouth on the way out of this magnificent Church? Unfortunately for me that was exactly what I was trying to tell him!
A few years later on a family trip to San Francisco, we were seated four across with my wife on the one aisle across from her sister and her husband. The passenger on my left was a pretty blonde lady, in her early fifties, from California, who happened to be a nurse like my wife. I figured Judy was being entertained by Jayna and Charlie, so I was free to start another conversation with a total stranger.
I started with a question or two about the book she was reading. We stopped talking about three hours later, just before our announced landing. It seems that this nurse was suffering from titanium poisoning, which sounds like something out of a Hitchcock film or a Dan Brown novel. Her dentures, which contained titanium had been slowly poisoning her. I think her dentists only gave her two options and neither was appealing. She could have all her teeth removed or be invalided the rest of her life. Or many even die.
Her life was also in the dumpster. Her husband was a doctor and he fell for another nurse and left her. She could no longer practice her profession. As a result she confided in me that she had lost her faith in a God that could let this happen to her.
Whenever I encounter someone this close to despair, I dust off my rudimentary knowledge of one of my favorite Catholic teachers, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. I started telling her about his wonderful book, Life is Worth Living. I suggested she procure a copy and read it slowly. She surprisingly challenged me. I had already broached my story of Father Jack in Orivieto, so she said: if you become a lector, I will read Bishop’s Sheen’s book. We shook hands, the plane landed and of course I never saw her or heard from her again.
When I make a promise, I always do my best to keep it. So I went to see our new pastor and told him of my promise to this charming and slightly mysterious woman on the plane. I thought there would be some sort of training but I do not remember any. He knew I had three college degrees and could presumably read the Queen’s English.
Though that’s true, there is really a lot more to performing on the pulpit and trust me, a reader has to perform an important and more difficult task than it appears at first glance. (I left because of a problem with Vertigo and the onset of severe hearing loss.)
The best way to learn how to lector is to watch many others do and then do the opposite because after eighteen months of fulfilling my promise to the blonde on the plane, I have come to realize what an abysmal state is our lector group. And I will wager this is Church wide.
Now I must confess since my hearing has virtually left me completely but not enough to qualify for an implant, what follows below has assumed a deeper importance and has descended from mere annoyance and a permanent place in my pet peeve menagerie, to a personal cause because deafness is indeed a handicap…the handicap that no one can see!
First of all, too many, and this includes many priests as well, read as they would talk to you in a conversation or for priests, in the Confessional. Hard of hearing people are the first to notice this. I do understand some churches have antiquated acoustical systems, which make it virtually impossible for people like me to hear a word. That explains some of the problems. That was true in my parish and our Monsignor fixed the problem and I could hear much better. I went three years without hearing one sermon during Mass.
My complaint is with the lectors. Most lectors, even those who have loud voices fail to perform. Please show some enthusiasm. I am not saying you should turn the pulpit into a Shakespearean audition but You are reading, as I mentioned above, the Word of God.
As I told a lector friend recently after I critiqued her performance, the microphone is your best friend if you want people to hear and understand you. If you are just doing it to be seen and do not care if you are heard, continue to push the mike away from your lips, or read under or over it so that your words will not get proper amplification. Go right ahead because you have already lost me.
If you read this and you are or would like to become a lector or are even a priest, please take heed because you have no idea how many people in the pews are struggling to hear you. Feelings of alienation run rampant when a handicap denies you full participation in the Mass.