Monday, September 09, 2019

The Parish Low Mass Is Not a “Silent” Mass: The Rubrics on Clara Voce

Last Pentecost octave, I happened to be visiting a big city and decided to go to a nearby Latin Mass on the Ember Friday. I invited two acquaintances to come with me.

I was surprised when Mass began and I could hear nothing of the dialogue of priests and servers. “Perhaps this is just —  for some reason — how they do the prayers at the foot of the altar,” I thought to myself. The priest mounted the steps and went to the missal to recite the Introit. Again, total silence. My bewilderment turned to frustration and disappointment as the entire Mass continued, with hardly a single word of it being audible. The only thing recited clara voce was the “Domine, non sum dignus” before the communion of the faithful.

Since I was traveling, I did not have my St. Andrew’s Daily Missal with me, and my two guests, who are not regular attendees, had no access to the propers either. I wasn’t expecting this lack of a missal to be a problem, as I can follow the Latin to a great extent if I can just hear the words. Hearing nothing, I was simply watching a priest say his private Mass. The motions are beautiful and the silence is prayerful, but I still felt deprived of access to the parts of the Mass that the Church intends the faithful to hear. Aside from verbal comprehension (which, I recognize, is often overrated nowadays), it is comforting to hear the Latin words floating through the church at the appropriate times. There is benefit in hearing the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Credo, the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei.

Evidently my guests felt a similar perplexity, since they both said to me afterwards at breakfast: “Is the old Mass always so completely silent?” I had to respond: “No, it’s not supposed to be. When I attend Mass elsewhere — with the Fraternity of St. Peter, or the Institute of Christ the King, or a diocesan priest — one can hear most of the Mass of the Catechumens, and some parts of the Mass of the Faithful.”

The rubrics of the usus antiquior stipulate unambiguously which parts of the Proper and Ordinary of the Mass are to be recited in an elevated tone of voice. The Rubricae generales Missalis, c. XVI, ‘De his quae clara voce, aut secreto dicenda sunt in Missa,’ reads as follows (my translation):
In a private Mass the following are to be said clara voce: the antiphon and psalm before the Introit, the Confession and that which follows (except Aufer a nobis and Oramus te); again, the Introit, Kyrie, Gloria, Dominus vobiscum, Oremus, Flectamus genua, Levate, Collect or Collects, Prophecy, Epistle, Gradual, Alleluia, Tract, Sequence, Gospel, Creed, Offertory antiphon, Orate fratres (just those two words), Preface, Nobis quoque peccatoribus (just those three words), Per omnia &c. with Pater noster, Per omnia &c. with Pax Domini, Agnus Dei, Domine non sum dignus (just those four words), Communion antiphon, Postcommunion or Postcommunions, Humiliate capita, Ite missa est or Benedicamus Domino or Requiescat in pace, Blessing, and Last Gospel or other Gospel. All the rest is to be said secreto.
Of great interest is the next paragraph, which specifies that clara voce means spoken in such a way that those around may hear and follow:
The priest ought to take the utmost care that things which are to be said clara voce are pronounced distinctly and appropriately — not very quickly, so that he can pay attention to what he reads, nor exceedingly slowly, lest the listeners be afflicted with tedium; neither with a voice excessively raised, lest others be disturbed who perhaps might be offering Mass in the same church at the same time, nor with one that is too faint [submissa], lest those gathered around be not able to hear, but in a moderate and earnest tone, that it may both stir up devotion and be accommodated to the listeners that they may understand what is read. Those things, on the other hand, which are to be said secreto should be pronounced in such a way that only the priest himself may hear them, and they are not heard by those gathered around.
The “marching orders” contained in this rubric, however flowery its expression, are not especially hard to grasp and put into practice. While it is true that some churches are so vast that even a priest speaking clara voce might not be able to be heard or understood by those sitting far away, I have found that it depends not so much on the size of a church but on its the architecture, and on such factors as whether the heating or air conditioning is blowing, or fans are running, or other ambient noise is coming in. At the church I visited on Ember Friday, it was not difficult to hear the priest when he did speak up. Despite the great volume of space, the Latin was perfectly comprehensible; the acoustics would be excellent for a Missa recitata or Missa lecta.

Low Mass at a side chapel of Clear Creek
It seems to me important to recognize an unofficial distinction not discussed in the rubrics. There is a difference between a publicly scheduled Mass offered at the high altar in the expected presence of a congregation of people, and a “private” Mass of a monk at a side altar in a monastery, adjacent to a dozen other monks simultaneously offering Masses. At Clear Creek, Le Barroux, Norcia, Silverstream, and other such places, those whispered early morning Masses — with the faithful seldom more than a few feet away from their chosen side chapel — seem like quite a different affair from a parochial Mass at a high altar in the main church, with the circumstantes standing dozens or possibly hundreds of feet away. The latter scenario demands more care on the part of the priest to ensure that the audible parts are indeed audible.

In the end, I was grateful to be able to assist at Holy Mass during the Pentecost octave, immerse myself in prayer, and rejoice in the beauty of God’s house; I was even more grateful to receive Our Lord in Holy Communion. Nevertheless, it disturbed me to be cut off from the antiphons, orations, and readings that Holy Mother Church wishes the faithful to be able to hear with their ears. It seems to me that priests, if any may have fallen into bad habits in this regard, ought to bear in mind that speaking those parts of the Proper and Ordinary clara voce, as specified in the rubrics, is a way of showing respect and consideration to the faithful who come to church to drink from the greatest source of prayer we enjoy as Catholics: the sacred liturgy.

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