Jim Russell recommends a simple prayer to readers as they approach the ambo to proclaim the word of God at Mass: “Please don’t let me screw up.”
“But if you’re prepared, you won’t,” he said, “and that’s the best prayer, is to be prepared.”
For more than 20 years, Russell has worked to ensure that the readers at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Seattle are properly prepared for their ministry. Since the ’90s, he estimates he’s trained about 100 readers at the parish; at any given time, about 24 are in active rotation.
New readers receive a 60-minute in-person training along with two pages of notes and advice compiled by Russell.
For instance, with St. John’s resonant acoustics, he writes, “It is nearly impossible to speak too slowly, too loudly, with too much separation, or with diction that is too distinct.”
“There’s a lot of beauty and wisdom in the Scriptures,” Russell told Northwest Catholic, “but they have to be done in a certain way in order for that meaning to flow through to the congregation.
Russell grew up in a “blue collar, Irish Catholic” family in Pittsburgh, and he remembers when the liturgy changed after Vatican II and laypeople were invited to read at Mass.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is not going to work well,’” he said. “Our parish was just like my family, blue collar people who worked in steel mills and drove trucks and worked on the railroad — these people were not public speakers.”
“And I was not wrong,” he said. “We went through a decade or so of being unable to understand anything that came from the ambo because people just didn’t know how to do it.”
Russell honed his own public speaking skills as a cadet at West Point. He brings the techniques he learned there to bear at St. John’s, where he’s been a parishioner since 1984.
“The single most important thing is to be understood by the congregation,” he said. “And so the single greatest failing is to fail to speak clearly.”
That’s a matter of both diction and phrasing.
“When you’re looking at a text, you can see where the quote marks are and tell who’s talking and what they’re referring to; the congregation doesn’t have that advantage. And so it’s really important to separate the words of one speaker from the words of another.”
Another important skill that’s easy to overlook: breathing.
“I teach people to breathe more often than they might in a normal conversation and to keep their lungs full so that they can project,” Russell said. “We need to be prepared to go out there and have the PA system not work and still be heard in the back row of the church.”
Spending time rehearsing the reading is essential, he said.
“You’ve got to read it out loud from beginning to end at least five times, or you’ll go up and you’ll make a mistake,” he said. “And if you have time, try to do it eight or 10 times.”
In preparing to proclaim a passage, Russell will often read the surrounding chapters to understand the context. Spending so much time with Scripture over the years has made his faith and spirituality “richer and deeper,” he said.
And being part of the liturgy is “pretty heady,” he said.
“Being on the altar with the celebrant — for me, it’s a spiritual experience.”
The readers at St. John’s are expected to dress “formally” for their ministry, Russell said. It’s a sign of respect for the words they’re proclaiming.
“The priest is wearing the best clothing he can to serve at the banquet of Christ. Well, we should do that too.”
An ancient ministry
Proclaiming the word of God in the liturgy is “an ancient ministry in the church,” said Corinna Laughlin, pastoral assistant for liturgy at St. James Cathedral and liturgy consultant to the Archdiocese of Seattle.
“But the ministry as we know it today — involving both men and women — definitely came out of Vatican II, along with the much-expanded Lectionary [the collection of readings for the Mass].”
She explained, “For most of the church’s history, the priest would do all the readings. … Vatican II called for a variety of participants in the liturgy, reflecting the variety of ministries within the Mass.”
The terms “lector” and “reader” are often used interchangeably, Laughlin said, but she uses “reader,” because “lector” refers to a formal ministry in the Catholic Church.
“It is one of the steps on the way to ordination, formerly described as ‘minor orders,’” she said. “So anyone preparing for the diaconate or priesthood will be ‘instituted’ as a lector and then as an acolyte before their ordination.”
Reflecting on the ministry of reading, Laughlin said, “It is marvelous to be one of the instruments through which God speaks to his people, because that is exactly what happens when the Scriptures are proclaimed in the context of the liturgy.”
“It can also be a bit intimidating,” she said. “Being a reader requires the confidence and skill to speak in front of a group of people; it also requires the humility to let God speak through us. We aren’t performing the word, we are proclaiming it!”
Laughlin added that it is “especially important for readers to stay close to the word of God in their own spiritual practice — reading the Bible on their own or with a Bible study group, and spending time reflecting on the Scriptures, perhaps with the ancient practice of lectio divina.”
“No matter how well we know the Bible,” she said, “the texts are merely words on a page until we let them shape the way we think and act.”
Northwest Catholic - November 2020