A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH

Prayers Recited Quietly

ROME, 2 JUNE 2009 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: In the Latin rubrics for the Roman missal, we are instructed to recite certain prayers "secreto." In the English translation the word used is "silently." Instead, the Italian translation has "sotto voce," which I use when I recite those prayers, which for some reason I feel is more faithful. The Italians know how to translate Latin. In other words, one does not say the prayers silently but under one's breath, as it were. You must be heard a little bit, though not loudly. It's a small matter, but St. Teresa of Avila said she would give up her life for the smallest rubric. G.D., Chicago

A: Our reader is correct in stating that "silently" is an imperfect translation for the Latin "Secretum." But he will be happy to know that the recently approved new translation of the Order of Mass changes this expression to the more accurate "quietly." Therefore when the new missal is eventually published within a couple of years, priests will no longer have this dilemma.

In the ordinary form of the Roman rite this quiet recitation is mostly reserved to the priest's personal prayers.

Among these are his prayers before and after reading the Gospel; sundry prayers before taking Communion; or during the purification of the sacred vessels.

Another are the so-called priestly apologies which are not prayers in which the celebrant excuses himself for being a priest but in which he recognizes his intrinsic indignity and implores divine aid in order to worthily celebrate the august mysteries. These were once abundant in the liturgy but are now few. Examples are the two prayers associated with the washing of hands: "In spiritu humilitatis" and "Lava me Domine."

Non-personal prayers that are said (quietly) include the blessing of the deacon before reading the Gospel. In some cases the prayers for the presentation of gifts ("Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation") are said quietly. This is done if there is music or song during the offertory, but the celebrant may also choose to say these prayers quietly if he believes that a period of relative calm is of more pastoral benefit at this moment.

It should be said that while the Mass has moments of silent prayer, it has no prayers in silence. That is, all official prayers printed in the missal are meant to be vocalized and are never said just mentally. Most of them are to be sung or recited in a clear audible voice.

Those, such as the examples above, which are said "quietly," should be at least audible to the speaker himself and may even be slightly louder provided that there is a clear distinction in tone between the personal prayers and the presidential ones. If this is done, then it matters little if the "quiet" prayer becomes accidentally audible due to sensitive microphones.

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Follow-up: Prayers Recited Quietly [6-16-2009]

In the wake of our June 2 comments on the priest's quiet prayers, a U.S. reader remarked:

"Here in Boston I've often wondered why the Missal instruction to pray certain prayers 'inaudibly' is not only ignored, but the prayers themselves are changed, presumably to include the congregation. I refer specifically to two instances:

"The prayer during the washing of the hands is often audible and one hears: 'Lord, wash away our iniquities, cleanse us of our sins.' I'm assuming the celebrant is not using the 'royal we' here, and while I appreciate the sentiment, it's disconcerting, because precisely at this time I'm praying (silently) to the Lord to purify the priest!

"Prior to their reception of Communion, I often hear priests pray, loudly: "May the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ bring us ALL (that's not my emphasis ... that's the priests') to everlasting life." (To which the congregation invariably responds, understandably I suppose, with a hearty "Amen!") Again, I appreciate the sentiment, but it is while the priest communicates that I try to (silently) pray for his eternal glory. This sort of interrupts my prayer for him.

"I already know that these (and, alas, too many other) instances aren't in the missal. What I'm wondering is simply why do priests do this?"

Why indeed? I can think of many reasons, but in the end they will be merely speculative. I can only put it down to inadequate liturgical formation and a consequent lack of understanding of the inner dynamics of the celebration. Such acts betray a deficient grasp of how these personal prayers address the priest's specific need for purification in virtue of his unique role within the celebration.

The fact that the priest says these prayers quietly can also be a teaching moment in which he, through his devout attitude, teaches the faithful how to prepare for Communion. Saying this prayer aloud turns it into another vocal prayer, thus depriving it of its proper liturgical function.

This goes to show that fidelity to the missal, and not our personal ideas regarding community involvement, is actually the most integrally pastoral attitude we can have.
 

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