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“Speak, Lord, your servant is listening”
I was interested to read recently about research carried out by the University of NSW which shows that the human brain processes and retains more information if it is digested in either its verbal or written form, but not both at the same time.
What, you may well ask, has this got to do with liturgy? The researchers themselves provide the answer. They question the wisdom of habits such as reading along with Bible passages at the same time they are being read aloud in church. More of the passages would be understood and retained, the researchers suggest, if heard or read separately.
"It is effective to speak to a diagram, because it presents information in a different form. But it is not effective to read the same words that are being said, because it is putting too much load on the mind and decreases your ability to understand what is being presented."
When I suggested in the past that following the readings or prayers in the Missals during Mass is not good practice, some readers claimed that we should use the senses of both sight and hearing in liturgy. My response was, Yes – and of smell, touch and taste as well – but not to convey the same message simultaneously. It seems that my comments, based on instinct and experience in education, were correct.
The issue of ‘reading along’ during liturgy had also arisen on two occasions recently. A priest rang to enquire if it was in fact normal, as a few parishioners claimed, for priests to announce what Eucharistic Prayer they were using at Mass so that people could follow it in their Missals.
Then I noticed a lady at Mass who seemed to spend most of the liturgy searching through the pages of her Missal. By the time she located the Preface, for example, it was over and she was looking for the Holy, Holy. (No, the lady is not a new Catholic or hard of hearing!)
My reaction was the same as when I see people busily taking photos at a breath-taking scenic spot or spectacular event instead of simply enjoying the present moment. The words in the Missal are a vehicle for worship, not an end in themselves.
People cannot possibly participate fully in liturgy if they are absorbed in printed words on a page, paying scant attention to the worship leader, readers and those around them. Liturgy is also a dialogue between God and the people of God assembled for worship. Books or pieces of paper get in the way of this conversation.
If the reason given is that people need the words because they cannot hear the readers or the priest celebrant, the solution lies in training readers and celebrants to project their voices and articulate clearly and, if necessary, fixing the sound system.
We will hear the word of God better if we prepare by reading the texts before coming to Mass, put our Missals aside during the Liturgy of the Word and engage in dialogue with the word. As we listen together to the Word of God and attend to those who lead us in prayer, our hearts are joined as one body of believers.