Eye Contact for Lectors and the Assembly: Two Lessons Never Taught

Eye Contact for Lectors and the Assembly: Two Lessons Never Taught July 13, 2018

A lector proclaiming one of the readings at Mass.

Eye contact between lectors and members of the assembly is a relationship. As a trainer of lectors (I’ve written a book), as a lector myself, and as a person in the pew, I see two parts of that relationship. There’s a way to make the lector’s part easier, but it’s only even possible when the assembly does its part.

I feel sorry for lectors in my church. They try so hard to follow the rule that says they’re supposed to make eye contact with people in the assembly. But (a) Books tell them to do it but not how, and (b) They can’t do it anyway because most of their audience is not making eye contact with them. I don’t know how it is in your church, but sitting in my pew, I see the lector’s head bobbing up and down, trying to make eye contact with people whose eyes are studiously focused on a page in their missalettes.

So here are two lessons, one to encourage the people in the assembly to do their job during the Liturgy of the Word, the other for lectors, who, I believe, will find at least their part of eye contact relationship easier.

Eye Contact for the Assembly.

The Liturgy of the Word is a celebration of the presence of God. It is not study time or a time for worrying whether you understood everything. At the Liturgy of the Word God’s people share a word that God has written on their hearts.

“Sharing” is an important idea. It’s an active, community thing. You won’t find God’s presence in black and white in your book while others around you find God’s presence in their books. The Liturgy of the Word doesn’t bring God to individuals one at a time. The book—except for those with impaired hearing—is a hindrance to experiencing God’s presence in the communal activity. (It’s a wonderful thing when some parishes include hearing-impaired people into the common experience by providing a simultaneous sign language interpretation of the readings.)

All of this means that the person in the assembly has an important job to do in the Liturgy of the Word, namely: Look at the lector. Look at the one who is sharing the word of God with you. Allow that person to make eye contact with you, the way we do when sharing stories among friends and family. These are our stories and, just like what often happens around the table or a campfire, they are stories we’ve heard before. I don’t always remember hearing a particular reading before, but I know that this sharing has been going on my entire life and will continue, making me who I am and am becoming. At the moment my participation in the sharing is more important than making sure I don’t miss a word.

The sharing that occurs at Mass can be enhanced by checking out the Sunday readings before you go to church. That’s the time for not missing a word. Even then you won’t get everything out of what you read. That’s why we have a repeating cycle of Mass readings.

Eye Contact for Lectors

Most lectors that I’ve seen put a lot of effort into both the reading and following the rule that says: Make eye contact with the assembly. This is not the easiest thing to do, but many lectors make it harder than it has to be. What I observe often is that lectors look up many times during a reading, more than once per sentence even. Of course, they have to look down again quickly so they don’t lose their place. The person in the assembly does not get the feeling of actually being looked at. This way makes eye contact both difficult and ineffective.

There’s a better, easier way that both feels more comfortable to the lector and looks more natural to the listener. First, cut down the number of times you make eye contact. Once per sentence is often more than enough. Second, the natural place to look up is at the end of a sentence. You will see the period coming a few words in advance, and when you know what those last few words are, then look up. Keep your gaze on the assembly for all of those words—four or five is often not too many to keep track of. Then look back at your place. The time that this requires is just about right for a pause at the end of a sentence.

There’s nothing set in stone here. You don’t have to look up for every sentence, and some really long ones, like those Paul likes to write, might be right for two looks. I often find a part of a reading where the thought seems to be addressed more personally to the listeners. I definitely want to make eye contact then.

Last point: The most effective way to make eye contact is to actually connect with a particular person in the assembly. That’s why you especially want your listeners looking at you instead of at their books. Pick out a different person in a different part of the assembly each time you look up. Look them in the eye. Of course, that takes time, but if you follow the first instruction, you’ve given yourself time.

You may enjoy this method of making eye contact. You may feel more connected with your listeners. At least, you will avoid the danger of a stiff neck from too much bobbing your head up and down.

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  • John Harrison

    This may surprise you – I am sure it will, so please take what I am going to say as constructive criticism from another who is very, very interested in the proper declaration of the word in Mass.
    I believe your approach is a great mistake.

    The Bible, for most of the history of man, has been an oral document. That is, the Word was Heard – conversion is begun through the EARS – NOT the eyes. Making eye contact is proper to certain kinds of oration, but NOT to the declaration of the word.

    The Mass is NOT a performance venue. It is for many pew-sitting catholics the ONLY place they will hear scripture for the week. The best analogy I have given to the “readers” i have trained is to note that the Script .. the Holy Writ of God .. was declared orally to the many generations of Faithful that came before us. That speaking the word well is not a PERFORMANCE, it’s a conversation from God to the Faithful through your heart and mouth. The properly focused reader is to understand the inflection – the conversational nature of the passages – and to let the Holy Spirit provide the guidance for inflection. “He shall increase, and I shall decrease” is the best mindset for declaring the Word of God, for if we provide our hearts and voices for the Lord, He knows who has to hear those words in “this” way, or “that” way, and I am merely the Holy Spirit’s instrument.

    The Lector ministry (and the Music ministry) has for too long been driven by the belief that we must “perform” well for the Mass. While proficiency and clarity of talent are vital (the instrument of voice and organ must be clear, on tone, and of good quality), that does not give permission to take the opportunity to “get in front” of the process and supplant the real role of the readings (and the music) – to ENHANCE the solemnity of the Mass, not entertain or make of admiring glances.

  • fritzpatrick

    Wow! You are making me think. I can’t agree right away that making eye contact puts one on the track to performance. It might be just a natural part of telling/hearing. But this is worth some rethinking.

  • fritzpatrick

    I’ve had some time to think about your thoughtful response to my post on eye contact for lectors. On two specific points you made: To speak in a natural way is not performance, and eye contact is part of speaking naturally. I don’t understand why the “declaration of the word” should be different in that respect from other communication situations. Here are some additional thoughts:

    1. Eye contact seems to me to be just a part of the listening experience. It doesn’t seem like a show at all; in fact, it’s perfectly natural in any other oral communication. In my own experience I find that I can understand what another is saying to me better if we are looking at each other.
    2. You didn’t specifically address my point about the job of the people in the pews. I claimed that they should be looking at the lector rather than focusing on a page in a book. I’m not sure you agree, but if not, then what about just playing a recording of the readings. I’m sure you would say No to that, and I think I know why: Presence is an essential part of Catholic liturgy. It seems to me that eye contact is just a part of that being present.
    3. I completely agree with you that faith comes by hearing, but that normally includes eye contact and more besides. It includes one’s attitude toward the message bearers: believing that they know what they’re talking about, confidence that they really believe the message, trusting that they have one’s best interests at heart. All of these must have been part of the early success of Christian faith sharing and of the reason why it could be said “faith comes by hearing.” Eye contact has a role to play in all of these as does speaking in a manner that says, “I really mean this.”

    Maybe you will have found something here of value to you. I’d appreciate hearing from you again.