Catholic clergy and laity seem to accept the use of microphones at Mass without question as something good, or at least as an inevitable feature of the electronic environment in which we all now live and move, as fish swim in water. It is, however, a very recent and very strange development, and one might think it would occasion more discussion than it has.

From the point of view of the human sensorium, the Mass is first of all an event in the dimension of sound, the sound of the human voice. Mass is said to be something said by a priest, and the faithful were said to hear Mass. The latter expression gave a name to the passive silence in which the faithful would attend Mass. T. S. Eliot once described the attitude in which poets turn their experience into poetry as “a passive attending upon the event,” a phrase that might be applied to the attitude of the faithful when they were said to hear Mass. As a poet composes poetry, so a Catholic would compose himself at Mass, in a mood of quiet expectation.

The notion of hearing Mass has since been displaced by the ideal of active participation at Mass, and to be active, it is thought, means to produce, as well as attend to, sound. This ideal descends from the liturgical movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Active participation in the liturgy by the faithful was encouraged as early as 1903, in a motu proprio on music by Pius X. It was further encouraged by the Holy See’s approval in 1922 of the dialogue Mass, at which the congregation would together say responses to prayers of the priest. In the Mass of Paul VI, which has been the common rite in the West since it was promulgated in 1969, the congregation usually responds to a priest who faces them, and who prays in their language, speaking into a microphone that projects his voice through loudspeakers pointed at them.

Microphones were occasionally used at Mass prior to the 1960s, but they have since become standard equipment. A rationale for their introduction would seem to have been that they gave the priest a voice equal in volume to that of the congregation, with whom he could therefore be in dialogue. But microphones also opened up new possibilities for participation by members of the congregation, who began to read, make announcements, and lead others in prayer and song. Rare is the Mass today at which there is not more than one microphone and more than one amplified voice.

The seventeenth-century poet George Herbert coined the brilliant metaphor of prayer as reversed thunder . The microphone at Mass, one might say, goes some way to turning the metaphor into literal truth, to the detriment of its metaphoric force and charm. Acoustically, many Masses now have much in common with other contemporary events at which electronically projected voices fill the air, including political rallies, popular music concerts, sports events, movies in theaters, and travel in airports and subway stations. These events take place in cavernous, rumbling echo chambers in which crowds of people are subjected to unnaturally loud voices with a metallic timbre.

A microphone allows its user to impose his voice, and thereby his thought and personality, on many more people than an ancient orator could. Now a public speaker is anyone with a microphone. The amateur in front of a microphone is tempted to indulge the pleasure of broadcasting his thoughts and feelings, to the great amusement or annoyance of his audience. The more skillful speaker takes control of the microphone and the situation, using his amplified voice for other purposes. Popular singers and populist politicians have been masters of the microphone, expertly murmuring more loudly than anyone could ever shout.

Different parts of the Mass call for different rhetorical attitudes. A preacher addresses the congregation most pointedly, as a particular human being speaking to particular others. A reader of Scripture takes a more detached stance, proclaiming the text to all who happen to be present. It may or may not be the priest who preaches or who reads from Scripture, but it must be he who says the Canon, following the canon actionis or rule of action.

The action of the Mass is simultaneously an action of a consecrated priest, an action of the whole Church, and an action of Christ. In the case of the priest, the action is largely a matter of speech. Although he sometimes speaks to the congregation, most of what he says is a direct address to God the Father, and in addressing Him, he occasionally, and rather impersonally, mentions the others present at the Mass as circumstantes , “those who are standing around.”

Filtered through a public address system, these various attitudes become homogenized. To a member of the congregation, the prayers, the dialogue, the readings, the sermon, and the parish announcements are all emanations from one and the same source, the nearest loudspeaker. In my pew, I see the priest look towards me, but I hear his voice coming from another direction, that of the loudspeaker.

This disparity between the direction of sight and the direction of sound is a cognitive dissonance typical of some of the contemporary events mentioned above. Yet the priest’s face and his electronically magnified voice at least agree in both pointing toward me. But then there is the further, more jarring dissonance between, on the one hand, his facing me and speaking in my direction, and, on the other hand, his addressing God the Father. It is not easy to construe a voice relentlessly projected at oneself as meant for someone else.

In 1974, Marshall McLuhan argued that the microphone was the proximate cause both of the elimination of Latin from the Mass and of the turning around of the priest to face the congregation. Before microphones, a priest quietly said Mass in Latin, with his back to the congregation. From any distance, his voice was indistinct, although an instructed Catholic could follow what he was saying from a missal containing the Latin text of the Mass or a translation of it.

McLuhan’s suggestion was that, once microphones began to make every syllable spoken by the priest crystal clear to all, it became intolerable for him not to be speaking in a language understood by all. And since it seemed urgent to have him understood by all, it also seemed unnatural for him to have his back to the congregation. He was turned around to face them, and started to say Mass in their language.

McLuhan also suggested that microphones lead to smaller congregations. This is because they make it possible for anyone in church to be heard by everyone else. Even if only a few actually do speak, the possibility that anyone might address everyone produces a powerful sense of artificial closeness, and consequently a desire for real closeness and for the overcoming of spatial divisions and distances between people.

The ancient rule for the number of guests to invite to dinner was “no fewer than the Graces and no more than the Muses,” that is, no fewer than three and no more than nine. The guiding principle was the unity of the dinner conversation, which, it was thought, needs at least four people, including the host, to get going, but is hard to maintain in its unity with more than ten. Microphones produce the illusion that intimate and unified conversation can take place among thousands.

Recognizing the illusion for what it is, people are moved to look elsewhere for what it falsely promises, namely, a warm human exchange. Even small churches start to seem too big, and it becomes preferable to have Mass said in a private setting, among friends, in a small room where no microphones are needed.

On the other hand, microphones can intensify the illusion of intimate conversation among large numbers to the point where even big churches start to seem too small. A Mass said outdoors in a stadium makes fuller use of the power of microphones to evoke a feeling of unity in a multitude.

Still more impressive in this respect is the electronic broadcasting of Mass, which unites a “congregation” over vast geographical territories. The first radio broadcast of Mass was from the Basilica of Saint Louis King of France in St. Louis, Missouri, at Christmas 1922. The first television broadcast of Mass was from Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris at Christmas 1948.

Habit, as it always does, has become second nature. We are now so accustomed to the electronic amplification and broadcasting of Mass that we have forgotten what extraordinary innovations they were. What is the spiritual significance of these powerful, artificial modifications of the saying and hearing of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? The question would seem to call for the consideration of thoughtful Catholics.

Kevin White is associate professor of philosophy at the Catholic University of America .

Articles by Kevin White

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