Catholic churches are hard on the hard of hearing. Part of the problem is architectural. Catholic churches are built for the eye, not the ear. Interior spaciousness is meant to elevate your vision, just as the priest elevates the host. The church is a sacred space that opens onto the heavens. Churches that aim toward the light, however, often end up burying the human voice. There is plenty of room for incense to waft but also for voices to disperse. Nevertheless, size alone isn’t the problem, since ancient churches often had remarkable acoustic properties, but combining spaciousness with modern audio technology can lengthen the time for sound to reverberate, and the longer it takes a sound wave to fade into silence, the harder it is to understand the spoken word. Reverberation is good for Gregorian chant but not for plain speech.
The parish church I attend is only several years old, and its holiness shines through its beauty, but it is an acoustical disaster. The carpets absorb sound better than dust, and the sanctuary, alas, is in the shape of an exaggerated fan. Nobody seems to sing with any gusto, but even if we did, we couldn’t hear each other. The semi-circular design is visually compelling, I suppose. We gather around the pastor, rather than lining up in pews before him, and we can see each other, which reinforces our sense of community. The room is way too wide, however, for a speaker to fill its extended girth. There’s a reason concert halls are rectangular with parallel walls. Fortunately, there is plenty to look at, because I rarely understand more than a few of the words that are spoken.
As a relatively recent Catholic convert who is also hard of hearing, I can attest to the radically different soundscapes of Protestant and Catholic churches. Sometimes I am disheartened by the lack of attention that many parish churches pay to acoustics. Home owners with cathedral ceilings know how hard it is to get the sound right on their entertainment systems. Shouldn’t we be as careful with our churches?
Priests were once trained to celebrate the mass in three vocal tones: a low voice used for certain prayers that only God needed to hear, a medium voice for communicating to the servers, and a high voice for the homily and readings. Nowadays, it seems like they use the medium voice for everything. The priests, deacons and lectors speak into the microphone as if they are looking down into a bottomless well. A certain funereal flatness pervades the verbal tone of the Mass, as if its central mystery were a death without a resurrection.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating for the opposite extreme: preachers who feel obligated to compete with Entertainment America. Nevertheless, I did visit a Methodist Church a couple of weeks ago, and was overwhelmed by its sonic clarity. If you are hard of hearing, there is nothing like being surrounded by sufficiently strong sound waves. Low-liturgy Protestant churches make sure you hear every word, loud and clear, because they put the focus on a decision that needs to be made here and now, which suggests that, as in a court of law, every word counts. Surely this is why Protestants are usually better than Catholics in designing acoustically accessible spaces. Many Protestant churches use video screens to encourage people to lift up their voices, which is sound’s natural direction anyway, but they also use acoustic ceiling tiles to keep those voices distinct. They also use electric instruments, which force singers to raise their voices if they want to be heard. (Think of the way the nature of singing changed with the introduction of electronic guitars.)
There are assisted listening devices, but they are bulky and conspicuous, and the headphones, even when compatible, cause feedback with my hearing aids. Someday churches in America, like their counterparts in Europe, will be equipped with induction loop systems that deliver sound directly to T-coils in hearing aids. Until then, like most of the hard of hearing, I keep mute about my problem.
Moreover, I have learned to appreciate the sonic seriousness of the mass. The world is such a noisy affair that there is something to be said for worship that offers a transition from one decibel count to another. During the week I have to crank my aids to try to catch all the conversations going on around me, and the sound is never perfect, always precarious. I lean into people, wantonly violating their private space, to try to receive their words. At mass I can sit back and let the Word come to me. I can even say the right words at the right time without hearing with any clarity what anybody else is saying. The mass tells me to be patient and to be prepared, until the time comes to proceed with cupped hands to the place where I will open my mouth without making any sound. All I need to say is amen, and that sounds absolutely right.
By the way, Jesus knew about acoustics. When a large crowd gather around him by a lakeside, he got into a boat and spoke to them from the water (Mark 4:1). He knew that sound waves travel better over water than land.
He who has ears to hear let him hear. And he who has something to say, let him be heard.
Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things . He is the author of Jesus Christ, Eternal God and, forthcoming, Mormon Christianity . His book on Bob Dylan is Dylan Redeemed. He is also the author of The Divine Voice: Christian Proclamation and the Theology of Sound .