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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 . . . .

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

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