Fig. 1 – Detail from a photo of Bishop Fulton Sheen preaching at Corpus Christi parish in Chicago in 1954. The pulpit is equipped with multiple microphones, and other photos of the event show additional free-standing microphones placed in the sanctuary. (Image source)
“Lift up thy voice with strength”
A survey of microphones in Catholic worship, 1922-1958
This is the first in a three-part series on the use of microphones and loudspeakers in Catholic worship between 1922 and 1958. Part 1 will cover microphones for pulpits and preaching; Part 2 will cover microphones for the altar and sanctuary; Part 3 will cover the rise of the televised mass and the spread of ‘cry rooms’ for mothers with infants.
The use of electronic vocal amplification is ubiquitous in modern Catholic worship. Microphones and loudspeakers are standard features in nearly every Catholic Church throughout the world, both old and new. A myriad of different types of devices are employed to ensure that worshippers can hear and participate in the liturgy: there are lapel and headset microphones worn by the priest; microphones installed in the pulpit and ambos; microphones on the altar itself; microphones for the singers and instrumentalists; loudspeakers built into the wall; loudspeakers hanging from the ceiling; and loudspeakers elevated on free-standing mounts.
These electronic devices are so commonplace that they are now accepted as a basic component of any church building, and their use is an expected part of any service. The use of microphones and speakers in Catholic worship, which was already widespread, only accelerated in the wake of COVID-19. As churches temporarily closed their doors to in-person attendance in 2020, many adopted robust audio and video tools to broadcast their masses online and via television.
Fig. 2 – Detail of photo showing Bishop of Lexington John Stowe celebrating a livestreamed mass utilizing multiple cameras, production lights, and microphones at the Cathedral of Christ the King on March 29, 2020. (Image source)
Despite the universal use of microphones in modern Catholic liturgical services, there remains some enduring debate about their benefits and detriments. In 1974, Marshall McLuhan suggested that the introduction of microphones into Catholic worship was one of the primary causes of the death of Latin and the demands for liturgical alteration following the Second Vatican Council (emphasis added):
One of the more recent areas in which the mike has made its power of transformation evident is that of liturgy and ritual. Many people will lament the disappearance of the Latin Mass from the Catholic Church without realizing that it was a victim of the microphone on the altar. It is not practical to say Latin into a microphone since the mike sharpens and intensifies the sounds of Latin to a meaningless degree. That is, Latin is really a very cool form of verbal delivery in which mutter and murmur play a large role, whereas the mike does not take kindly to humming indistinctly. Another effect of the mike at the altar has been to turn the celebrant around to face the congregation. By the same token, amplifiers which are placed in the church to create sounds from all directions at once make the church architecturally obsolete.
The meditative individual in his “sound bubble” is naturally irritated by the strident and amplified vernacular voice of the celebrant. Latin had kept him at a corporate distance, for Latin is not a private medium of expression. The vernacular is strongly horizontal in its thrust and embrace, whereas Latin tended to the vertical and the specialist aspiration. The microphone on the altar and in the pulpit has brought changes to the liturgy of considerable extent. We need only imagine the present situation, minus the microphone, to sense its importance. The coming of the microphone was gradually discovered to be incompatible with the use of Latin which is a corporate, low-definition form of mutterings in its ritual use.
In more recent years, several additional articles have been published debating the help or harm of the microphone as an integral part of modern Catholic worship. Examples include John Buell’s The Mass and the Microphone (Catholic Insight, 2007), Kevin White’s Drop the Mic (First Things, 2012), Alex Kuskis’s Marshall McLuhan on How the Microphone Transformed the Mass (McLuhan Galaxy, 2012), and Brantly Millegan’s Of Mics and Men: An Argument Against Microphones in the Liturgy (Second Nature, 2013).
All of these discussions take for granted that the introduction of the microphone was a recent phenomenon, mainly occurring after the Second Vatican Council. Indeed, many memorable images of the use of microphones during the Catholic mass began appearing in newspapers in 1964 with the first implementations of the liturgical reforms.
Fig. 3 – Newspaper images from the conciliar era which demonstrate the impact of microphone on parish life. At left, lay “commentators” using microphones to deliver English translations and running commentary during the liturgy in 1964. (Top left shows a commentator at a podium next to the newly-erected freestanding altar at Sacred Heart church in Eau Claire, Wisconsin; bottom left shows commentator at a podium in the center of the aisle in front of the altar rail at Corpus Christi church in Manhattan, New York). At right, a cartoon from a diocesan newspaper. (Image sources for right, bottom left, and top left)
But 1964 was not the first time that microphones had been officially promoted in Catholic worship. On September 3, 1958, Pope Pius XII issued De musica sacra et sacra liturgia, the ‘Instruction on Sacred Music’ which would be the final document of his papacy. Musica Sacra brought about significant developments in the liturgy in the years immediately preceding the Second Vatican Council.
Among many other things, it formally instituted the participatory Latin “Dialogue Mass” and created a liturgical role for “commentators” who would provide English translations and ongoing explanatory commentary via microphone while the priest was saying the mass in Latin. Though it was not universally and immediately adopted, Musica Sacra is commonly considered to be the beginning of official and widespread use of microphones in Catholic worship.
This is the conventional narrative. In reality, the microphone was widely introduced into Catholic liturgical life far earlier. Microphones were installed in pulpits beginning in the 1920s and had found their way onto the altar itself by the 1940s. This was not an innovation made by a select few. Rather, it was a widespread and official practice found in parish churches as well as the Vatican. By 1945, Pope Pius XII regularly celebrated mass with four microphones installed on the high altar in St. Peter’s Basilica and even had two microphones on the altar in his private chapel.
This survey seeks to chronicle the spread and impact of microphones in Catholic worship in the twentieth century, beginning in 1922 and concluding before Musica Sacra was published in September 1958.
MICROPHONES FOR PULPITS AND PREACHING
The 1920s saw a rapid proliferation of the installation of pulpit microphones and loudspeakers in Catholic churches throughout the world. This occurred in response to several modern trends:
- The desire to ensure that everyone in the church building could hear the words of the sermon
- The recurring need to accommodate overflow crowds who were so numerous that could not fit into the main body of the church
- The popular interest in hearing sermons and church services broadcast over the radio
The first known radio broadcast of a Catholic mass occurred in 1922 at the Cathedral of St. Louis, Missouri. In 1924, Cardinal Francis Bourne began a project to build a permanent outdoor altar and outdoor “loudspeaker pulpit” at Westminster Cathedral in London. The cathedral, which is the fifth largest in the world and can seat over 3,000 people, was at that time regularly filled beyond capacity. The open-air altar and loudspeaker pulpit were designed to offer even more space for the massive crowds which, in the words of the cardinal, rendered the Cathedral “inadequate on certain occasions during the year.”
That same year, a microphone and loudspeaker system were installed in Old St. Patrick’s in Pittsburgh to help with the overflow Sunday crowds. More than 400 people regularly needed to sit in the basement because there was no more room in the main church, and the speaker system gave them ability to hear what was said from the pulpit.
Just a year later, Rev. James Cox (who would go on to be nationally known and one of the most famous priests in the history of Pittsburgh) used the microphones at St. Patrick’s to initiate a weekly radio broadcast. The program, known as “Mass from St. Patrick’s” was the oldest continuous remote religious radio broadcast in the world. For over three decades, the priests of St. Patrick broadcast the Catholic liturgy via radio and never missed a week despite multiple fires, floods, and blizzards.
Fig. 4 – Photo detail of Rev. James Cox of Pittsburgh, speaking to a crowd via WJAS broadcast microphones in 1930. Station WJAS carried his famous “Mass from St. Patrick’s” radio program. (Image source)
We see similar examples throughout the United States at this time. For example, Holy Family church in Cincinnati also installed a microphone and speaker system in 1924. This was done so that, once complete, “it [would] be possible to distinctly hear the preachers in every corner of the church.”
In 1925, a microphone was installed in the pulpit of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, and a series of loudspeakers were mounted throughout the building. The modernization of this ancient landmark generated international news coverage.
Fig. 5 – Photographs of the microphone and loudspeaker system installed in the Cathedral of Notre Dame. (Image source)
Two years later, the Cathedral of Cologne, Germany did something similar: a pulpit microphone and a network of 22 speakers were installed to ensure that “sermons, heretofore almost unintelligible on account of echoes and poor acoustics, [would be] plainly audible in every corner of the huge edifice.” In 1930, historic Speyer Cathedral received a state of the art sound system by the German firm Siemens.
Fig. 6 – Pages from the all-Latin promotional booklet published by Siemens to celebrate the Speyer Cathedral sound system, a fascinating juxtaposition of modernity and antiquity. (Image source)
During these years, the installation of microphones continued in churches of all sizes throughout the United States, like St. Martin in Louisville, Kentucky, and St. Augustine in Hartford, Connecticut.
This trend also occurred in Europe in churches other than famous cathedrals. For example, the Jesuit-run church of St. Francis Xavier in Dublin installed a pulpit microphone on Ash Wednesday, 1927, which would be used both for amplification within the church building and radio broadcasts of the liturgical services.
In 1927, we find mention that, “as has been the custom for several years,” St. Ann parish in Cincinnati used outdoor loudspeakers to pipe the sermons from the church to overflow crowds in the school yard during special parish festivals and events. Microphones and speakers were likewise used for spillover crowds during the consecration of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Grand Island, Nebraska in 1928, a particularly notable event which was attended by Cardinal Hayes of New York City along with twenty other bishops from around the region.
Something similar was done for the consecration of John O’Hern as bishop of Rochester the following year. More than 2,000 people jammed into St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Rochester, with an overflow crowd filling up the cathedral sacristies, the adjoining chapel, and the streets around the building. The mass was carried over the radio, and loudspeakers were installed in the overflow chapel and in the streets to allow the crowd to hear the services.
Fig. 7 – Photograph of pontifical mass in St. Patrick Cathedral, Rochester, New York, in 1920. The cathedral was sold to the Kodak corporation in 1937 and was demolished in 1938. (Image source)
The spread of the microphone also allowed for the development of an interesting phenomenon: the celebration of multiple masses at the same time in order to accommodate large crowds at special events. For example, in 1929 the Diocese of Mobile, Alabama celebrated its 100th anniversary. A vast number of people wished to attend the solemn mass at the cathedral, far more than could fit within the building. Therefore, a second solemn mass was simultaneously celebrated across from the cathedral. As Archbishop of St. Louis John Glennon preached his sermon inside the building, a microphone and loudspeakers allowed those attending the second mass to hear the sermon ‘live’ in the middle of their own mass.
This practice was used throughout the United States under a variety of circumstances, like during the Catholic Student Conference in Butte, Montana in 1934. While the main mass for the conference occurred in St. Patrick’s church, a second simultaneous overflow mass was held in the gymnasium of Christian Brothers’ High School. The sermon of Auxiliary bishop of Chicago Bernard Sheil was relayed live via microphone and loudspeaker to the second mass.
It is clear, then, that the age of radio had a significant impact on the use of microphones and loudspeakers in Catholic worship. In the decade following the first radio broadcast of the Catholic mass, we find numerous examples of microphone and speaker installations in churches throughout the world for the purpose of amplifying and broadcasting the priest’s preaching. They were also used for used for a variety of surprising things like liturgical radio broadcasts, simultaneous masses, and mass audio for overflow crowds.
The next installment in this series will explore how the use of microphones quickly expanded into other areas of the Catholic liturgy, including — by the late 1930s — microphones placed directly on the altar to help the congregation hear the otherwise unintelligible or inaudible words of the priest.
 Marshall McLuhan, “Liturgy and the Microphone,” The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2010), page 112. Originally published in The Critic, Vol. 33, no. 1 (1974).
 McLuhan, “Liturgy and the Microphone,” page 113.
 Kevin White, “Drop the Mic,” First Things (2012).
 “Cardinal Bourne planning outdoor ‘Loud Speaker’ pulpit,” NCWC News Service, October 27, 1924. Wire copy page 6. Despite the fanfare of this news coverage, I have not been able to determine if this project was ultimately completed.
 “Microphone placed in pulpit of old Pittsburgh church,” NCWC News Service, November 24, 1924. Wire copy page 12.
 “Pittsburgh’s Radio Mass believed world’s oldest religious radio program,” The Catholic Standard and Times, October 11, 1957. Page 14.
 “Archdiocesan News,” The Catholic Telegraph, November 13, 1924. Page 4.
 “To carry further and higher the words of eloquence and truth, the latest inventions of science have been installed in one of the most venerable edifices in the world: an ultra-modern and very powerful microphone was placed eight days ago in the pulpit of Notre Dame. The innovation was necessary. For several Sundays in succession many thousands of men were not able to hear the voice of the Lenten preacher, because they were unable to gain entrance to the main nave or the sides nearest the pulpit. In view of the great crowds thronging to these Lenten services, the archpriest of the basilica did not hesitate to order the installation of a loudspeaker to carry the voice of the preacher to every part of the cathedral.” From: “Loud Speaker used in Notre Dame,” The NCWC News Sheet, April 6, 1925. Page 2.
 “Cologne Cathedral will be equipped with loud speakers,” The Catholic Telegraph, September 1, 1927. Page 1.
 “Diocese of Louisville,” The Catholic Telegraph, January 12, 1928. Page 3; “Rededication of Saint Augustine’s Church, Hartford,” The Catholic Transcript, January 14, 1932.
 “Irish Jesuit church broadcasts program,” The NCWC News Sheet, May 14, 1928. Page 1.
 “Novena in honor of St. Ann opens,” The Catholic Telegraph, July 14, 1927. Page 1.
 “New Cathedral is consecrated,” The Phonograph, July 11, 1928. Page 4.
 “Rochester Bishop is inducted today,” The Yonkers Herald, March 19, 1929. Page 19.
 “Centenary of Mobile diocese is observed,” The Catholic Telegraph, November 21, 1929. Page 6.
 “1,700 attend Catholic Students’ Conference,” NCWC News Service, September 27, 1937. Wire copy page 8.
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