Fig. 1 – Detail from a photo of Pope Pius XII celebrating papal mass in St. Peter’s Basilica with three microphones visible on the altar (a fourth, not visible here, was commonly positioned by the missal and last gospel card). This photo is undated but matches a description of a photo which is mentioned by contemporary observers in 1945. (Image source)
“Lift up thy voice with strength”
A survey of microphones in Catholic worship, 1922-1958
This is the second in a three-part series on the use of microphones and loudspeakers in Catholic worship between 1922 and 1958. Part 1 covered 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.
In the first part of this series, we saw how rapidly microphones and speakers came to be installed in Catholic churches in the 1920s. This was in response to a convergence of several trends: the desire to make the priest audible throughout the church building, the need to address regular overflow crowds, and the demand for religious services to be broadcast over the radio. While the microphones were originally focused merely on amplifying the words spoken from the pulpit, it was not long before microphones were installed onto the altar and used in a variety of ways to increase the amount of the liturgy which was electronically amplified.
Microphones were soon installed throughout Catholic sanctuaries: on altars, on mobile stands, and even on lapel microphones. 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 itself. This second installment will continue 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.
It is a common belief that the celebration of the Catholic mass during these years was a rather quiet affair as far as the words of the priest were concerned. The preponderance of masses in the English-speaking world were Low Masses, where the priest spoke quietly and could not be heard by anyone except the servers in his immediate vicinity. A contemporary priest explained:
There are three distinctions of tone to be used by the celebrant at low Mass: the clear tone, the medium tone, and the secret tone. This last, the rubric defines, should (normally) be audible to the priest himself, inaudible to all others, as for instance the entire canon of the Mass (except for the words “Nobis quoque peccatoribus”). The medium tone […] is officially defined as one that may be heard by those close at hand, but not by the congregation as a whole.
These rubrics help explain the conventional narratives that microphones did not widely become a fixture on Catholic altars until the liturgical reforms following the Second Vatican Council. If the rubrics did not allow the priest to speak audibly for most of the mass, what benefit would there have been to use microphones onto the altar? It may be a surprise, then, to learn that there were prominent clerical commentators who believed that the rubrics actually permitted a significant percentage of the mass to be said in a manner which could heard by the entire congregation:
Fig. 2 – The parts of the Low Mass which the rubrics permitted to be heard by the congregation in a clear, understandable tone. From Orate Fratres (1945), page 545.
This contributed to a trend that may seem surprising to modern readers: the widespread use of microphones on the altar (and indeed multiple microphones throughout the sanctuary) so that the words of the priest could be heard throughout the entire liturgy, not just during the preaching. This trend seems to have begun in the mid-to-late 1930s and had become a fairly common practice throughout the world, including St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, by 1945.
MICROPHONES FOR ALTARS
Fig. 3 – The Chapel of the Diocesan Teachers College, formerly the James Hill House in St. Paul, Minnesota circa 1929. (Image © The Minnesota State Historical Society, MR2.9 SP3.2qh p122 – 54274. Used with permission). The chapel was equipped with multiple microphones, including behind the curtain on the altar.
In 1927, the Archdiocese of St. Paul was gifted the James Hill House, a massive gilded-age mansion on Summit Avenue. Formerly the residence of the eponymous railroad magnate, the archdiocese turned the property into an instructional college for the religious sisters who staffed the parochial school system. It was an innovative institution, and offered accredited courses, instruction in modern teaching methods, and more robust theological training for the nuns and other teachers who taught in the archdiocese.
The Diocesan Teachers College was also known for its pioneering use of microphones during Catholic worship. Rev. James A. Byrnes, superintendent of catholic schools for the archdiocese, was passionate about providing pastoral care to members of the laity who were deaf or hard of hearing who he viewed as regularly neglected by the normal course of parish ministry. Byrnes worked to designate the chapel of the Teachers College as a special center for those with “defective hearing,” and by 1936 had equipped the chapel with multiple microphones for that purpose, including a microphone on the altar itself (emphasis added):
The chapel of the Diocesan Teachers’ College is equipped with twenty-eight receiving sets, so that those attending may hear the sermon of the Sunday Mass without difficulty … Confession facilities include the use of the microphone, so that the penitent, who is then alone in the chapel, can have the consolation of spiritual direction and advice. The curtain behind the altar conceals a microphone, with the result that all the attendants may follow every word of the priest by means of their receiving sets —which they do most eagerly to the accompanying use of missals. Surely this is a noble exemplification of the age-old principle of practical theology: “sacramenta propter homines—the sacraments for the people.”
Fig. 4 – Examples of contemporary receiving sets, with headphones (1922) or earpieces (1926), similar to those that would have been used at the chapel of the St. Paul Diocesan Teaching College. (Image sources left and right).
The full electrification of churches spread quickly throughout the United States. By 1945, the prominent American cleric Gerald Ellard, SJ, observed (emphasis added):
Churches all over American have been equipped in recent years with public address systems for voice amplification. […] The writer recently heard a priest on the staff of one of the country’s largest cathedrals describe how that particular structure is now being wired with a controllable sound-outlet at every single pew, much as a sound-outlet is afforded every car in a drive-in theatre. I suppose most priests have read of churches in which certain pews are equipped with special hearing aids for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Science supplies these helps, and priests are everywhere quick to adopt them.
In these early years, there was a great deal of pastoral enthusiasm for these new technologies but little in the way of standardization. A variety of microphones were employed in creative ways – microphones on altars, moveable microphone stands, and personal lapel microphones. Again, Ellard describes his personal experience (emphasis added):
The elaborate ceremonial for a pontifical high Mass allots ministers for book and candlestick, for crozier and mitre, and I have seen in such cathedrals as those of New York and New Orleans what might be called a minister of the moveable microphone at solemn pontifical functions. In the Cathedral of St. Paul I have seen effective and reverent use of lapel microphones at such ceremonies.
Fig. 5 – Examples of the use of a “moveable microphone” for Pope Pius XII. The left and center photos show the ceremonies at the conclusion of the Jubilee Year of 1950; the image at the right is a detail from a photo of Pius XII at the canonization of Pope Pius X in 1954. Photos via the author, from Pages de Rome immortelle (1954) by Pierre Pfister. This footage from British Pathé shows the use of this moveable microphone throughout various ceremonies.
For some special events, elaborate and sophisticated measures were taken to utilize microphones for loudspeaker and radio broadcast. In 1947, Johannes Neuhaeusler was consecrated as auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Munich by Cardinal Michael Falhaber. The high-profile event was attended by US Bishop Aloisius Muench, who simultaneously held several important roles in post-war Germany including papal apostolic visitor.
The sanctuary of the cathedral was wired with multiple microphones for the occasion, and a full radio crew was assigned to broadcast the ceremony and provide running commentary. One radio man was even disguised as an altar boy to assist with the production in the sanctuary:
Permission was granted to Fritz Buschmann [a director at Radio Munich] to wear an altar boy’s garments which enabled him to approach both the altar and the other parts of the sanctuary with a portable microphone. Thus the voices of Cardinal Faulhaber and the new Bishop were properly relayed to the control booth which was also linked up directly with a microphone placed invisibly on the altar itself. Whatever additional explanations were needed Buschmann was able to provide from behind some shrubbery used to decorate the sanctuary.
To acquaint himself with his unusual task, the commentator had been studying for ten days, familiarizing himself with every phrase of the Latin liturgy for a Bishop’s consecration. The result was a manuscript of 18 type-written pages.
ALTAR MICROPHONES AT WAR
Altar microphones were used in surprising ways and circumstances, including during wartime. During the Battle of Bougainville in the South Pacific in 1943, for example, American soldiers constructed a permanent altar and quasi-chapel on the island for the use of chaplain Laurence Brock, SJ.
At some point during the fighting, the American forces had to temporarily fall back and the front lines of the conflict shifted. This meant that the chapel was no longer in ‘safe’ American territory: it now fell between the American front lines and the Japanese positions. For three weeks, until the Americans took back their original positions, chaplain Brock left the safety of the American lines and went to the chapel to celebrate mass.
Brock used a microphone and “large loud speaker” to broadcast the mass back to the American soldiers, who reported that the sound was so loud that it “often carried the solemn words of the Holy Sacrifice over to the Japanese lines” as well.
Fig. 6 – Rev. Laurence Brock, SJ celebrates Easter Sunday mass for members of the 182nd Infantry on Bougainville. (Image source)
ALTAR MICROPHONES: OFFICIAL & GLOBAL
The installation of microphones onto the altar did not spread exclusively via the decisions of individual priests. In some cases, they were even recommended (or mandated) by bishops for their dioceses. One example can be found in the pastoral directives issued by Bishop Edwin V. O’Hara of Kansas City, Missouri, in 1951. Among many other mandates, O’Hara ordered that all parishes install microphones at the pulpit and upon the altar:
That the faithful may hear the celebrant at the altar and the preacher in the pulpit or at the altar rail would seem to be a minimum return for their sacrifice in building the church. With contemporary developments in audition systems there is no longer any excuse for depriving them of this aid in participating in the services at which they are required to assist.
The use of microphones on the altar was not limited to particular progressive prelates or to specific regions. By the 1940s, they were regularly used even by Pope Pius XII in Rome, both on the high altar of St. Peter Basilica and in his private chapel. Writing in 1945, Ellard commented: “I have before me now a photograph of Pope Pius XII celebrating Mass: the picture was taken at such an angle that one clearly sees no less than three small and artistic microphones set right on the altar.” I think it is likely that he is referencing the following photo, a detail of which was given in Fig. 1 above:
Fig. 7 – Photo of Pope Pius XII celebrating papal mass in St. Peter’s Basilica with at least three microphones visible on the altar. This photo is undated but matches Ellard’s comments from 1945. (Image source) I have found only one other photo from this same mass, also undated and only slightly different, which can be found here.
Other photos from the Vatican in the early 1950s demonstrate the continued use of microphones on the altar, only this time with more modern and updated microphones (the German firm Siemens installed a new, state-of-the-art sound system in St. Peter’s in 1951).
Fig. 8 – Detail from an undated photo of Pope Pius XII celebrating papal mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, assisted by Cardinal Tisserant, Cardinal Bruno, and Msgr. Dante, with four microphones visible on the altar. Photos via the author, from Pages de Rome immortelle (1954) by Pierre Pfister.
Fig. 9 – Detail from an undated photo of Patriarch Maximos IV Sayegh celebrating a Byzantine-rite mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in the presence of Pope Pius XII with many microphones visible on the altar. Photo via the author, from Pages de Rome immortelle (1954) by Pierre Pfister.
Microphones and speakers were not merely employed at the Vatican on the high altar of St. Peter’s, when the vast crowds and complex ceremonies made a compelling case for their use. They were also used in more surprising ways, including in the pope’s private chapel.
Fig. 10 – Details from photos of Pope Pius XII celebrating mass in his private chapel with two microphones visible on the altar. Photo on left (source) seems to be from the mid 1940s, as the microphone style is identical to those pictured on the high altar in Figure 7 above. Photo on right is undated but comes from a Christmas midnight mass offered for the Vatican Diplomatic Corps. Photo via the author, from Pages de Rome immortelle (1954) by Pierre Pfister.
We have seen how, contrary to modern assumptions, microphones were used extensively in the Catholic liturgy during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Having taken firm root in the 1920s (widely used for amplified preaching, radio broadcasting, and simultaneous celebrations of the mass for overflow crowds), they soon became a common feature directly on the altar and throughout the sanctuary in mobile form.
These microphones, along with contemporary commentary, reveal that a great deal of the mass was heard by the congregation – far more than assumed by conventional historical narratives. Although the mass text spoken by the priest was Latin, there was a clear pastoral desire to amplify as much of the liturgy as possible for the benefit of the faithful in the pews.
This discovery challenges and overturns many prevailing arguments about the laity’s experience of the liturgy in the first half of the twentieth century. Not only did they have hand missals containing the vernacular translation of the mass, they also heard most of the mass texts read aloud by the priest via electronic amplification in real-time and were thus able to be much more engaged in the liturgical action than previously thought possible.
This discovery also poses interesting questions about the role and impact of microphones and loudspeakers in the liturgical life of the church. It is fairly well known that a notable percentage of the laity grew dissatisfied as universal microphone use, commentators, and verbal participation (“… the din of the loudspeaker…”) came to dominate their experience of the mass in the 1960s.
With the realization that microphones were commonly used to amplify most of the entire mass in the three decades before the council, one cannot help but wonder: why was there no similar widespread complaints from the laity in the 1940s or 1950s about “noisy masses” or an “inability to pray or follow along” in their hand missals? What was it about the circumstances of microphone and loudspeaker usage in the 1960s which contributed to such tumult and dissatisfaction?
The next and final installment in this series will explore how the rapid proliferation of microphones in these early decades gave rise to the phenomenon of the televised mass and the spread of ‘cry rooms’, both of which were widespread by the late 1940s and became essentially universal by the mid 1950s.
 Rev. Gerald Ellard, SJ, “Microphones for Altars,” Orate Fratres, Vol. 19, no. 12 (1945). Pp 544-545.
 Annabelle Raiche, CSJ, A Home Becomes A College: St. Paul Diocesan Teachers College (St. Paul: Good Ground Press, 2000).
 “The Apostolate,” Orate Fratres, Vol. 11, no. 2 (1936). Page 84.
 Rev. Gerald Ellard, SJ, “Microphones for Altars,” Orate Fratres, Vol. 19, no. 12 (1945). Page 544.
 Faced with the descriptions of rudimentary lapel microphones (or the radio commentator disguised as an altar boy, using a concealed microphone and hiding behind shrubbery, cited in note 7 below), it is almost impossible to avoid the mental image of Lina Lamont’s iconic and trailblazing use of similar technology in “The Dueling Cavalier” by Monumental Pictures in 1927.
 Rev. Gerald Ellard, SJ, “Microphones for Altars,” Orate Fratres, Vol. 19, no. 12 (1945). Page 544.
 “Radio commentator serves as altar boy to ‘cover’ consecration in Munich,” NCWC News Service, August 18, 1947. Wire copy page 9.
 The details of the chapel construction are fascinating and moving: the altar fabric was made of a blue and white Marine parachute, the candlesticks were carved from the wood of a local tree, two oil paintings (one of the Sacred Heart and one of the Blessed Virgin Mary) were made for the chapel by an American soldier, and used Japanese artillery shells were turned into chapel bells and a xylophone-style instrument for use during the services by a serviceman who was an accomplished musician.
 “Masses offered 50 yards in front of front lines on Bougainville by chaplain,” NCWC News Service, December 25, 1944. Wire copy page 26.
 Directive #14 in “Section III: Eucharistic Worship.” Most Rev. Edwin V. O’Hara, The Participation of the Faithful in the Apostolate and in the Liturgy according to the mind of Blessed Pius X and of his successors in name and office with brief selected readings and Pastoral Directives (Kansas City: Confraternity of Christian Doctrine – Diocesan Office, 1951). Page 21.
 Rev. Gerald Ellard, SJ, “Microphones for Altars,” Orate Fratres, Vol. 19, no. 12 (1945). Page 547.
 “Pope canonizes 3 new saints,” The Catholic Standard and Times, October 26, 1951. Page 1.
 Comment made by Ida Görres in 1966: “The new forms can also be celebrated in a perfunctory, mindless, cold, mechanical, irreverent, pompous, and theatrical manner—and then the believer’s situation is even worse than before: for while he was able at least to collect and help himself during the silent Mass, the unstructured, undisciplined chatter of the community, the race between celebrant and people to have their say, the din of the loud-speaker, make this impossible for him. Even a person who absolutely has a capacity and a desire for the liturgy can be painfully put off from any participation, just as before the reform by other nonsense.”
Taken from the English translation by Jennifer S. Bryson, published as “When Does a Person Have a Capacity for Liturgy?” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 25, no. 3 (Summer 2022), page 135.
 I plan to explore the topic of these lay complaints and dissatisfaction at more length in a future paper, but let it suffice for now to give a smattering of examples pulled from Catholic diocesan newspaper articles and letters to the editor:
- “There are of course those, a minority it would seem, who dislike the “noisy” new Mass, who feel the liturgy has lost some dignity with the changes…” The Catholic Advocate, November 25, 1965. Page 7.
- “By all means let us have Missal Masses and Sung Masses so that some clear choice may be offered to Catholics who go to Sunday Mass for quiet worship, adoration and soothing relief from secular affairs … we need the quiet Missal Mass to offset the world’s intrusions and as an antidote to a nervous, noisy, hectic collectively [sic] all week long … Today’s new Sunday Mass continues the world’s infringement and invasion of the individual’s personality and does not bring peace and tranquility to men.” The Catholic Advocate, March 4, 1965.
- “For the past several weeks I have been disturbed by the letters of readers who protest the changes in the Mass … their main objection — that the Mass is now too noisy as a result of singing and vocal prayers — is hard to understand.” The Catholic Advocate, March 25, 1965.
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