Concerning innovations

In The Heresy of Formlessness: The Roman Liturgy and Its Enemy (US HERE – UK HERE), Martin Mosebach writes of the offended sensibilities of a rock that has been shifted from its perennial, traditional, place.   It might require centuries for the rock to settle down.

There is a great deal to be said for flexible stability.  It’s the essence of RomanitasNB: The Latin term for revolution (always bad, in the Roman mind) is res novae… new thingsWe might add: Nihil innovetur nisi quod traditum est… and non nova sed noviter.

I just read a piece by David Warren at The Catholic Thing about the death of the son of Marshall McLuhan, Eric, who had picked up his father’s baton.  And now, apparently, the grandson Andrew is doing the same.

The McLuhans were solidly Catholic and traditional:

Like father [Marshall], like son [Eric] – both, incidentally, highly traditional old-Mass Catholics, whose first resort was to their Latin missals.

“I am resolutely opposed to all innovation, all change,” said Marshall more than half a century ago, in a television interview with the (still living!) Canadian cultural journalist, Robert Fulford.

“But I am determined to understand what’s happening, because I don’t choose to sit and let the juggernaut roll over me. Now many people seem to think that if you talk about something recent you’re in favor of it. The exact opposite is true in my case. Anything I talk about is almost certain to be something I’m resolutely against, and it seems to me the best way to oppose it is to understand it, and then you know where to turn off the button.”

Consider, in passing, the use of the “rearview mirror.” As Eric would explain, it does not show things moving backwards. It shows things moving forward. It orients us not to where we were, but to where we are. Only men with the ability to “read” it can have an idea of what might hit them. For the rest, there is the dead-fish stasis, of unreflective movement in the traffic stream.

I am reminded of the moment in the movie The African Queen when Humphrey Bogart explains that they have to get the propeller working because, in order to steer the boat through the dangerous rapids, they have to go faster than the current.  I would add that the propeller simultaneously roots the boat in the past while giving us the option of where to go in our future.

Marshall McLuhan famously said “the medium is the message”.  This is why sometimes a well-placed, well-chosen photo has more impact than a 1000 words, or why McLuhan could argue that it was the genesis of the microphone and electric amplification that killed Latin and liturgy in the Church.  In 1974 he wrote in The Medium and the Light: Reflection on Religion:

Latin wasn’t the victim of Vatican II; it was done in by introducing the microphone. A lot of people, the Church hierarchy included, have been lamenting the disappearance of Latin without understanding that it was the result of introducing a piece of technology that they accepted so enthusiastically. Latin is a very ‘cool’ language, in which whispers and murmurs play an important role. A microphone, however, makes an indistinct mumble intolerable; it accentuates and intensifies the sounds of Latin to the point where it loses all of its power. But Latin wasn’t the mike’s only victim. It also made vehement preaching unbearable. For a public that finds itself immersed in a completely acoustic situation thanks to electric amplification, hi-fi speakers bring the preacher’s voice from several directions at once. So the structure of our churches were obsolesced by multi-directional amplification. The multiple speakers simply bypassed the traditional distance between preacher and audience. The two were suddenly in immediate relation with each other, which compelled the priest to face the congregation.

The microphone killed Latin, enervated preaching and paved the way for Mass “facing the people”, innovations all.  Microphones were in use long before the Council.  But their cumulative effect, with the liturgical changes, were deadly.  There are times when we should simply turn them off… and go ad orientem and use Latin.

How do people put it today?

Drop the mic.




About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. MrsMacD says:

    Speaking of a microphone Mass; I went to a parish a couple weeks ago where there were two screens up in the sanctuary (our van was in the shop, we walked to town for Mass). The priest paraded up and down the isle before Mass started, introduced the baby receiving baptism, and welcomed the guests. Stopped on the way down the isle to ask my husband a bit about himself. During the sermon he commented on how sad his visitors looked (we’re used to the usus antiquior what can I say). He was clearly putting on a show. But we didn’t go to see a show or sing a song, we went to be with Jesus on Calvary and all this ‘celebration of the Eucharist’ blab detracts from the need in us to praise, thank, beg pardon and petition God. My poor little ones that hadn’t seen a Novus Ordo Mass since they were very little were bewildered and pointed out the heresies in his sermon. I want to ask for a Mass of ages in my area but I just can’t bring myself to endure the local fare unless there is a disaster. It’s totally embarrassing and humiliating and scandalizes the children.

  2. Fr. Andrew says:

    Thinking of, then, Cardinal Ratzinger’s idea of reintroducing aspects of the silent canon in Spirit of the Liturgy, I thought he missed the possibility of removing the microphone from the equation.

  3. The mic is also bad for music. It makes singers lazy, and makes bad singing (since we are too egalitarian to weed out bad singers) loud. Modern choir directors have a talent for putting “singers” who are consistently sharp or flat right on top of the mic.

  4. majuscule says:

    Interesting about the microphone. The church I attend is quite small, yet we have a PA system. It does help to hear the readers when they have soft voices. Or perhaps it encourages them not to project…
    [This is why the norm of the Roman Rite is to have sung readings and orations.]
    We have one priest who uses a wireless microphone clipped to his vestments. He can be seen fiddling with it to turn it on and off for certain parts of the Mass. Another priest we had did not need any microphone for anything—for Mass or homily. (Actually, I don’t know if any of them need it to celebrate the Mass!)

    Our newest priest is rather soft spoken, yet he does not use the clip-on microphone and often steps away from microphone at the ambo to come forward for his homily…and we can hear him just fine.

    Does the perceived “need” for a microphone lead to thinking the Mass is a performance…? [Of course.]

  5. LeeGilbert says:

    Fr Z,
    Marshall McLuhan writes and you quote:
    “Latin is a very ‘cool’ language, in which whispers and murmurs play an important role.”

    Father, do you buy this? For myself, everything in me wants to say, “Since when!!!”

    It is true there is emphasis on vowels rather than consonants, but whispers and mumbling? [It could be that he meant “within the context of Mass”. Otherwise, Latin doesn’t strike me as “cool”.]

    He also says, “A microphone, however, makes an indistinct mumble intolerable; it accentuates and intensifies the sounds of Latin to the point where it loses all of its power.”

    His book The Medium is the Message was published in 1967, just a few years after Cardinal Cushing’s celebration of JFK’s funeral Mass. I wonder if he had this celebration particularly in mind, for it was surely up to the brim with intolerable mumbling. See [That was certainly one of the liturgical low points of the 20th century.]

    For my money, this celebration did more to take Latin out of our liturgy than any other single cause or collection of causes, for through television virtually everyone in the United States was present at that Mass and a great many were scandalized by it. [You may be right. That was truly horrible.] Remember, we only had the three networks, and I think they all covered it. Not only was there nothing else to watch, but the virtually the whole country was in genuine mourning over Jack Kennedy’s death and followed the obsequies closely. As a result, a lapsed Catholic at that time, I found myself explaining to Protestant immigrants from Holland that it was not the way the words were pronounced that was important, but that the words themselves in the mouth of the priest had power. They understood, but didn’t buy it. They were scandalized, scandalized, scandalized and we Catholics, including lapsed Catholics, were embarrassed before the world. Latin had to go. [To a certain extent, you make McLuhan’s point: not just microphone but, in this instance, the camera on the idiot at the altar who did such a horrendous botch job of the Mass.]

  6. Charles E Flynn says:


    Re: “My poor little ones that hadn’t seen a Novus Ordo Mass since they were very little were bewildered and pointed out the heresies in his sermon.”

    That is, in an unexpected way, the most encouraging posting I have seen in quite some time. Thank you.

  7. Grant M says:

    ‘On Saturday, December 5th [1964], Judith went to Mass as usual at the convent. She could not believe her eyes or ears. The altar had been moved forward by four or five feet. The tabernacle had been shifted and placed in a corner to the left on a tall, rickety Victorian stand with spindly legs such as convents seem to collect. It had previously supported an aspidistra. There was no crucifix. In its place stood a microphone. It looked like a serpent coming up from the bowels of the earth and rearing its ugly head to hiss at the priest.
    Father Mallon tripped in. Judith had always avoided looking at him. But there he was, exactly where the Blessed Sacrament had been…. Judith could close her eyes, but she could not close her ears. The microphone seemed to add to the refeenement of his voice. Then, Father Mallon had a nervous sniff. It had not mattered in the old Mass as you could not see the twitch of nose and lip. Now, not only could the twitch be seen but the sniff came over the microphone high, clear, insistent; it compelled attention. He blew his nose, too, in a high tenor which made the microphone crackle. And the refeened voice over all!
    After Mass Judith went to have her usual cup of tea with Reverend Mother.
    “Good heavens, Reverend Mother,” she exclaimed, “has Father Mallon gone crazy?”
    “Didn’t you know, my dear? Since Sunday last that is how Mass is to be said.”
    “What! A special decree from the council that all Catholics must look at Father Mallon?”
    “That is more or less it, my dear. Of course, Father Mallon is a very clever and well-informed priest. There is nothing about turning the altar round, and the canon should be said in Latin. But Father knows an expert in Rome who says that is what is coming, so he might as well do it now. His lordship the bishop is enthusiastic.”
    “Well, it’s ghastly,” said Judith.
    “Father says it is just how Mass was celebrated in the catacombs.”
    “It isn’t. There were no microphones there. It might be tolerable if Father did a couple of turns: turned off the microphone and turned his back.”
    “It could help. But anyway, I cannot imagine John of the Cross saying Mass that way or St. Teresa answering up. A divine drama at which we were permitted to assist has become musical comedy in which we are the actors. We shall be able to hear what is said all right, but we can never hear what’s done: the Father uttering the Word made Flesh and the Word returning to the Father as the sacrifice for our redemption.”
    “Yes, Reverend Mother, and even on the human side all recollection has become impossible.”
    “Too true, my dear. The microphone cannot carry our adoration and gratitude, the emptying of our being in front of the only Real Presence there is.”’

    Bryan Houghton, “Judith’s Marriage”.

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  8. capchoirgirl says:

    The mic actually isn’t bad for music if used appropriately. Very few people are blessed with the ability to sing clearly and project well. The microphone helps them get over that. Just because a church has good acoustics or because someone is a good choir singer, that doesn’t mean that the person is a good singer for cantoring/solo singing.
    I’m sort of puzzled as to why people think mics are a bad idea. Mics are a fabulous invention–they allow everyone to hear! And without microphones, you can’t have a telecoil system in a church, which allows those with hearing aids and cochlear implants to understand what’s going on. Let me tell you, sitting through a homily when you have no idea what the priest is saying is terrible. It’s like listening to Charlie Brown’s teacher or a baby screaming for twenty minutes.

  9. robtbrown says:

    In addition to the microphone, there now is the obsession with illuminating every corner of every church.

    There was probably the need to clean Chartres Cathedral, but there also seemed the desire to return it to “its original state”. Really? I didn’t know there was electric lighting in the 13th century.

    For me, the attraction of the interior of Chartres was the lofty beauty of the windows above the darkness below. It was a bit Platonic, like the philosophical School of Chartres.

    The last time I was in the cathedral, the experience reminded me of standing in an empty swimming pool at noon.

  10. tho says:

    Years ago, when the microphone was right on the altar, I thought we should change our name to the church of the holy microphone. And priests wearing the microphone pinned to their vestments is also unnerving.

    The missal is a wonderful aid, in following the mass, but sometimes, becoming to engaged in the missal, we miss the actions of the priest, which lend to the beauty of the TLM.
    We go to mass not only to fulfill our obligation, but to offer our presence to the awesome sacrifice that Jesus made for our benefit. Priests telling jokes, and hand clapping add to the banality of the new mass. It adds to the saying if I ask for a fish you give me a stone.

  11. plaf26 says:

    When I was a kid the only mikes we had were for the hard of hearing who sat where there were special earphones. Later on a sound system was added but the only mike was at the lectern for the announcements, the readings in English, and the sermon in that order. And that was only on Sundays!

  12. bobbird says:

    In the last days of TLM, I was considered the altar boy “Whiz Kid” for Latin … likely because of my Italian mother. I loved Latin, memorized it quickly and with the St. Joseph missal providing easy matching with English on one side and Latin on the other, saw the relationship of the languages. English is, after all, 40% Latin. So the local pastor, in an effort to encourage participation of the laity with Latin, placed me on the side of the altar when I was not serving, with a microphone and a kneeler. My job was to recite the responses in Latin over the mic. I think he might have been encouraging the laity to join the altar boys in participation of the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar … something that I now believe was not what the rubrics permitted. It might have represented an interim step of liturgical abuse. Someone help me in that. But it confuses me to this very day, because I have a memory of the laity doing just that, and every time I attend a TLM now and try to do the prayers, I am nudged by someone more knowledgeable than me to shut up and let the altar boys recite the prayers. It didn’t last long, as I recall, as this was just before we “went vernacular”.

  13. rbbadger says:

    I consider lapel mics to have been invented by Satan. Then, there is what’s worse. The headset mics (the dreaded Brittany Spears mic, as a brother priest calls them) are much worse.

  14. Leroy Huizenga says:

    Late to this, but something I wrote at First Things some years back, “How Microphones Muffle Good Preaching”:

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