Marshall McLuhan on How the Microphone Transformed the Mass


December 2012   –  FIRST THINGS

Drop the Mic   –    Kevin White

Marshall McLuhan believed that the microphone led to the priest facing the congregation and the end of the Latin Mass, explains Kevin White:

In 1974, Marshall McLuhan argued that the microphone was the proximate cause both of the elimination of Latin from the Mass and of the turning around of the priest to face the congregation. Before microphones, a priest quietly said Mass in Latin, with his back to the congregation. From any distance, his voice was indistinct, although an instructed Catholic could follow what he was saying from a missal containing the Latin text of the Mass or a translation of it.

McLuhan’s suggestion was that, once microphones began to make every syllable spoken by the priest crystal clear to all, it became intolerable for him not to be speaking in a language understood by all. And since it seemed urgent to have him understood by all, it also seemed unnatural for him to have his back to the congregation. He was turned around to face them, and started to say Mass in their language.

McLuhan also suggested that microphones lead to smaller congregations. This is because they make it possible for anyone in church to be heard by everyone else. Even if only a few actually do speak, the possibility that anyone might address everyone produces a powerful sense of artificial closeness, and consequently a desire for real closeness and for the overcoming of spatial divisions and distances between people.

Read the rest at

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

Marshall McLuhan’s 1974 essay “Liturgy and the Microphone” can be found in McLuhan, E., & Szklarek (Eds.). (1999). The medium and the light: Reflections on Religion. Toronto: Stoddart, pp. 107-116. The following quote is taken from that collection:-

“… one can see the matter in parallel form in the discovery by the preacher that the microphone is incompatible with vehement exhortation or stern admonition. To a public that is electronically participant in a completely acoustic situation, loudspeakers bring the sounds of the preacher from several directions at once. The structure of our churches is obsolesced by the multi-directional media speaker system, and the older distance between speaker and audience is gone. The audience is now in immediate relation with the speaker, a factor which also turns the celebrant around to face the congregation. These major aspects of liturgical change were unforeseen and unplanned and remain unacknowledged by the users of the microphone system in our churches”  (p. 114).

No Responses Yet to “Marshall McLuhan on How the Microphone Transformed the Mass”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: