Preaching, Music, and Acoustics

The work of the New Evangelization is identical to the work of evangelization in every age: to communicate to those who are unaware of the saving work of the Son of God those things that will bring them to accept the gift of faith, and come to new life through the sacraments entrusted to the Church. What is “new” is the environment and the means. The environment in which we operate most of the time is, at best, neutral to the work of the Church. At worst, it is actively hostile to the teachings of Christ in the Church. It is necessary, then, to use new methods and new communications media to help Jesus Christ and the Church become visible and attractive to modern humans.

Now the Catholic Church has many advantages in this mission, as she always has. These advantages are summarized in the “three Cs” which are creed, cult, and code/community. I prefer to speak of the three transcendentals that are embodied in the Church as they are in no other institution. They are Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. The fullness of Truth is preached, and always has been, in the Catholic Church. The sacraments and the doctrines of the Church have helped and continue to help many to attain to saintly Goodness. And in the sacramental forms, prayers, architecture, and music, there is Beauty that is truly a making present on earth the Beauty of the Kingdom of God.

In the 21st century, however, the Church operates at a distinct disadvantage within the culture, and some of that problem is of our own making. Relativism, as communicated through the media, universities, and political institutions, is rampant in society. Many believe that there are many truths, not just One Truth. When we preach the Truth, particularly in sexual and family morals, we are teaching things that annoy, rather than attract. The media have, since the dawn of the new millennium, made it a daily objective to find people, particularly clergy, doing evil in the Church. The sexual abuse scandal and occasional financial irregularity casts doubt on the moral integrity of the leaders of the Church. Thus the millions who find Goodness in the Church, and who daily do good for others, including their persecutors, are ignored.

Beauty, however, has a way of disarming the critic and providing an instant experience of transcendence. As Dr. William Mahrt says, “beauty persuades by itself.”1That is, as traditional philosophy teaches us, in the very perception of the Beautiful, “the intellect is delighted,” and that delight is intrinsic and immediate. By contrast, the apprehension of Truth must come from reasoning, and the apprehension of Goodness by a positive act of the will, informed by the actions of the intellect. These processes can be corrupted because of the weakness of the intellect and will, engendered by Original Sin. Our apprehension of the Beautiful is immediate, and so, is harder (but not impossible) to corrupt.

Thus, if the Catholic Church is to appeal to modern humans, we must “lead with Beauty.”  Beauty will be our wedge into the human mind and heart, as it often has been in the past. Many have been the converts who have wandered into a Catholic cathedral in an inspired moment, and have been so captivated by the music, architecture, and art, that they have engaged themselves in a study of the Faith. What attracts them, and us, according to Pope St. Pius X, is the “goodness of forms,”2 which are beautiful. And then those who are so attracted can come to appreciate the Truth and Goodness that Christ has gifted to his Bride, the Church.

The most beautiful of all Catholic music are, as Vatican Council II affirmed, Gregorian chant and polyphony.3 Much has been written about this music, some of which can be sung by congregations, and all of which can be sung by choirs and scholas. The Council also affirms the appropriateness of the pipe organ. Alone or in accompaniment with instruments and voices, it is unsurpassed in its ability to enhance both vocal and mental prayer. All of this music, however, requires a lively acoustic environment in order to be most effective. Kleiner, Klepper, and Torres4 state that effective reverberation for chant and pipe organ works should be in the range of two to four seconds. Such resonant environments are typically found in traditional Gothic and Roman-style churches constructed of hard materials like stone and brick, and unseasoned with acoustic tiles and sound-absorbing carpets.

That creates a problem for the proclamation of the Word and for preaching, as well as for any non-sung communication. Most preachers are familiar with the problem, but, from my observations, few have learned how to proclaim and preach effectively in resonant spaces. Still, great medieval preacher saints like Bernard of Clairvaux, Vincent Ferrer, and John Fisher were able to communicate the Word of God effectively in lively acoustic environments, thus with proper instruction and training, so can we.

Singing the lessons and Gospels is appropriate in any environment, but it can be especially effective in resonant spaces. That is because the vocal pacing of sung proclamation is naturally slower than the merely spoken word. Providentially, the Church has provided simple melodies for the proclamation of Old Testament readings, Epistles, and Gospels. Each of these tones has a special character suitable for the readings. For example, Dr. Mahrt notes that “there is a certain harshness in the tone for the (OT readings) by the juxtaposition of the tritone in the two cadences, and something of the character of prophecy in the trumpet-like interval of a fifth.”5 These characteristics are brought out best in a resonant church. Wonderfully, the U.S. bishops, in their publication, Sing to the Lord, call for deacons and priests to be carefully trained to sing both their invitations to prayer and the various readings assigned to them.

Of course, singing is rarely appropriate for a homily or sermon. If a priest or deacon speaks too quickly, the reverberation of one word obscures the ones following. Listeners need time to sense the sounds, interpret their meaning, and put together the thought being expressed coherently.  That means preachers probably speak too quickly in all acoustic environments, but especially in resonant ones. The implication is that the homily should be shortened and articulated slowly. A rule of thumb is not to begin a word or short phrase until the preacher hears the previous one coming back to him. At the same time, the speaker can make frequent visual contact with the listeners, particularly after critical words and phrases, to see if they are responding nonverbally with smiles, nods, or other gestures.

Very large, lively churches may require special treatment for effective preaching. The traditional approach is to build a pulpit against one of the supporting columns in the nave, perhaps one-third the distance of the nave from the sanctuary, and a couple of meters above the floor. When a sounding board/canopy is erected above the stand, this arrangement can be effective in making the Gospel heard in all sections of the church. It also helps the preacher, because it puts him in the middle of the congregation, so that all can hear him equally without the sound delay one experiences when the proclamation is given from the front and the hearer is in the back. The preacher must still pace the delivery of the Gospel and the homily in the way indicated earlier.

Very long naves with ambos in the front create a delay problem for sound. The proclaimed or sung word can rattle around the space and cause confusion among the worshipers in the back. A carefully-designed sound system can help. The system picks up sounds from the microphone at the ambo and then delays their transmission for a split-second to the speakers in the rear. This can make the experience more coherent for the listener, but with the strong resonance, the preacher should still use a very measured pacing for the delivery.

The last, and perhaps most important advice this speech teacher can share is one we have all heard: “know thyself.” A trusted, but honest, parishioner should often sit in the most acoustically challenged area of the nave and give critical feedback to every preacher in the parish. How is the Gospel coming through? What words are muddled or garbled? Is the homily properly paced and articulated? All this information can be helpful. Recording the proclamation of both cleric and lay lector should be a monthly habit. Each should listen to a sample reading or homily with a trained speech instructor, and make plans for improvement.

Because, to be frank, the parish does not come every Sunday to hear us preachers. They should not be attending to hear the music. They should be gathering to give praise and thanks to God, ask forgiveness, and petition for the needs of the Church. They should be experiencing, in a dim way, the great wedding feast of the Lamb, eternally present before the Father. All of what we do merely makes more “sensible” the greatest gift we ever receive, the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Our Lord in the Eucharist.

  1. William Mahrt, “The Ordinary of the Mass and the Beauty of the Liturgy,” Church Music Association of America Colloquium, July 3, 2014.
  2. Pius X, Tra le Sollecitudini, motu proprio, Nov. 22, 1903, at 2.
  3. Vatican Council II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, art 116.
  4. Mendel Kleiner, David Lloyd Klepper, Rendell R. Torres, Worship Space Acoustics, J. Ross Publishing at 237.
  5. William Mahrt, The Musical Shape of the Liturgy, CMAA, 2012 at 47.
Deacon W. Patrick Cunningham About Deacon W. Patrick Cunningham

W. Patrick Cunningham is a deacon for the Archdiocese of San Antonio, Texas, and a public school teacher. He has been married to Carolyn for 45 years and has three adult daughters and ten grandchildren.

Comments

  1. Marge Croninger says:

    Deacon, are you the one who wrote the song, The Mother of Jesus Was There?
    I have been looking for that song for years with no luck.

  2. Charles E Flynn says:

    You can disagree with the author of a book, but not with the author of a Byzantine icon.

  3. P Thomas McGuire says:

    We have a lot to learn about sound in Catholic Churches. I visit a lot of Catholic Churches in my travels. The number one characteristic experience in most: I cannot hear the readings and the homily. So we need to talk about more than improving sound in the old classic churches. MostCatholics worship in buildings with poor acoustics and limited architectural beauty..

    Gregorian Chant is beautiful, I enjoy hearing and singing it. But the majority of people will never come to an appreciation it. We must pay attention to culturally sensitive ways of praising God with music. I have been deeply moved by the music in African American churches.

    I wish we could move away from blaming the media for hostile environment. Leaders of the Catholic Church committed crimes and did not take responsibility for those crimes, they and we have a major role in creating hostile environment. What Catholic priests and bishops did was and continues to be news. That is not a problem of the media that is a problem of sinful people who make up the Church. God have mercy on us all.

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