Longtime readers of this column may recall that I once wrote here about the day, eight years ago, when I lost more than half of my hearing in a freak occurrence of sudden sensorineural hearing loss—what was in effect a stroke in my inner ear. Overnight I lost the ability to hear much of what is said, and it took me several years to figure out a work-around. Now, through creative positioning, I am able to place myself in a room in such a way that I have the maximum chance of hearing the gist of things. But there are some situations that are still largely impossible.
My most recent experience of this was at a gathering last week hosted by the Leadership Roundtable, a church management group that was hosting a summit on the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. Much of the two-day affair involved simultaneous conversations at about 40 tables in a ballroom at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C. Knowing that this was going to be a problem, I informed my tablemates right away that I have a hearing disability and that I would likely miss much of the conversation.
The next morning, one of my tablemates, a deacon and subscriber to this magazine, handed me a device called the PocketTalker 2.0. It is a lightweight microphone, just a little smaller than an iPhone. The idea, he said, was to place the instrument in the center of the table and the earbud in my good ear, allowing the sound collected by the microphone to be transmitted directly into the ear. I gave it a try. It worked! I could hardly believe it. The kindness of your fellow reader made it possible for me to hear the conversation at my table and to make a meaningful contribution. I decided then and there that I would be putting this little miracle to work in many other situations.
Which got me thinking during my trip back to New York. How many times have I stood greeting parishioners after Mass who told me they could not hear the homily or much of anything else? That happens a lot. Most churches were designed and built prior to audio amplification, many even before electricity. The high, vaulted ceilings and marble floors of most churches create a thunderous echo, which creates a perfect storm of frustration for someone with hearing loss.
What if every parish had a set of PocketTalkers that they could lend to parishioners, much the way Broadway theaters make similar devices available free of charge for their audiences?
But what if every parish had a set of PocketTalkers that they could lend to parishioners, much the way Broadway theaters make similar devices available free of charge for their audiences? Better yet, what if a benefactor donated sets of these or similar devices to every parish in their area? Here is a problem we can actually solve with some smarts and a relatively modest financial commitment. Sounds good to me.
That made me think even more about the current state of Catholic philanthropy. As is well known, Catholics are among the most generous people on earth. The Catholic Church is the largest private provider of social services in the world. No one could doubt or question our commitment. But are we smart about how we deliver on our commitment? Are we taking advantage of new technologies and best practices to deliver those charitable goods and services? As our contributor Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry noted in these pages last year, “historically speaking, the church has produced countless innovations, both social and technological.” An entrepreneurial mindset, Gobry argued, was “central to performing the church’s work of feeding the hungry, instructing the ignorant and effecting broad-based social change.”
How about today? Is anyone thinking, for example, about how the church will take advantage of the driverless car? What if a benefactor or a parish were to make available two or three driverless cars, which could pick up elderly or infirm parishioners and transport them to and from Mass? Or to a Knights of Columbus function? Or to a doctor’s appointment? Right now, the loss of a driver’s license means isolation from the community for too many of our seniors. But we could solve that problem with some smart planning and a bit of fundraising.
All that is lacking is a culture that sees these new technologies as opportunities for evangelization and solidarity.
There are many solveable problems like this. All that is lacking is a culture that sees these new technologies as opportunities for evangelization and solidarity rather than scary, bewildering forces that can only pull us apart.
We should dream of a day when an elderly parishioner is able to return to Sunday Mass because the parish has sent a driverless car to get her; and when she gets to the church, she will hear every word of the liturgy through her PocketTalker. And her fellow parishioners would have made it all possible through some smart thinking and generous hearts, and by tapping their ATM cards against the digital device in the collection basket.