Smart phones and tablets in Church?

As tablets and smartphones become more and more powerful, Catholics are increasingly utilizing technology to enhance their life of faith. This is apparent in the use of apps for the Roman Missal, the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours), the rosary, and other devotions. While I was in Afghanistan, in our degraded (but not terribly austere conditions), my unit’s chaplain, although wholly orthodox, regularly used his iPad Missal app to celebrate Mass and to preach. Across the Church, the acceptability of such practices is more and more taken for granted. This premise is the raison d’être of the website Catholic Apptitude:

Let’s be blunt. Most fellow pew-sitters will downright question your sense of decency if you pull out your smart phone during Mass and gaze at the screen. Etiquette is clear: use of a mobile device in a house of worship is not acceptable–taboo in most circles… That being said, my husband and I (along with legions of others) read from a missal app on our phones as part of our participation at Mass. Eventually, a concerned parishioner mailed a note to our house admonishing us to please “be present” and turn our cell phones off in church. I have already written about this. But it brings up an important point. These Catholic apps (some carry a Vatican imprimatur, no less!) are designed for use in worship and are here to stay.

Let’s first clarify that an imprimatur applies not to the app itself nor to its use in Mass; it’s merely a certification that the content presented by the app is free of doctrinal and moral error. (Besides, imprimatur means “let it be printed”, not “let it be made available for download”, but we’ll ignore that for now.) In any case, Catholic Apptitude is not alone in its conviction. The Catholic Commentator of the Diocese of Baton Rouge contained a Q&A section addressing this issue. Fr. Kenneth Doyle answered:

Recently, I led a church pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Italy, and the deacon who accompanied us had downloaded the Lectionary and the Missal onto his iPad. This proved to be invaluable since we couldn’t find English-language liturgical books in some of the places where we wanted to celebrate Mass. Still another advantage (for the graying clergy population) is that the font size on an iPad can be expanded.

Objectors may point to the Vatican’s 2001 document Liturgiam Authenticam, which requires that the liturgical books “should be marked by such a dignity that the exterior appearance of the book itself will lead the faithful to a greater reverence for the word of God and for sacred realities.” But it would seem that aim could be achieved by covering an iPad in a red leather case (which would also mask the manufacturer’s logo).

At one point in history, with the invention of the printing press, worship aids changed from hand-lettered scrolls to bound books. In recent years, Pope Benedict XVI has called repeatedly for creative use of new media in efforts toward evangelization. It may well be that, after an appropriate period of adjustment, the use of an iPad at Mass could actually enhance the experience of prayer.

Fr. Doyle’s response is troubling on two accounts: firstly, there is his simple dismissal of Liturgiam Authenticam, which remains the binding liturgical law of the Church, and which only foresees the use of actual books. Secondly, there is his conflation of “evangelization” and use of liturgical books in the liturgy, leading to a gross misrepresentation of Pope Benedict’s intent for the New Evangelization.

In 2012, Monsignor Giulio Viviani (a 17-year papal cerimoniere under Piero Marini and disciple of the Bunigni school) and Fr. Paolo Padrini (creator of the e-Breviary) passionately argued for the use of tablet computers as worship aids. To support his case, Viviani stated:

Una cosa sono i libri che contengono la Parola di Dio, altra il Messale e i Rituali che non portiamo in processione, come invece si fa con l’Evangeliario. E’ vero che è uso comune parlare di vesti, libri, suppellettili “sacre”, ma la sacralità non è data dalle cose in sé. Per secoli gli oggetti non venivano benedetti, le chiese non erano consacrate, perché la sacralità è data dall’uso che se ne fa.

The books which contain the Word of God are one thing; the Missal and the Rituali which we don’t carry in procession, as we do with the Book of Gospels, are another thing. It is true that in common usage, we speak of “sacred” vestments, books, and furnishings, but sacrality comes not from these things in themselves. For centuries, objects were not blessed, churches were not consecrated, because sacrality comes from the manner in which things are used.

True to Bunigni-inspired form, Viviani appeals to antiquarianism (condemned by Pius XII in Mediator Dei), as if the blessing of Missals and churches were not a positive development in the history of Catholic praxis. He is nevertheless partially correct when he says that “sacrality comes from the manner in which things are used,” but strangely fails to follow this proposition to its logical conclusion: that objects reserved completely for sacred usage become more sacred.

Is this situation, in which iPads and like devices are used increasingly in the liturgy, an acceptable state of affairs? The Catholics bishops of one country don’t think so. In a letter to all their nation’s priests dated 30 April 2012, the New Zealand Catholic Bishops’ Conference forbade electronic readers in Mass, stating, inter alia:

The Missal is reserved for use during the Church’s liturgy. iPads and other electronic devices have a variety of uses, eg, for playing games, using the internet, watching videos and checking email. This alone makes their use in the liturgy inappropriate.

In those three sentences, the bishops of New Zealand zeroed in on the heart of the matter. They identified the reason why Fr. Doyle’s previously-cited insinuation (that just as the Church transitioned from handwritten scrolls to printed books, so too can we transition to using iPads at Mass) does not withstand serious scrutiny.

In our times, a Roman Missal is sacred precisely because it is blessed and dedicated for sacramental use. Liturgical vestments are sacred precisely because they are blessed and dedicated for sacramental use. Other liturgical paraments– altar cloths, corporals, purificators, patens, chalices, monstrances, tabernacles, candles– are all sacred because they are blessed and dedicated for sacramental use. Altars and churches are sacred precisely because they are blessed and dedicated for sacramental use.

A priest is sacred precisely because he is blessed and dedicated for sacramental use.

All these examples show that perpetual separation from the profane and mundane is an essential characteristic of sacrality. In fact, the Latin root sacer, which gives us the words “sacred” and sacerdos (=priest!), means precisely “reserved for a special function”. In the Old Testament, Israel was set apart from other nation’s by God’s favor and blessing. In the New Testament, the Church fulfills the Israel of old, for as St. Peter said, we are “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession”. At times, both Israel and the Church have failed the call to holiness and adopted the strange practices of its neighbors, but these moments of weakness have never canceled their duty to cleave from the profane world and run toward the Lord.

Just as Israel and the Church were distinguished from the profane pagan world, so too must our liturgies be separated from the vicissitudes of modern society (which is increasingly turning pagan). Our Missals, our books, our sacramentals must likewise be dedicated completely to the liturgy, and a printed Missal or Evangelarium, by their very nature and physical form, are not open to non-liturgical use like an iPad is.

To be clear, in times of grave emergency or situations of persecution, recourse to electronic liturgical books may be the only way to expeditiously avail of the sacraments. Certainly one can use the e-Breviary for the Divine Office outside a church building. Even Fr. John Zuhlsdorf, sworn defender of sacred liturgy, says that, “in a pinch”, one might use an electronic Missal, although he “would have to protest, strongly, the use of an iPad when there was a book available.” All this being said, emergency measures should never dictate normal practice.

Priests and bishops should follow the example of the New Zealand episcopate and vigorously insist on retaining the venerable use of dedicated liturgical books. Although ornate Missals and Evangelarii may become cumbersome and create burdens for sacred ministers, especially when traveling, they should accept these burdens as their little crosses for the day. Technology and the Church will collaborate in other ways, and @pontifex  will continue to tweet. But in the sacred liturgy, especially in the Mass, fons et culmen vitae Ecclesiae, let us keep holy things for the holy ones, echoing that ancient liturgical cry: sancta sanctis! 

quod Deus advertet (source: Catholic Memes)

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