The writing on the wall

I recently experienced a growing trend in Catholic parishes, and wrote about it for this week’s column, “All Things New”:

I have seen the writing on the wall. And I’m not impressed.

A couple of Sundays ago, I found myself at a sparkling, sprawling parish in central Florida, in a church nave surrounded by stained glass and leafy palms and cheerful greetings between families. About three dozen children were receiving their First Communion. The place was buzzing with energy and activity. It was packed with, I’d guess, close to a thousand people (including a couple dozen in the adjoining crying rooms).

But what struck me most of all was something I’d never seen in a Catholic church before. Once mass began, a big blank wall was transformed into a flat, giant hymnal, where someone projected the verses to the hymns. No need to go searching through the missal for the page numbers, or the song numbers. Just look up, and to one side, and follow along with the words on the wall.

I posted something about this on my Facebook page the day it happened, and was surprised to learn that this practice is increasingly common in Catholic parishes. A lot of places are doing it. And people seem generally to like it. The defenders say that it gets people to lift their heads out of the hymnals and sing. It focuses attention. It raises eyes, and voices. It pulls the congregation together.

Okay. But I have to say this: the experience, no matter what its intent, left me cold.

I continue my little rant at the link.

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53 responses to “The writing on the wall”

  1. I first saw this phenomena maybe 15-20 years ago at a University Campus Parish. It caught on within the campus ministry crowd quickly and I began to see it more and more. For whatever reason, in the places I have observed, the singing is more popular — that is, more people sing in any given song than what one might expect.

    Some places, however, don’t use full-screens — they use a less obnoxious line-screen format.

  2. In our church, the only time a projector and screen are used is at the contemporary mass. The other traditional masses use a hymnal but at the 11:00 mass, none of the songs are in a hymnal. Our pastor expects and preaches regularly on a personal relationship with Christ and full and concious participation at all masses. The projector and screen allow us to do just that.

    Peace to all

  3. I don’t care for it, but as an alto who reads music, I also don’t care for hymnals that only give the melody line. But to me the latter is preferable to nothing. And how is keeping your eyes fixed on wall space better than keeping them looking at a hymnal?

    I would also want to know if the churches involved are getting rid of hymnals altogether. What types of songs are being projected? Is this mode neutral, or a way of excluding certain types of music? Would they project plainsong chants, for instance? I say that as someone who appreciates both the ancient and the modern.

    It seems kind of tacky.

  4. Also, you are right deacon Greg. It does seem very “protestant”. But the Protestants do some things very well…sometimes better than us Catholics.
    We can learn from each other.

    Peace to all

  5. I first experienced this at a parish I only use in dire need for its 7pm mass. As a young male in his late twenties, I HATE IT!!!! Worse off there was a folk choir of phillipino/asian man and women with a guitar and the Church is of modern design with modern depictions of Creation/Genesis, prodical son, Virgin Mary pregant with Christ etc. (not super crazy art, but it’s not inspiring at the least). If there’s anyway to kill the Church this is it!

  6. The only place I have ever seen this done was at the English mass in the Latin-rite Cathedral of St. Dionysios in Athens. The words of the hymns were projected onto a screen set up just outside the sanctuary, but the slides were apparently created by someone who knew the songs by ear but never seen a printed text of the lyrics, so every slide included malapropisms based on phonetic similarity.

    This was distracting to my family, of course, but very few people in the crowded service likely noticed the problem because only a handful spoke English as a first (or even a second) language. The homily revealed that not even the celebrant was altogether at home in English. For most of the Catholics at the mass, our language served as the sort of lingua franca that Latin (or Greek) might have been in the distant past.

    The experience certainly reminded us not only of the universality of English today but also of the universality of the Catholic Church. As I looked at the strange phrases projected on the screen, I felt like one of the “Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia” who came together in the cities of the ancient world to profess their faith in Christ.

  7. A terrific idea! Done properly it detracts NOTHING from the altar. And it DOES get the congregants more engaged.

  8. I dunno– I guess it doesn’t bother me that much. It’s a tool.

    And it feels “mega-churchy” to me only because those are the places I’ve seen it most. But I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with it.

    I think it would be a problem if there was a regular habit of going all out and using the backgrounds, countdowns, and multi-media stuff in every single homily. But on the other hand, I’m not opposed to some VERY sparing use of a good video or something like that.

    I hate to say it, Dcn. Greg, but it sounds kind of funny to hear you be all nostalgic about holding an old hymnal “because that’s how we’ve done it for hundreds of years” and yet your anniversary blessing was prayed off of an iPhone…

    With that said, I like your reflection on the sharing of the book, or considering how others have held it with their own prayers at heart, or marked pages, or met strangers because of it. But I also doubt that folks are thinking about that when (if) they pick it up to find “Here I Am, Lord”.

  9. Young Canadian RC Male #4

    “Virgin Mary pregant with Christ etc”

    Maybe you are too far north to appreciate this but the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe shows Lady Mary of Nazareth as pregnant. That is a little secret that all “Tex/Mex” Roman Catholics know about but they keep rather quiet about. Maybe they do not believe that “white/anglo” Roman Catholics would ever appreciate an image of a pregnant Lady Mary — like you apparently do not.

    Take a real good look at that image and look for where the rope/cincture/belt is placed/tied. The ONLY reason why a Mexican lady of that era would have tied her cincture that high up on her body is because she has no waist left.

  10. It’s not exactly an answer to your WWRD question, but some years ago large screens appeared for papal liturgies in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican. They mostly display more closeup television shots of the pope and those assisting him at liturgies, but occasionally they have also shown texts, artwork, etc., as part of the liturgy or other occasion taking place.

    My own sentiments are somewhat like your own: I like books. Hand missals and hymnals included. I do have problems with newsprint missalettes (“the disposable Word,” I’ve heard them called), and not just because of the cost to parishes. But we dinosaurs may not be long for the 21st century.

  11. Anything that helps people facing towards the altar and out from the missal is a good thing. During the readings, it bothers me that most people have their face down in their lap where their missal is. I never use the missal or the hymnal if i can avoid it. i think it is much better to sit and listen to the readings and the gospel, not to read them. Scripture is meant to be proclaimed, not read, during the liturgy. Same with hymns.
    Just my 2 cents.

  12. Dear Deacon Norb: Being a Tex-Mex raised in El Paso, I can tell you that 99% of my fellow Mexicans and Tex-Mex don’t know about the pregnant Lady of Guadalupe. That is a piece of information gleaned from books written on the subject in the last 40 years or so. It would probably be more obvious to the Aztec-Mexica (not Mexican) natives to whom the pictorial imagenery of the portrait was originally meant to convert. And of course, they did convert.

  13. My pastor for the past several years had wanted either projectors or large flat screens. Not only to project music, but scriptual passages in his homilies as well as for other presentations after the liturgy, capital capaign, the yearly DSF call.
    I consider myself tech savey, but have never really been sold on the idea. Part of the reason for projecting songs is not having to buy mulitiple hard copies, however, depending on the size of the congregation copy right cost can run from the 100’s to the 1000’s and they do have to be paid even if only the words of the song are being projected.
    There should be a level of sacredness in our liturgury, a degree of wonder and awe. Bring lifted to heavenly heights in the minds eye through the Holy Spirit. to me placing projectors or TV’s take away from that.

  14. I like the screens and have seen them in many newer Catholic Churches in Southern California…and I agree with Dan S.- “missalettes” drive me crazy-especially when everyone turns the page at the same time during the Consecration. Sheesh…don’t you know what’s coming next?

  15. I can’t think of any logical reason why projection screens in Mass are wrong, but I still don’t like it. Similar to Kathleen, I like having the music (notes) as well as the words.

    Regarding pregnant Mary…. uh, she really was pregnant. And she nursed her baby son Jesus. She probably changed his poopy diapers, too.

  16. Rudy: #14

    My source of that tidbit was a long-time prominent Hispanic deacon from here in the Midwest. He was born and raised in a small town north of the Rio Grande somewhere between Eagle Pass and Laredo but married a lady from Brownsville. We “Anglos” automatically assume everyone from that area are true Tex-Mex but you may be more correct — he may be of Aztec-Mexica heritage.

    Back to my earlier comment to YCRCM #4, I have no reason to doubt that Our Lady of Guadalupe was portrayed deliberately as pregnant.

  17. Young Canadian RC Male…
    Not inspiring to you (and not to me either) but inspiring to some. I love gothic and romanesque architecture and the fru-fru that comes with it. But I have experienced many who are turned off by it.
    The Catholic Church is universal and as such should include all things in the context of dogma and doctrine.

    Peace to all

  18. I have see it several times and only once was it anything resembling successful.

    The problem is the spacial effect it has on the space. If the screen is in a place where it is functional, then it is *very* likely to usurp focus from the altar and ambo. It takes up a lot of space that is no longer available for sacred art (and images projected on a screen are no substitute).

    But I think the largest problem is one of proportionality. Music is an integral part of our liturgy. However, hymns are a very minor part of liturgical music .. contrary to how it may seem in many parishes. The use of screens – as well as other trends such as placing choirs in central, up-front places – is a manifestation of hymns and the musicians that sing them coming to dominate our liturgies. All this focus on a relatively minor aspect of the liturgy (hymns) makes it all the more difficult to maintain proper prominence of the major parts of the liturgy. I think this is why they seem so “Protestant” to us, such a focus on hymns is a very Protestant approach to liturgy and not a very Catholic approach. Sure they do it well, but as Catholics, I don’t think that is something we want to learn from them.

    These screens skew the ordering of the space, and as such begin to skew the ordering of the activities that the space is meant to host. I disagree with Deacon Greg’s rational around hymnals, but agree that the screens are a monumentally bad idea.

  19. In the past ten years, powerpoint has become the predominant form of instruction on college campuses, and has wrecked the art of teaching. Science texts come bundled with powerpoint presentation slides, which most instructors simply read to the students while using a laser pointer that darts all over the screen. Most students hate it, and I never do it. Lectures are going the way of the dodo bird.

    The same potential lurks with the screen in Church.

    Powerpoint is simply a tool, and in the mad dash to embrace all things technological, great harm has been done in the college classroom.

    I can see people looking at that screen and trying to use it for ever-inventive ways of employing it to make the Mass more relevant and to “reach” the people. We seemed to have done just fine for hundreds of years with hymnals and missals. These screens have great potential to be vehicles for a whole new round of liturgical anarchy.

    Okay, time for the curmudgeon to take his daily constitutional. 😉

    God Bless all of you wonderful Catholics who love our faith.

  20. It has it’s place…
    The perfect place is at Communion where you (I) don’t typically bring the hymnal with you(me).
    It takes nothing away from the main parts of the mass as it’s not used at the consecration, etc…not used for service music.

    Peace to all

  21. “The perfect place is at Communion”

    The songs or the hymnal are the least I am thinking about when I am preparing to receive the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord.

  22. To clarify,
    It takes nothing away if you don’t want it to take anything away…no matter where it is used, I might add.
    Thanks for the call to focus Mr. F.

    Peace to all

  23. oldestof9,

    Unfortunately, it does take something away simply with its presence. If it is prominent and large enough to be functional, it is prominent and large enough to always demand attention, whether or not it is in use at that moment.

  24. Ohhh can they NOT borrow this Protestant practice? Please? Because the end result of that is full bands and light shows.

  25. Deacon Norb and oldest of 9, I’m not that far north, but I have seen tasteful and beautiful depictions of the pregnant blessed Virgin Mary pregnant with Christ (e.g. medeival) and those inspire me in my faith. Unfortunately at this particular parish the modern style of art they chose to adorne their walls detracts a good deal of faith/reverence/beauty etc. and doesn’t inspire me to faith at all. Perhaps there they just don’t care about their Church’s art as long as they get their weekly obligation (or perhaps “chore”) out of the way. If this particular banner of pregnant Mary was the only thing there, I’d be OK, but combined with the other art the whole presentation detracts from the worship and liturgy.

  26. Only if the pastor allows it, justamouse

    Like I said @19, “The Catholic Church is universal and as such should include all things in the context of dogma and doctrine.

    The screens are horrible to some, necessary to others. I’ll bet they don’t look out of place in contemporary architecture…

    Peace to all

  27. When the Met (Opera) decided to put in little seat screens with translations, I was horrified. Til I used it. Now i understand. So I imagine my reaction to hymn screens will be the same.

  28. You gotta love the fact that the particular image is of PowerPoint slide set with a background that tries to invoke precisely the sort of worn look that only a physical book can have. There’s nothing quite as gross as manufactured authenticity.
    The fake ‘smudges’, the look of wear and tear and yellowing–precisely those features that Dcn. Dandra in his article reminded us that only a real book can have. As to the projected image, I might suggest that if such people feel forced to adopt such spiritually empty and aesthetically soul-crushing mechanisms, they should make their desperation less transparent by picking a different PowerPoint background.

    That said, it is rare even in Catholic churches that don’t adopt such measures to contain hymnals that have any real wear and tear and evidence of much use, as they seem to be replaced every year. This is a practice that I, in my ignorance of such publishing matters, scratch my empty head at.

  29. oldestof9,

    The problem is not that they look out of place, but the impact they have on a liturgical space and thus the liturgy. In fact, I don’t think that a space designed so that a huge screen does not look out of place is compatible with a space designed specifically to house the Sacrifice of the mass.

    I think we really have to ask, why put such a dominant element in a Church for such a minor part of the liturgy? Doing so elevates the singing of hymns disproportionately relative to the Eucharist which is the center of the mass. How can something that exists solely to support a liturgical function that is not necessary itself be necessary?

  30. If you go to my parish webpage, you can see pictures of how how we integrated the screens into the overall design. We use them sparingly, but the are beneficial overall. At Mass, we put up the Psalm response and the creed, as well as hymns. It also makes bilingual services easier, as we can put up English when Spanish is is being read and vice-versa. We save a fortune in printing for worship aids when our Diocese uses our church for ordinations and confirmations. The screens do not detract, and in a recent parish survey, there were many positive statements regarding them, and not ONE complaint! St. Frances was dedicated in Oct. 2008.

  31. Wine

    Like I said before – not this OR that, but this AND that. That’s what brings unity. Different strokes for different folks.

    Peace to all

  32. Deacon Greg I just thought of something…
    …this from a guy who owns a Kindle or Nook or whatever it is.

  33. Does anybody remember “The Mitch Miller Show” back in the ’60’s, and singing along with Mitch? The song words were on the screen with a little bouncing ball to follow. That’s kind of what the projected hymn words remind me of.
    I don’t care for it; I’m too much of a choir nerd. If, for instance, the song is “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus”, I want to read that it is the tune Hyfrydol, that the lyrics were written by Rowland Pritchard in 1830, that the time signature is 3/4, and it is in the key of D major. All of which information is in a hymn book or even a paperback music issue. And if we’re travelling and I hear a good hymn, I can locate the accompaniment from the information, and maybe introduce it to the music group back home

  34. Oldest …

    Yeah. I know. I like my Kindle and find it a handy way to quickly download almost anything and add it to my library. And I still love old-fashioned books, too!

    But private reading is different from corporate prayer, and perusing a Kindle is different from participating in sacred liturgy. I’m sure Marshall McLuhan could expound on that.

    Dcn. G.

  35. Before I read this article I was reading one about receiving communion in the hand or on the tongue, whether kneeling or standing. There is so much debate about the importance of external things!

    It seems to me that what is most important is what is in our heart and mind at Mass. Are we attuned to why we are there and what is happening and that Jesus is truly physically present? It seems to me if that is what we are focused on, there wouldn’t be so much attention paid to the presence or absence of personal preferences.

  36. momor,

    There is a tendency to over-emphasize external things. But the simple reality is that the internal and the external are linked, especially in Catholicism. Every external manifests something internal. They are professions of faith. There is tremendous room for diversity in Catholicism, and many different externals can manifest the same internal meaning, or different, complimentary aspects of the same internal meaning. The posture for reception of Communion is an example of this. Preference is one thing, but the link between the external and internal is something else entirely.

    So the reality is that what is in our hearts and minds is made manifest in the externals. The externals shape and influence what is in our hearts and minds. That is why they are important. Everything can be taken to an extreme, so they can be over-emphasized. But if you look around in the Church, the externals are usually under-emphasized and the lack of attention that we pay to the externals usually reveals a lack of attention to the internals to which they are linked.

  37. wineinthewater,
    I’m not saying externals are not important, just not as important as what is in the heart and mind. Externals may direct the internal but only if one is ‘present’ to begin with.

    Externals are very subjective and personal and what one person finds uplifting may mean nothing (or worse) to another. And if a person allows the externals, or lack thereof, to negatively impact their internal state then they would be better off ignoring them.

  38. 5 years ago my and I took a road trip to Quebec City. And for the first time saw the words of a hymn projected on a huge screen behind the song leader who was in the pulpit. The hymns. of course, were in French.
    The Church was not new, but not old either.
    If the idea was to get more people to sing–it wasn’t working. And attendance at Sunday Mass was pitifully small (so I presume the modern style wasn’t attracting hordes of new worshippers.)
    We found the experience oddly cold and virtually anti-sacred.
    My biggest problem was my memory of Sat. morning cartoons at our local movie theater. One frequent type cartoon was the one where those in the theater were urged to sing along with the cartoon characters as the words were flashed on the screen and you followed a bouncing ball to keep time with the words.
    I kept thinking in Quebec–Where’s the bouncing ball??? Where’s Bugs Bunny?? Donald Duck, Tom and Jerry???
    Talk about distraction!!!

  39. I attend Mass with an immigrant community, specifically Brazilian Catholics, and they use two large fold-up screens to project all the readings, hymns, and prayers. It is turned off at the consecration as the focus should be on Jesus in the consecrated host. It is helpful and saves a lot on copying pages of the same material which would be left in the pews after the Mass. Plus, some people have not been catechized properly, so it helps in uniformity of worship. I haven’t seen it at the American Masses, but I can see a newcomer having problems locating the various parts of the Mass in the Mass booklets.
    At the Mass in Portuguese, the young people put a lot of effort into the hymns for Mass. These young people are inspiring to me and many people get involved.

  40. i read your article and i was just thinking about my parish . The anouncements are on a pull down screen linked to a laptop and the missalettes are sold , so no one has used it but oneself.

  41. Young Canadian RC Male: Have to say I’m mildly amused at the anxiety you experienced upon seeing a pregnant Blessed Mother depicted. But what actually DISTURBS me is your remark about how the “worst” part of the experience was having an Asian/Filippino choir perform. What…people who are Asian don’t belong in “your” church? Substitute any other ethnic group for Asian in your sentence and ask yourself if what you’ve said shouldn’t be seen as blatantly racist. (If I’m misinterpreting what you REALLY meant, please correct me and explain what you intended to say. Thanks.)

  42. Deacon Greg,
    Looked Marshall McLuhan up…
    interesting guy…to say the least…
    But he is spot on. It all comes down to perception.

    Peace to all

  43. I’m sorry….this is just too Protestant. I’m a revert to the Faith…and to be honest …when it comes to the Mass…I’ve had the hardest time with our “music”.

    “What does active participation mean?” Readers will no doubt recall that the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) called for “full, conscious and active” participation in the liturgy (14), and one of the many battles for the meaning of Vatican II has been fought over this phrase. Too often, it was taken merely as a signal to make the laity “busier” at Mass, giving them more and more liturgical things to do, as if external activity were the key to active participation.”

    LESS IS MORE !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  44. Steve, I was just pointing out the fact that they were there (though it was odd to me as I thought that church primarily served an Italian community as they have some Italian festival once a year in the summer). I should have added a comment in brackets to show this and forgot that on the internet that you cannot depict tone of voice, facial expressions etc. So everything must be described in detail else we prejudge one another (I’ve made that mistake in past too). I was more irked by the fact that the lead guy was using a guitar and singing songs from the “Gather Hymnal”. On the positive side one of the women in that choir WAS VEILED!!! Were I not in a rush I wanted to thank her for veiling in a NO Liturgy and Church despite the backlash against veiling by the liberals and uncatechized.

    As for the pregnant Blessed Mother, like I said before it is not the BVM pregnant that offends me, its the particular style of art which is modern, and taken together with all the other pieces makes the Church modern and takes away from the overall liturgy. This whole lack of sacredness and appeal to the Protestant nature is better echoed in Jeanne, wineinthewater, Dr. Nadal (from a purely practical standpoint using university teaching as an example,) and Steve P and that’s why I detest that, with the projector screens furthermore detracting from the liturgy and sacredness that should be the Mass. But most people wouldn’t care as much as I do. They probably just go to Church and do their duty and leave. Sometimes I wonder if I should just go back to being a “nominal”/small “c” catholic.

    Deacon Norb, what is this “secret” that is prevalent in the Mexican culture but isn’t know to the whole Church? This should be blasted into megaphones and known all around! any links?

  45. Young Canadian @ 48,
    “But most people wouldn’t care as much as I do. They probably just go to Church and do their duty and leave. ”

    …and you wounder how or why you get mis-interpreted…nice holier than thou attitude.

    The RCC needs to embrace the good from conservatism AND liberalism.

    Peace to all

  46. Young RC Male: You are in the right path! I think that holier than thou is rather in some one else’s foot.

  47. Yeah, it’s just, I mean look at me arguing over this stuff on a forum at 27.5 years old! Most people my age, well they care about the Church on a “sacramental basis” (e.g. marriage) and wouldn’t be found discussing art and screens with regard to the liturgy and the effect on worship. So sometimes I wonder if my “reversion” or my caring about this is too much and perhaps I shouldn’t be into the Church this intensely. Those nominal or small “c” catholics don’t do this stuff. That’s my little quandry.

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