Electronics for Liturgical Use?

The bishops in New Zealand have banned the use of iPad versions of the Roman Missal on the altar, saying that their ability to perform multiple tasks such as gaming, checking email, and so on, “makes their use in the liturgy inappropriate.”

I go back and forth on this issue. Right now, I find it awkward to use electronic devices as an aid at mass. It has nothing to do with the device itself (either a Touch, an iPhone, or a Kindle), but with what I perceive to be the thousand eyes glaring at me under the assumption that I’m playing Plants Vs. Zombies. Honestly, I’d love to be able to whip out one of my devices, which are all loaded with Universalis and other mass and prayer apps and texts, to follow along at mass and supplement my devotions.

The annual missals/hymnals used in most parishes are costly, wasteful, and inefficient. Cheap electronic and e-ink displays are already in development which can replace these permanently. Imagine a new liturgical year beginning not by throwing away tons (literally) of useless books, but by a simple update to a set of handheld e-ink devices in the pews. All the new content is downloaded wirelessly. When you activate it, all the readings, responses, and hymns for the current mass are right there, gathered in order: no flipping through pages to find hymn 386. With e-ink, the screen is unlighted, so it’s no more distracting than a normal page. It can also be resized on the fly for those who need larger print. And it puts an end to millions upon millions of printed pages which will only be pulped at the end of the year.

I think I’ll probably see some parishes adopting something like this in my lifetime. It just makes sense. It’s more efficient and convenient, and it’s good environmental stewardship. There’s no attachment to the current books for any aesthetic reason, since they’re printed on poor-quality paper, usually have ghastly art, and tear and wrinkle with use. It’s not like I’m going to ever say, “Gee, I miss that crappy missal we used to get from OCP every year.” In fact, breaking the OCP stranglehold on the missal business would be a net plus.

The issue of electronics on the altar or in the ambo, however, is more complex. When I attend mass with my parents, one of the priests always uses his iPad for his homily. I don’t really see any problem with that at all. There’s no inherent inferiority of words printed on a screen to words typed on a screen and printed on paper. One could even make the case the the iPad is better, since he’s not wasting the paper.

But as a replacement for the Roman Missal, I just don’t see it. It’s certainly possible to have a digital Sacramentary, Lectionary, and Book of the Gospels, but that hardly seems ideal. Our faith is incarnational. Sacramentality is central to what we believe. God has worked through the material word. Among His most priceless gifts were His word in the scriptures, His Word in the flesh, and His Church in the world. Tactility is part of faith. A fine Book of the Gospels, bound in leather, edged in gold, and printed on fine paper with the skill of a craftsman, is a tribute to the texts contained within. It’s something worthy of being held aloft in procession and kissed with respect. I just don’t see a deacon coming up the aisle holding an iPad2 over his head. At least, I hope I never see it.

I admit that this bias probably does not have a rational basis. The words on the screen can be just as beautifully adorned as they are on the page. But they lack that permanence and tactility that creates a bond between the reader and what is read. The words can disappear from the screen, and be replaced by something else: Angry Birds, for instance. Or internet porn. That seems inappropriate. We want our texts to be permanent, crafted, dedicated to a single purpose, loved and cherished like a fine piece of art. I don’t think that will ever be possible with electronic versions.

H/T Deacon Greg

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

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  • Mitch

    Seeing electronics used at Mass in any fashion from pew books to altar missals would make me irate. There is already a solution to throw away missalettes: hard bound hymnals and rotating set of three Sunday hand Missals. They last for 30 or 40 years at least. Most Parishes could do it over the course of a few years for a short term increase in expense and a long term saving of money. But frankly I could not go to a Church where there were iPads and the like used for liturgical purposes, or even to deliver a homily off of. Good for the bishops of New Zealand.

  • victor

    While I could never personally bring myself to use my iPad in Church (at least, not yet), our Parish doesn’t provide the Mass readings in any way shape or form, so our options would be to subscribe to the printed version of Magnificat (or MagnifiKids) or download the iMissal app (which is a lot cheaper). We bought our son a Nook recently (it’s cheaper than the ad-free Kindle and it doesn’t have a web browser) and we’ve loaded the Ignatius Study Bible onto it (he’s a pretty sharp 10-year-old and Scott Hahn is a very accessible author). During Mass, he’s aloud to read the week’s readings out of that but nothing else. So far, he hasn’t gotten any dirty loks and no one’s said anything.

    I completely agree, though, that an iPad would be inappropriate for a Lectionary. Even if Good Technology could find a way to lock it down to just apps which have received an Imprimatur.

  • http://www.JonathanFSullivan.com Jonathan F. Sullivan

    You make a compelling case vis a vis our incarnational and sacramental theologies that having a permanent, physical book is more fitting for liturgical prayer. It’s not irrational at all — it squares perfectly with our tradition.
    Another good argument I’ve seen for avoiding iMissals is that we set aside liturgical books for a sacred purpose; we treat them with the respect in acknowledgment of their purpose. For a priest to celebrate the Eucharist from the same device on which he plays Angry Birds is to blend the ordinary with the extraordinary, the sacred with the vulgar (in the classic sense of the term).
    All that having been said, I don’t think anyone would argue that, in a pinch with no other text available, an iPad or similar device would be an acceptable substitute. But I would hate to see it become the norm in a parish.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    That’s right. I tell my students that we call certain things holy (holy water, holy oils) not because they are magical, but because they are set aside for sacred use, and thus unfit for profane use. You don’t give a rubdown with holy oil or wash your car with holy water. It’s reserved for a higher use.

    Our books should be holy as well, and reserved for sacred use. Of course, that raises the point: could an iPad that is reserved and locked down for use ONLY as a lectionary, as Victor suggests, be valid? I say no, because its changeable nature and profane associations make it unworthy for sacred use. It lacks a concrete quality. The words are not permanently symbolized on the page, but are merely represented in code and temporarily manifested on a screen. In a way, the words on a screen are a kind of illusion. The devices are also not capable of being beautiful in and of themselves. (Some would disagree with that, seeing beauty in the sleek lines and glossy color of the iPad design, but modernist design such as this is a bad fit for the faith.)

    I would disagree sharply, however, with the idea that electronic hand missals or hymnals are verboten. I don’t think we’re there yet, but we will be as society becomes more accustomed to them. The world is moving towards less paper, and there are already cheap, disposable e-ink displays. There are already developments in flexible displays, and e-paper that can be rolled up like a magazine or newspaper. Since the mass-goer is merely using these as a memory prompt to follow along, and not as part of the ritual itself, I see no problem with that. It offends a certain sense of tradition, but not a particularly important one. There was a time when some (such as Socrates) would have looked down on writing as opposed to memorization, because the written word encourages people to become lazy and inattentive to memorization, and because it is fixed on the page and thus not capable of dialectic.

  • http://www.lifeisaprayer.com/ Jeff Geerling

    A couple years ago, we had an interesting discussion about this particular topic over on Open Source Catholic: http://www.opensourcecatholic.com/blog/geerlingguy/celebrating-holy-mass

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    Thanks for posting that link. I liked it.

    I think the NZ ban is the first, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see similar directives from other diocese and conferences.

  • Deacon Steve

    I wouldn’t mind them being used, and the Vatican seems to be ok with it, leaving it up to the Bishop’s conferences to decide. What I would like to see if they are used, however, is a suitable cover for them so that they look like they belong at the liturgy. I had thought that using the iPad and placing it into the old sacramentary cover, with the pages glued together and the hollowed out so the iPad could fit into it. Or design and have made out of leather a nice cover for the device so it isn’t just sitting on the ambo or the altar. I think that there are ways to use them in reverent ways.

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  • victor

    Yeah, I appreciated the counter-perspective, too. For travelling priests it would be a godsend (and could dovetail nicely with the eBooks for seminarians in Africa campaign). I also like that Open Source Catholic site. It’s much better than the Roman Catholic Users Group site (rcug.org).

  • cathyf

    A fine Book of the Gospels, bound in leather, edged in gold, and printed on fine paper with the skill of a craftsman, is a tribute to the texts contained within.

    Given the NZ actual facts, this argument can be taken to support the opposite conclusion. From the description, the NZ bishops rather bolluxed the whole process of creating their physical paper missal. Apparently it was late, so they missed the 1st Sunday of Advent launch. The entire book is poorly paginated, creating page turn interruptions at unfortunate spots. And the text is printed too deeply into the “valley” of the open book. So New Zealand celebrants are finding themselves bent awkwardly over the book peering into the gulley and/or using both hands to wrestle it further open when they are supposed to be standing upright with hands in some particular position for whatever part of the Mass they are at.

    Given a choice between having the poorly-executed book become a source of distraction and using an iPad, I’d argue that our principals tell us to ditch the crappy book. THIS book because THIS book is crappy. The task that got screwed up — contracting out and supervising the book’s production — was the bishops’ responsibility. So now the bishops are coming back and prohibiting priests from taking reasonable action to mitigate the effects of the bishops’ screw-up. It does make them look rather like thugs and ingrates…

  • Ron19

    Our parish trumped this whole discussion. They installed two projection screens and two wide screen TV monitors, run by a console that was designed for the task and most likely is commercially available. It’s tucked into a corner by the electronic organ, near our amplified choir with several electronic instruments. This was last year just before Advent and the new missal. On the First Sunday of Advent the pew missalettes and songbooks were gone forever, unless you went to the Vietnamese Masses.

    The slideshow has the readings and responsoral psalms, and most (but not all) of the other responses and hymns. At the end of the Easter Season some of the “multi-media” (?) Liturgical Ministers are still learning how to stay co-ordinated with the liturgy. And the classical paintings that are shown in between, like during the Eucharistic Consecration, are beautiful. Many of the slides look as if they were commercially prepared, although many others are locally produced. The head of the ministry is a commercial web illustrator, so the slides may all be locally produced.

    On the other hand, our diocese, the Diocese of Orange in California, is the one that just bought the Rev. Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral, with it’s world class and world famous recording and broadcast facilities.

    When our new-old Cathedral is consecrated in a few years, we will be all conditioned for the new ways.

    PS: I actually do like most of our electronics for Mass, I just wish I could convince somebody to turn down the sound from the rock-concert setting. And that they would put the rest of the responses on the text slides. I also whole heartedly agree with the purchase of the Crystal Cathedral.

    PPS: As far as anybody can tell, this is the first time a Protestant cathedral is being converted into a Catholic Cathedral, instead of the other way around. However, part of the deal (it was a bankruptcy sale) is that the Crystal Cathedral congregation will get to buy or lease one of our parishes, so we will still honor the the Catholic-to-Protestant parish church tradition.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    I’m glad you’re okay with the changes, but that sounds perfectly awful. Having something in your hand to follow along with is one thing, but on giant screens sounds really distracting and weird.

  • JL Parker

    On a technical note, none of the contest entry links seem to be working. Here’s one of the URLS that appeared: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/godandthemachine/test-2/#Contest . I saw a few different ones, and I’m not sure which one is valid, but none led to an entry form. Thanks!

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    Are you accessing it for mobile? It’s still there at the bottom of the page. 200 entries overnight.

  • Pingback: iPads on the Altar? | Fr. Charles Zlock

  • Identity hidden so my wife doesn’t know it’s me talking

    I got something in my hand occasionally, but it’s my smart phone with Laudette and iMissal and Olive Tree Bibles. As for the sound overdose, that is possible without screens.

    Statues near the altar and stained glass windows are distracting too for me, but not as much as the exposure-oriented clothing in the pews just in front of me , and some other places, like the Eucharistic Ministers. I must admit it is harder to look down into clothing if I’m looking up at a picture on a wall. Tradeoffs.

  • Ron19

    Update: The Vatican has approved, and the Crystal Cathedral will be re-named Christ Cathedral

  • Deacon John Tomandl

    I have used an IPad for over a year but the pastor has gotten mixed reviews for allowing it. I just received the word from him to leave it home when vested in the sanctuary but go ahead and use it when in the pew with the family. For now, that will be the way we proceed. Unless and until (obviously I think there will be more magisterial pronouncement in the future) there is more discussion and decision from the bishop or Rome, I will acknowledge the pastor’s right to decide such issues. I do agree with some of the thoughts about the potential for other uses clouding the minds of people about the use of electronic media but caution that the same is true of books and was true of scrolls. I wonder if there was this much uproar when people began to find that books were better, easier to use, more practical than scrolls!?! Sometimes I believe we get more hung-up on what “I” think about this or that and forget that Christianity is a way of life not a religion locked into ritual for the sake of ritual with no (or little) appreciation of what we should do with our faith. Judge-mentality is the hallmark of evil …. the Accuser is cast out … But not completely … Oh, well, like I said, surrender and ministry are for ore important than personal gratification so I’ll leave the IPad in the sacristy and continue to juggle a missal and the sheet of paper with the Bidding Prayers on it and the hymnal and whatever else I need to serve and celebrate while assisting the liturgy in my diaconal role. The real sadness is that those upset by the use of electronics will probably not read this post nor ever know that there was oohing to win, only something to lose … And I will keep praying for all of them and hoping I have truly let go of this as completely as this post would propose. Peace and blessings to all.

  • Nicollette

    I agree that the sacred texts the ministry uses during mass and sacred rites should stay in its traditional forms to preserve sacred traditions. I agree with previous posters about separating the sacred from the profane as that is what the Catholic church teaches. However, I believe that we should transition to some sort of electronic device for the pew missals, for all obvious reasons. I think that great programming would make it appealing to current parishioners as wells as draw and keep the younger more techy crop of young adult and kids and keeping them there. I think the Catholic should be using whatever means allowed to draw more people to the Catholic Church and keeping them there. A lot of people fall away because they come to view the church as stubbornly old fashioned as their great grandma.


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