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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