The Writing on the Wall

Writing WallI 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.

Call me old-fashioned. I like opening a book to read the words. I like the feel of it, the smell of it, the weight of it. I like the cracked, worn sensation of a missal that's been held in hundreds of hands, shared by people I may or may not know—people praying for intentions I cannot imagine, smudging the pages with their thumbs or turning over a corner to mark a place they feel an urge to revisit. I imagine a husband and wife sharing a book, or a parent and child, or even strangers. In my experience, more than a few times, I've offered to share a book with the stranger next to me, and that tiny act has bridged a divide. The simple gesture of sharing a hymnal can be a form of communion, and community.

There's the posture of prayer, too. I like holding the missal my hand, and offering a sung prayer with my eyes lowered and head bowed. I like focusing on something that's physically close to my heart, where I can zero in on the verses, follow the words closely and see how they all come together. There is an intimacy there. A connectedness. It's just naturally comfortable.

This is the way people have sung and prayed together for centuries. It's how I learned to do it. And I just feel more at ease with it. I can sing if I want to, or refrain if I don't want to, and can just close my eyes and listen if I'm not exactly in the mood.

But the projections change all that. They take away the familiarity of an open book and my lone pair of eyes reading it and ask—no, insist—that I look up and out and focus everything on a wall a hundred feet away. It's liturgy as PowerPoint. Not just that, there's something gimmicky about it: it's Mitch Miller, without Mitch, and without the bouncing ball. The sacred space becomes an auditorium for a sing-along.

Ultimately, I think, there's something inherently, well, Protestant, about it. The holy sacrifice of the mass has been transformed into just another communal gathering. The large words and changing images on the wall don't encourage contemplation or meditation; the projections, instead, demand participation. And even that, frankly, doesn't really work. At the mass I attended, the singing was not all that unified, and participation somewhat spotty. (That may have been because there were a greater-than-usual number of non-Catholics there, because of the First Communion.) And I'm not sure the gimmick works for people with poor eyesight or folks who have to crane their necks to follow along.

I don't know if this trend toward visual projection in church will limp onward, or if the ongoing reform of the liturgy will trip it up. Maybe it will gain in popularity, as more people seem to need visual stimuli to stay engaged.

But a favorite question I like to ask, when I have any liturgical misgivings, is "WWRD?" What would Rome do?

I can't imagine them doing multi-media presentations in St. Peter's.

But you never know.

Maybe that's wishful thinking.

And maybe I'm the one suffering from projection.

5/31/2011 4:00:00 AM
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  • Greg Kandra
    About Greg Kandra
    Deacon Greg Kandra is a Roman Catholic Deacon serving the Diocese of Brooklyn, NY, and an award-winning journalist.