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iPads For an iLiturgy

Peggy Frye

I admit it. I’m eBook phobic. Thin metal tablets that can hold hundreds if not thousands of books scare me. It’s not the technology that I find so scary; it’s our obsession with it. For most of us, our need to carry around a small library in a container the size of a small book is not so much out of need but just because we can.

No, I’m not a Luddite; I have electronic stuff. I also recognize and appreciate the value of ebooks and other digital forms of communication in our world today, especially in the evangelistic life of the Church. I’m clearly on board with all of that.

The world of digital communication, with its almost limitless expressive capacity, makes us appreciate all the more Saint Paul’s exclamation: “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16). (Pope Benedict XVI, 44th World Communications Day message, 2010).

But when I recently came across a 2012 response from the New Zealand Bishops Conference in response to questions about the use of iPads or other digital devices by priests in place of the missal during Mass and other liturgies, my Catholic hackles went up. I thought to myself: Here we go again. If it’s not tabernacles being hidden in closets, clown Masses, or liturgical dance routines around the altar, it’s now about taking our sacred books and turning them into digital tablets complete with backlit displays and page-turning effects.

Our liturgical books are supposed to be signs and symbols of heavenly things and so truly worthy, dignified, and beautiful (GIRM 349) that “will lead the faithful to a greater reverence for the word of God and for sacred realities” (Liturgiam Authenticamno 120). Portable touch-screen devices, while utilitarian, do not and cannot convey that same sense of the sacred as does a liturgical book.

Thankfully, the New Zealand bishops put the kibosh on using iPads at Mass in their jurisdiction. But I don’t think we’ve heard the end of this push to digitalize our liturgical books. Especially when we have the author of a Roman Missal application, Fr. Paolo Padrini, encouraging its use on the altar at Mass by saying things like: “The liturgy should be beautiful. But personally, I’d rather celebrate Mass with an iPad, which is small and doesn’t disturb the faithful, than with an old, worn-out missal with yellow pages and small type,” or, “As far as I can see, there is no liturgical rule saying a printed instrument must be used.” That should send up a red flag right there, since priests are supposed to follow rules that are written out and not invent where the Church is silent.

Then, just seven months ago, a question appeared on a Catholic online Q&A column asking if it’s permissible now to use an iPad instead of the Lectionary and Roman Missal. Apparently, during a recent visit to England, the questioner attended Mass where the priest used an iPad for the readings and Mass prayers. No books were in sight. The answer was given by a priest, Fr. Doyle, who, while acknowledging that the GIRM’s rules for celebrating the liturgy doesn’t mention anything about electronic devices but refers only to liturgical “books,” went on to say this (emphasis added): 

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. Padrini is also counting on this “period of adjustment.” He believes “the shock effect will disappear” as people use these digital applications in everyday life. In other words, give the iPad-on-the-altar idea time. While you’re waiting, it’s okay to do some experimenting. After all, the Church doesn’t say explicitly we can’t. Sound familiar?

Actually, the Church does discourage impromptu experimentation. Redemptionis Sacramentum states:

In keeping with the solemn promises that they have made in the rite of sacred ordination and renewed each year in the Mass of the Chrism, let priests celebrate “devoutly and faithfully the mysteries of Christ for the praise of God and the sanctification of the Christian people, according to the tradition of the Church, especially in the eucharistic sacrifice and in the sacrament of reconciliation.” They ought not to detract from the profound meaning of their own ministry by corrupting the liturgical celebration either through alteration or omission, or through arbitrary additions. For as St. Ambrose said, “It is not in herself . . . but in us that the Church is injured. Let us take care so that our own failure may not cause injury to the Church.” Let the Church of God not be injured, then, by priests who have so solemnly dedicated themselves to the ministry. Indeed, under the bishop’s authority let them faithfully seek to prevent others as well from committing this type of distortion (RS 31, emphasis added).

Electronic tablets can be useful tools and entertaining toys. But the sacrifice of the Mass is the solemn ritual of bringing God down to earth and reconciling man with God. It’s not a time to be tinkering with our tools or playing with our toys.

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