Busted Halo

Paulist seminarian Tom Gibbons reflects on his formation experience and his life as a seminarian right now. Along the way, some questions will be will be answered, and a lot more will come up.

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January 7th, 2011

iPads in Liturgy?


While I adore the parish at which I am serving this year, I sometimes wonder if it is run by Quakers rather than Catholics.  Because at the beginning of Daily Masses at my Church, only the priest seems to have an assigned role.

Of course roles are much more defined during the Sunday services, but for whatever reason the role of lector and Eucharistic minister at my church is left to whomever the Spirit moves during the week; daily Masses are usually characterized by the assembled faithful giving each other looks that communicate after the Opening Prayer is finished, “Are you going to do it? Do you want me to go up?  Are you sure?”

Partially because I like to read and also partially because I am the seminarian, I usually walk up if other people have not suggested (verbally or non-verbally) that they would like to read.  Except this past Monday another wrench was thrown into the service after I approached the altar; when I walked up to the lectern, the book was not put out.

And it’s not as if this was necessarily a national disaster—the 5:20 evening crowd tends to be a laid-back bunch who don’t freak out at liturgical emergencies—but at that moment I had a decision to make… because hanging off my right belt loop was my trusty iPhone.

A few months ago I bought through the iTunes Store Universalis, an app that allows you to view the prayers and the liturgical readings for the entire Roman Catholic calendar right on your iPhone.  Before I invested in this neat little app, I used to have to carry my very thick, very heavy Book of Christian Payer whenever I traveled; now all of the prayers I ever need can be found in my own little 32 gigabytes of heaven.  Also included: the daily readings for Mass.

Now, the presiding priest is a very good friend of mine.  He is also more of a tech-head than I am.  I give him a look and reach for my phone.  Through the unspoken communication that can only take place between two people whose lives have both been touched by Steve Jobs, I know that he knows what I am thinking.  And I know that he is intrigued by the idea himself.  He raises an eyebrow… but then shakes his head and goes into the sacristy to get the actual Lectionary.

ipad_heroI suppose he was right – I am not slated to take the “Liturgy and Presiding” class until next semester, so I have no real way of knowing the validity of an iPhone Mass for sure.  But with the new release of the Apple iPad and the popularity of the Amazon Kindle, we might have some new questions on how to proceed as a Church.  After all, if these types of technologies are poised to replace the technology of the “book,” do we as a church evolve along with the new technology?  I mean, it’s not like I saw a lot of books being used in the Star Wars movies and the Jedi seemed to defend the Republic just fine… until the last movie that is, maybe I should rethink my argument.

I know where the Quakers would land on this question, but what do you think?  I know that there is a danger of some young priest someday concluding the Gospel reading with, “The Blog of the Lord,” but is that a chance worth taking?  And this is not just a conversation for just Catholics; most if not all religious traditions have some form of holy texts… just how necessary is paper for them to be holy?  Leave some comments and let the eDebate begin!

Originally published February 3, 2010.

The Author : Fr. Tom Gibbons
Since 2009, Tom Gibbons, CSP, has shared insights on faith, pop culture, and seminary life in the Kicking and Screaming blog here at Busted Halo. On May 19, 2012, Tom was ordained a Paulist priest at St. Paul the Apostle Church in New York City. He will begin serving St. Peter's Catholic Church in Toronto, Canada beginning in July 2012.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Mike

    I’m with the e-crowd on this one. I find it sort of dismaying that so many are so hung up on externals. As any good church historian will tell you, in the beginning, there were no written books at all. The gospels hadn’t even been written. Early Christians sat around and retold the stories of Jesus before sharing Eucharist, which consisted of consecrated bread made lovingly by family members from wheat they may have grown themselves. Soon, there were copies of Paul’s letters in circulation, written on papyrus or whatever was handy. Later, copies of Gospels joined them. It wasn’t until around 400 that an official collection of gospels and letters emerged, and even then there was no requirement for how it was shaped. In the Middle Ages, monks in scriptoria developed the beautiful, hand-painted books we’ve all seen in pictures. To suggest to them that their prayerful work, hand-lettered on sheepskin with beautiful decorations, would someday be replaced by mass-produced machine-printed lectionarys on flimsy paper and that their home-baked loaves would be replaced by mach8ine-made wafers would have horrified them, but it came to be. So who’s to say that the future may not hold a new e-form of lectionary? I’m with Matt– it’s the Word that important, not the paper it’s printed on.

  • John

    The question for Eucharistic liturgy is less about reading as it is about PROCLAIMING the Word and having it heard.The text could be memorized and proclaimed; a fancy book is not needed at all.
    An Irish radio personality was met by the pastor on the church steps: “I’m glad you’re here. Will do the second reading?” “Father, I wouldn’t sell soap on the radio witout six weeks’ rehearsal. I’m not going to proclaim the Word of God cold.”
    The readers should be prepared, familiar with the text, and sure that the text is there. “Who’s going to read and from what?” are entirely inappropriate questions.

  • greg

    God willing, I will be ordained a permenant Deaoon this summer and I use the SQPN: Praystation Portable on itunes to help me with my morning & evening prayers.

  • Sarah

    While I agree with Matt that “To worship the Word is holy. To worship the book is idolartry.”, there is such a thing as approriateness to the situation. My 4th child has a Jesus doll. She plays with him, hugs him, and “talks” to him. There is nothing wrong with the image of Jesus as a stuffed doll for a child. But that stuffed doll should not be placed on a cross and put up in a church to be our reminder of Jesus dying on the cross for us. The iPad and iPhone apps of the lectionary are great if needed in an emergency, or to look up something outside of Mass, but not appropriate to the holiness of the occasion.

    I think apps have their place, but not in Mass.

  • Christy

    Well said Matt! Why are we getting so caught up in the physical objects used in mass?

    As for the accuracy & reliability of the electronic documents… is someone really going to tell me that there are absolutely no typos, errors or misprints in any of the books that we use on a regular basis? Human error occurs everywhere. Printed word is not some sort of immaculately conceived notion.

  • Matt

    Mark me down with the pro-electronic crowd (or at least the group tolerant of electronic editions when necessary).

    This is about the distinction between form and substance, ultimately, and in this I’ll assert that both history and Church doctrine are implicitly on my side.

    As Jason pointed out, the present normal form of the lectionary is, by the standards of Christian history, a very recent innovation. Had someone in the days of Gutenburg suggested the use of a lectionary mass-produced by means of movable type printing, I’m sure they’d have gotten the same reaction as most folks give today to the notion of using an iPhone or iPad.

    Just as in the Eucharist, the important aspect is the body and blood of Christ which it fundamentally is, rather than the dry disc of unleavened bread which it still appears to be, the important aspect of the readings is the Word of God (which, assuming the translation read is correct and orthodox) it still is, rather than the physical medium one reads from.

    To worship the Word is holy. To worship the book is idolatry.

    Respect is due, of course, to the prevailing traditions of the Church, even when those traditions are of more or less recent origins. But in the absence of contrary instructions from the Magesterium, I’m inclined to say that whatever means are available to provide for the readings at Mass should be used. The Word is essential. The paper and ink are worthy tools for its delivery, but not essential and thus (if it is found to be both possible and necessary) expendable.

    A relevant word on “the blog of the Lord”, if you will: If blogging had existed in Paul’s day, are there any among us who have any doubt he’d have used it? That the greatest evangelist of his time would have used any and every means at his disposal to communicate the Good News and his advice to the nascent Christian communities of the world?

    We don’t proclaim “the epistle of the Lord”, we proclaim “the Word of the Lord”. For it is truly the Word that counts.

  • liturgywonk

    One problem I see is in honoring the book itself. A book of paper contains only the text that is printed on it, and so we honor the Word of God in the liturgy. An electronic book can contain any text at all. What are we honoring then?

  • Tom Gibbons

    This has been a really great debate. All I have to say is that if Fr. Larry Rice CSP, the biggest Apple fan I know, says that we should be using real books in services, then that goes a long way towards ending the debate for me!

  • cathyf

    I don’t think that reading from an electronic device is any worse than reading from the missalette (or “disposable word of God” as a friend calls it). If anything the difference is that we are relatively desensitized to the missalettes showing up on the lectern.

  • Sr_Lisa

    Thanks for the post – it gave good food for reflection on the use of technology in our lives of prayer!

    I agree with Fr. Larry, seeing the use of techno-lectionaries as an “emergency-only solution”.

    I tried to imagine what it would be like during the entrance hymn to see an iPad raised above the heads of the faithful rather than the Book of Gospels, or the Lectionary during the procession. It does not convey the reverence that the written Word does.

    And although I too love to dabble in technology, there is a healthy hesitancy we should have to becoming dependent upon outside electronic sources to provide our daily Word; it has happened to me that i have gone to a site for my daily prayer only to find the site temporarily down. Or, even worse, to find that an unapproved version – or mistaken text is uploaded for the day. Having the assurance that the Word is prepared before the liturgy assures all that we are assembled around It, and not technology.

  • Fr. Larry

    There has been more than one occasion when my iPhone has come to my rescue, when I needed the lectionary text, but didn’t have the book handy. (And for the record, your iPhone can save the daily readings page from the USCCB web site as a web app/widget thingy. Find the page in Safari, tap the plus button, and save it to your home screen.)

    While I’m all about technology (as Tom G. can attest), I see this as an emergency-only solution. The book itself is important. That’s why we process with the Book of the Gospels. I can’t see myself processing into Mass behind someone holding an iPad overhead. The book as a symbol of the Word of God isn’t going to be replaced by a multi-purpose gadget, any more than the bread for the Eucharist can be replaced by a Big Mac. OK, that’s not a great analogy, but you understand my point, I hope.

  • Daniel

    I found this post to be interesting. On this week’s The Break with Fr. Roderick, one of the topics that he discusses is Catholic iPad ideas: http://sqpn.com/2010/02/01/bfr-719-lost-and-the-mystery/
    I guess that the “paper” book that we read from in the liturgy is holy and should be kept, unless with this technology helps to enhance the readings, then perhaps it could be useful… so I think that using the iPad or iPhone to read the liturgical readings at mass could be helpful in the future (or now).

  • Jason Welle

    Strictly speaking, there’s no reason why one couldn’t use an electronic reader of some sort to read the scripture and prayers for a given mass. There are times, as when traveling, when we’ve used the texts printed in the ‘Living with Christ” publication when the books weren’t available. And of course, at one time the printed book itself was an innovative technology–prior to that handwritten lectionaries were expensive and not easy to obtain.

    This is a far cry from projecting mass on a screen–the Catholic liturgy, being about action, precludes that. Although thanks to new technologies, the home bound or those in hospital can at least view mass from their bed, which is a consolation to many.

  • cathyf

    As for “liturgical emergencies” — one time when my husband was a kid and team leader of altar boy team #21 Jesus came off of the processional cross. The cross had been dropped one too many times, and Jesus had to be welded back on.

    When my kids “aack!” about some little liturgical emergency on their altar server watch my husband always asks, “did Jesus stay on the cross? See, it wasn’t so bad!”

  • Tota Tua

    personally i only use Universalis and have abandoned Christian Prayer. Don’t think it would be the end of the world to use your iPhone, but it definitely is something that should be covered with the presider ahead of time. :-)

  • Cindy

    There’s a sacred reason for every ritual during the mass, large or small. We are called to be a holy people. We honor the sacred and revere the Eucharist. If technology was the issue, we could project the mass on a large screen and the priest could have the day off. With respect, I believe is as it should be. And I like seeing who feels called to do the reading. Blessings to everyone.

  • cathyf

    GeekLady (love your handle, as another geeky gal :-) according to the Universalis web site the pay versions of the app (like the iPhone app) do have the Grail translations of the psalms, unlike the (free) web version.

    As far as I’m concerned, the true power of universalis is that it decodes the instructions for the office and assembles the prayer into a single document, instead of having to flip back and forth. Your mileage may vary, and perhaps this only applies to certain kinds of geeks, but I find the cycles themselves fascinating, and I’m a programmer so I’m always thinking of ways to program things… And pretty soon I’m not paying attention to the texts at all! Having it all assembled, with the text size blown up 50% so I’m not have to squint and find the sweet spot on my bifocals is way more important that the exact translations.

  • Mary Ruff

    What a great topic for discussion! I’m out of Catholic school a good long while – but does the actual book used – (the Lecturn?) have to be blessed? Is that why the use of the Iphone or Kindle or even the IPad is questionable?
    (Sidenote – totally love the term “liturgical emergency”!!!)
    Anyway – I think that this is one situation where technology can work well in a pinch. The actual book is lovely to have – especially since many people tend to purchase them and donate them to their parish as a rememberance of a deceased loved one – so you wouldn’t want it sitting on a shelf gathering dust. Plus, there are probably many, MANY parishoners who are just not ready to make that leap to paperless Liturgies of the Word. It’s coming – but I don’t think we’d want to alienate an older, very, very faithful generation by forgetting about all of the comforts of the ritual. Technology is actually frightening and intimidating for some older folks – especially the folks who come to mass for comfort in their “golden years”. I guess I’d be afraid to do anything that might alienate or drastically change the mass for them. Does that make sense? (This written by a woman who has a serious addiction to her Kindle and is thinking of naming it as she named her own offspring!)

  • Deacon David Reed

    I led a communion service at the on-campus All Faiths chapel last year where we came very close to using my iPhone for as a substitute for the Lectionary. The sacristan had not updated the loose-leaf notebook Lectionary, so I was set up to use the readings in the iBreviary app. At the last moment, I spotted a parishioner reading the current issue of Magnificat, which was going to be easier to use for the lector (who had already asked me three times how to use the iPhone). We went with that instead, but we almost used the iPhone!

    While I am a very tech-savvy cleric (it’s my paying job), I prefer using a book. There’s no worries about power, sites going off-line or not having the correct info – all of which have happened with the USCCB readings website or iBreviary.

  • GeekLady

    The Universalis app does have the NAB translation for the Readings at Mass, but you have to switch to that translation in the settings. Also, and more disappointing, it does not use an approved translation for the Liturgy of the Hours. This information is buried in the FAQ on Universalis’s website. I understand it’s due to some copyright issues, but it’s still disappointing. The difference in translation can be quite jarring.

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