Monday, October 16, 2017

Cardinal Sarah and Electronic Breviaries

People interested in liturgy have recently been stirred up a bit by some remarks of Cardinal Sarah about the use of electronic devices for liturgical (or perhaps any type of) prayer. Apparently he thinks using a breviary app on a smartphone or tablet is a bad idea.

I am a great fan of Cardinal Sarah. Lately I've been using his book The Power of Silence for reading during Eucharistic adoration, and find that is helps me stay focused and aware of why I'm there. I also reflected on Cardinal Sarah's insights while attending an Extraordinary form mass last week. (I've always been a bit hyperactive and so, while appreciating the EF mass in principle I sometimes find it difficult to get through in practice.) So I'm taking what Cardinal Sarah says seriously, and thought we could discuss it here.

His remarks about breviary apps were a tiny part of  a much longer  speech given recently to the Roman Forum on Summorum Pontificum.  The whole speech is worth reading, but for our purposes we want to read at least this paragraph, where he says that, when we embark on liturgical prayer:

Secondly, I must—somehow—manage to put aside, even if this must be temporary, the world and its constant demands. I cannot participate fully and fruitfully in the Sacred Liturgy if my focus is elsewhere. We all benefit from the advances of modern technology, but the many (maybe too many?) technological devices upon which we rely can enslave us in a constant stream of communication and demands for instant responses. We must leave this behind if we are to celebrate the liturgy properly. Perhaps it is very practical and convenient to pray the breviary with my own mobile phone or tablet or another electronic device, but it is not worthy: it desacralizes prayer. These apparatuses are not instruments consecrated and reserved to God, but we use them for God and also for profane things! Electronic devices must be turned off, or better still they can be left behind at home when we come to worship God. I have spoken previously of the unacceptability of taking photographs at the Sacred Liturgy, and of the particular scandal that this gives when it is done by clergy vested for liturgical service. We cannot focus on God if we are busy with something else. We cannot hear God speaking to us if we are already occupied communicating with someone else, or behaving as a photographer.

Okay, here's my thoughts.
Seen in context, I believe the Cardinal's greatest objection is to the use of these devices inside a church. It sounds like he's sometimes, during solemn occasions with many clergy present, caught sight of priests whipping out their cell phones to check messages and take photographs during mass or solemn vespers or some other liturgical function.  And I'll bet he's been annoyed by the sounds of electronic notifications from those who forget to turn their sounds off before entering the church. Not annoyed on his own behalf, but on God's. From this perspective, phones and tablets do indeed seem to desacralize prayer. 

 I believe his critique of using a breviary app is mostly given with priests in mind, who: 1. have a solemn obligation to pray the Divine Office and 2. Own print breviaries and know how to use them.  He's pointing out that a sacred book is a sacramental and for most of us is more conducive to a prayerful, contemplative spirit than an electronic device (even if we don't succumb to temptations to interrupt our prayer when a message notification pops up.)

I don't think he was addressing the fact that breviary apps have made it possible for thousands of laymen to learn how to pray and appreciate the Divine Office, people who would have been put off by the initial effort to figure out the ribbons and the calendar for each day.  Or people who cannot afford a four-volume breviary but, because they already have cell phones, can use a free app.   

But we can apply what he said to us laymen. Assuming you own a print breviary, it's probably better to use it when possible.  If you find yourself checking phone messages in the middle of praying with an app, it's time to rethink using it, or form a firm habit of turning off notifications whenever you use your phone or tablet to pray. 

Also, even if you are NEVER tempted to check your phone while at mass, there is something very wholesome in the idea of turning a phone off (as in powering off, not just silencing notifications) or even leaving it behind in the car, before you enter church. It's a powerful symbol of leaving the world behind us before we approach the holy altar of Christ's sacrifice.  Removing one's sandals before stepping on holy ground. 

Remember that Cardinal Sarah's remarks are simply his personal opinions. But we should take them seriously. But I will keep recommending ibreviary to newcomers who don't have a book or find it confusing to use.

Okay, everyone. Share your thoughts.