It was not exactly the 11th Commandment, but it was close. Call it Commandment 10.1, a critical update for the Roman Catholic Church operating system.
Pope Francis, as he is inclined to do, was speaking off the cuff last Wednesday at his general audience in Vatican City when he talked passionately about the Mass being a profound encounter with Christ.
The most photographed human on earth – the holy grail of all selfie companions – then became a wise grandfather in white robes, examining the issue of how technology has changed the way we view and experience the world and the church.
When the priest at Mass tells the congregation, “Let us lift up our hearts,” the pope said in St. Peter’s Square, he is not saying “lift up our cellphones and take a picture. No. It’s an awful thing to do.”
“It makes me so sad when I celebrate (Mass) in the square or in the basilica and I see so many cellphones in the air,” Pope Francis added. “And not just by the lay faithful; some priests and bishops, too. Please, Mass is not a show. It is going to encounter the Passion, the resurrection of the Lord.”
The pope obviously realizes he is the universal face of the church for every pilgrim who for years has saved nickels and dimes to travel from the other side of the world to be in his presence at Vatican City. For most, it literally is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so who could blame them for indulging in what, in Cro-Magnon times, was known as a Kodak moment?
The point the pope is making is that we have become so wedded to our electronic third eye that we have become distant observers instead of unfettered participants in the deepest mystery of our faith, the Eucharist.
The wisdom of the pope’s logic is easy to understand even on a mundane level: It’s graduation night. Susie is getting her diploma, along with 750 others. You snake your way up to the front on the side aisle, undeterred by the presence in the first row of a few grandmothers, who got there two hours early but whose elbows are not as sharp as they once were.
Susie gets her diploma, 80 feet away, and she is looking away from the camera. The zoom never works. You push the magic button. The picture portrays Susie with three heads. You look at your screen. Depression sets in. Did you really attend the graduation?
Shooting cellphone pictures at Mass in the Archdiocese of New Orleans is not exactly on the Mt. Rushmore scale of St. Peter’s Basilica. There are, of course, several churches such as St. Louis Cathedral and St. Augustine Church in Treme that attract tourists, either because of their beauty, their history or their vibrant style of worship.
When Father Quentin Moody was pastor of St. Augustine just after Hurricane Katrina, every Sunday he saw tourists at Mass scurrying to take pictures of the Gospel choir and the exotically carved altar placed nearly in the center of the congregation.
“We would get people from all over the world, and I would ask them to consult the ushers about when it was acceptable during the liturgy to take pictures,” Father Moody said. “One lady told me her family was a victim of ethnic cleansing in Croatia, and she wanted the people in her country to see the joy of the Gospel and the joy of our worship. In those cases, I tried to be sensitive because it’s hard to say no.”
Oblate Father Emmanuel Mulenga, the current pastor of St. Augustine, said in his third week at his new assignment someone walked closely behind the altar to get “a good angle” for a shot. That’s when he began asking churchgoers to wait until after Mass to take pictures – when they could take as many as their memory cards could hold.
“For the pope, I think part of it is that nobody goes to St. Peter’s every day, and for us, it’s maybe people just passing through New Orleans who may not be coming back,” Father Mulenga said. “But I think the pope is on point. He sees this as a possible distraction. The person is trying to get a good angle, and he’s concentrating on that and missing out on the prayer.”
Auxiliary Bishop Fernand Cheri said he is always tickled by a photograph from his episcopal ordination in 2015 – in the background, his relatives and friends are in the pews, and everyone is snapping away with a cellphone.
“While I understand it’s a treasured moment for them, it really distracts and detracts us from the treasured ritual we are celebrating,” Bishop Cheri said. “I wonder sometimes if we dare come to church in our ‘right mind.’ I don’t know about anybody else, but I come for a blessing. I think about so many things – God gave me another chance; morning by morning, new mercies I see; great is God’s mercy toward me.”
Dominican Father David Caron, vicar for evangelization for the archdiocese, agrees with Father Moody that balancing a welcoming and hospitable attitude toward churchgoers and a prayerful atmosphere is “a careful dance” that requires pastoral sensitivity.
People love taking pictures of every major life event, Father Caron says, so at baptisms he will gently remind the group encircling the baptismal font – iPhoned up – that “what we are doing is prayer.” But go ahead and shoot.
“I think what Pope Francis is perhaps forgetting is that we live in a world with few – or no – heroes,” Father Caron said. “He is a celebrity. I’m sure it gets tiring for him, but I think he does a great job deflecting the ‘celebrity’ and reminding people that ‘he must decrease’ while pointing to Jesus, so that he increases.”
I have a son, Father Peter Finney III, who is a technology buff – one of the few priests I know who has a drone. When he was a seminarian in Rome, he attended the Easter Vigil at St. Peter’s Basilica when he was unaware of what was about to happen after Communion.
“It was the post-Communion, sister-shoving session, which moved all without habits away from the aisle and eyeshot of Pope Benedict,” Father Peter said. “A chant broke out: ‘Viva il Papa!’ Over and over, long live the pope! I’m all for supporting our Holy Father, but it seemed to be Catholicism at its worst, missing the fact of the Resurrection just celebrated for the fervor of a papal pep rally.”
In New Orleans, we don’t have to worry about cellphones at Mass, Father Peter says.
“It’s a problem for Pope Francis and not for us,” he said. “Phones in our churches only check Saints’ scores.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.