Technology & the Liturgy

Video Parish

I’m sure more subtle minds have reflected upon this subject, but I can’t help thinking about the role of technology in the liturgy these days.  We have just passed the official observance of the Feast of the Epiphany in the Roman Rite in America, and I have been visiting relatives in the South these past few weeks, attending the liturgy at a local parish mission near where my parents live.  I am a member of a tiny, fairly unique liturgical community where I live, and so I don’t get out much to normal Latin Rite parishes anymore, and I must say my experiences while I have been down here have reminded me why I do not go to such parishes if I can help it.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with the use of power point slides and projector screens to help the congregation say the creed, or with the playing of a guitar at mass per se, but the use of these things at a parish where I stay when visiting my parents–a rural parish, in the southern edge of the bible belt, appealing to a mostly rural congregation–has been quite hard on me, harder than in the past.  Again, I would never look down on these goodly people, nor the priest who ministers to them, whom I much admire and who is a model of Christ’s love (and born on December 25 to boot!).  But the whole tenor of the service at this parish shows quite clearly the influence of Evangelical Protestantism, with whose influence any Catholic parish must reckon in this part of the country.  From the beginning of mass, in which both a reader and the priest address the congregation, and ask visitors to stand up so that they can be applauded, to the general atmosphere of the congregation, which talks loudly and noisily before, during and after mass, such influences are quite noticeable.  As most likely is, I should point out, the quality of the priest’s homilies, which are quite good, something that is not typical of most parishes.  But you had best have a good homilist here, if you want people to show up at mass, which they do at this parish.

Guitar MassII

But to return to my point de depart, the use of technology at this parish is not a strictly “Protestant” thing, if it ever was.  And of course, much of what is used in “traditional” liturgies (East and West) is a form of technology, however rudimentary:  incense, candles, and other items are very much technology of a sort.   And of course it was the Latin Christians who introduced the organ into the liturgy during the Middle Ages, so it is not as if one could point to some theological or historical objection in order to rule out things like guitars or power point screens during the liturgy.  But I have to believe not all types of technology are suitable for the “work of God” (which is one way to translate the Greek term from which “liturgy” derives).   There is something quite distracting to me about the use of power point screens, which take one out of the rhythms that ought to accompany the cadence of the spoken word in the liturgy.    There is also something to be said for not using microphones in liturgy as well:  the role of the spoken voice shaped the way churches were built and structured, and the introduction of the microphone altered this profoundly, as builders no longer had to account for the way sound carried.  These types of changes have had precisely the types of depersonalizing effects that many alarmists about technology have made over the years, but it seems to me in this case they are correct.  So much of what was taken for granted in the liturgy as it was celebrated before the 20th century has been changed at least in part to these technological innovations, and not merely to ideological shenanigans on the part of nefarious liturgists (although they were involved, no doubt!).

The most divisive types of technology have to do with music of course, and the little mission parish I attend near my parents home has a choir led by an older gentleman playing the guitar.  And not only for hymns, but for ordinary parts of the liturgy,  the Agnus Dei, the Sanctus, and most of the rest of the mass.   No doubt this is what takes place at most Protestant churches in the area, but it really does lend itself to making a hash of the liturgy and its rhythms.  Using instruments that are meant to accompany the human voice and lead it, like the guitar, and especially one that is associated in people’s minds with popular music, unlike the organ, it naturally leads one to sing the Gloria, for example, as my little mission choir does, like a popular song, repeating the phrase “Glory to God in the Highest and Peace to People of Good Will” as if it were the refrain.  You may ask, so what?  If that gets the people to listen to the words, what’s the difference? But that is my point:  it doesn’t lead people to the words, since that is not what such popular music is designed for.  Most lyrics in popular music are mere ornaments to the melody, which is not the case in the mass.  There, it is the words that are important, because they are sacred, and that’s why chant is so perfectly suited to sacred music, since it need not follow a strictly metrical melody but can be fitted to the words, to put emphasis on them.  Hence the universal use of chant–East and West–prior to the Reformation.

I am not saying it is a violation of any truth of the Catholic faith to use guitars in the liturgy.  But I wish people understood how changing the forms in which the liturgy has traditionally taken place–architecturally, musically, and visually speaking–almost changes the nature of the liturgy, and at the very least obscures what it is meant to convey:  the presence of the eternal God in time, made present to us in the Eucharistic sacrifice.  In practice, it is otherwise at many parishes like the mission parish I visited:  there I often feel that I am at a concert listening to people who don’t sing very well.

Guitar Mass

Again, I am not saying I want to go back to the Middle Ages here; rather like the comfort of central heating and air conditioning, as well as the amenity afforded by modern toilets in my churches (something I found out when I had to go to the bathroom very badly while in an Italian city, visiting a Cathedral which did not have one!).  But then those technologies don’t interfere with the main purpose of the liturgy, as some others do.  And all these examples are kind of beside the point anyway; it is not any one particular thing that bothers me about the way, it is the whole effect it has on me.  I find it difficult to concentrate on the words of the liturgy, and it is hard for me to concentrate my mind on God.  There’s no real help for it in most parishes these days, and it will be that way for the foreseeable future in the Latin Rite, outside a few enclaves like my home parish.  Somewhere, Newman wrote that some things can only be done slowly, over time.  I certainly hope so.  At least when I go to visit my parents, I know I will always be able to go to the bathroom when nature calls.




Alypius Minor

~ by Alypius on January 12, 2015.

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