Maintaining the Liturgy in a Homily Surrounded by Technology

Church of St. Gabriel in Marlboro, New Jersey (note blue screens and sound system on either side of altar)

Does technology enhance or diminish a homily? Should we use technology in homiletics? These questions don’t elicit an agreed-upon answer, and often focus on the art of preaching itself. Let’s take a representative example from each side. Dr. Timothy Ralston argues against technology, “Poor speakers place the communication burden on the medium—whether an object lesson, a film clip, an audio snippet, or a PowerPoint slide—and often sacrifice the effectiveness of the message they sought to communicate.”1 Costin Jordache argues for it saying they should be, “A core element in the process of communicating spiritual messages.”2

I want to go a little deeper than matters such as the “effectiveness” or “process” of preaching to focus on the arguments around the homily as a liturgical act. Preaching can be anything from street preaching, to homilies, to a bioethics course for clergy. The situation in such cases is so different that we can’t really come to a universal rule regarding technology. Maybe on the street corner, showing a 3-D holographic version of Jesus’ life is the most effective; and in the case of bioethics, you probably want slides showing stats or details of procedures. What concerns us is the homily, and what is unique about the homily compared to all other forms of preaching, which is that it is liturgical. It is not an additional flair, like a musical setting of Beethoven. Vatican II goes so far as to declare that the homily, “Is to be highly esteemed as part of the liturgy itself.”3 Thus, we will focus on technology in the homily as part of the liturgy, not preaching in general.

I will argue that technology can be used around the homily, but not in it. To do so, I will circumscribe strictly what is the liturgy, or the homily, and what is around it, and then elaborate three arguments: the nature of the liturgical message based on McLuhan and Guardini, the possible lowering of the liturgy based on Josef Pieper, and the rules for homiletics issued by the Church.

Distinctions and Clarifications

If the liturgy is not presented correctly, it can invalidate it, making it illicit, or at least diminish the sacredness of the event. There is almost no way to make a Mass invalid by just the homily, because validity is more a concern about the Eucharist itself. It is illicit for anyone other than a priest or deacon to preach a homily4 so if technology is used in a way to substitute for the preacher, it would be illicit. This would also be the case were the homily omitted, and a movie was played as if it were the homily. A case where technology becomes the homilist violates the rule that only priests and deacons can licitly preach homilies.

That which is unbecoming is far more nuanced, and will be the focus of the rest of this paper. Since that which is unbecoming is a valid and licit liturgy, we will exclude desperation uses. Such uses are not ideal but are responses to unforeseen circumstances. For example, if the priest brought the wrong lectionary for an outdoor Mass, pulling them up on an electronic device might be the only option for a lectionary. Another example, recently, I meant to print out a Ratzinger quote for a homily, and arriving at the church, I realized I had forgotten it, so I pulled it up on my phone before Mass, and pulled the phone out for 20 seconds during the homily. Such uses are not planned but a last-ditch effort to make the best of a bad situation.

Liturgical acts will be restricted to those controlled, or referred to, by the specific liturgical ministers, everything else would fall into the category of surrounding the liturgy, as explained above. In Masses where there is a largeturnout, those far back or in adjoining spaces, like the square outside the cathedral, often watch the Mass on television monitor. However, in such cases the homilist has no control over the TV. When doing this, most of the time, the TV monitor will skip to other shots, such as viewing one person in the congregation, or a particular piece of art in the Church. If a slide indicating something about the homily was slipped in by the video team momentarily, it is not strictly part of the liturgy, however, if the priest controls it, or makes reference to it, we have a different situation. What qualifies as a liturgical act by the congregation could be further nuanced, but the focus here is on the possible use of technology by the homilist.

Media as Liturgical Message

Liturgy has a message that is inappropriate for technology to mediate. Marshall McLuhan’s quote, “The media is the message,”5 makes us ask if the technological medium is appropriate for the liturgical message. Non-liturgical preaching says God can save us and God can dwell among us. The liturgy, on the other hand, proclaims that through these acts, God saves us and dwells among us. Actualization cannot be transmitted or mediated by technology.

Romano Guardini makes three points about this: “The liturgy has no purpose, or, at least, it cannot be considered from the standpoint of purpose. It is not a means which is adapted to attain a certain end— it is an end in itself […] it does not exist for the sake of humanity, but for the sake of God.”6 First, the liturgy is not the type of thing we should look for purpose in. However, technology is bound up in purpose, and only exists for a purpose. I only carry a 5.5 oz. piece of technology in my pocket because my phone can connect me to other people, take pictures, etc. Second, the liturgy is an end in itself because it is the highest expression of who we are as humans. It brings us up to a level with God which is a level higher than man can achieve on his own. However, technology will always remain as something man has created on his own. Thus, the liturgical message transcends technology. Third, if it is for God’s sake, we must ask what God wants, not what we prefer. God wants human persons to worship him without mediation in the liturgy. Technology adds a level of mediation to this message, thus seems inappropriate.

The Church has declared that we can’t confess our sins by phone or have sacraments over the Internet. “Virtual reality is no substitute for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the sacramental reality of the other sacraments, and shared worship in a flesh-and-blood human community. There are no sacraments on the Internet.”7 The underlying argument for this is that there is an essential incarnational aspect to the sacraments. As Jesus became man to save us, the salvific actions of the sacraments—through the liturgy—must be carried out in an incarnational manner. If technology which is carried over long wires can’t mediate it, it would seem similar technology in a slide show presentation shouldn’t mediate it either.

What message does using technology directly in a liturgical act present by the fact of that medium? Using technology directly in the liturgy, not just around it, indicates we think it is proper to the liturgy. The only technology God seems to have specified right in the liturgy is printed scripture. Printed scripture has made advancements like codices (i.e. bound books as opposed to scrolls) and the printing press but remains different from any electronic version in its permanence. You simply can’t remove scriptural passages from printed pages without destroying the text.8 God’s word is unchanging so there seems something proper and becoming that texts used in the liturgy are permanently printed. This particular point obviously affects only what is becoming as electronic versions of liturgical texts are licit, especially in desperate situations referred to above.

Hans Urs von Balthasar summarizes how the liturgical message changes when mediated by technology. He states, “No liturgy designed by men could be ‘worthy’ of the subject of their homage, of God at whose throne the heavenly choirs prostrate themselves with covered faces.”9 If we introduce technology directly into the liturgical act, it would seem to be a redesign of the liturgy, or at least tend in that direction: exactly what von Balthasar warns against: “liturgy designed by men.”

The Liturgy vs. the Everyday

An excessive use of technology tends to lower the liturgy to the everyday. To explain this, we must first separate the liturgy from the everyday, as part of “leisure,” then examine how technology yanks it back down into the everyday.

Josef Pieper develops the idea of leisure in his book Leisure: The Basis of Culture. He distinguishes leisure from the everyday, “Leisure is not the attitude of mind of those who actively intervene, but of those who are open to everything; not of those who grab and hold, but those who leave the reigns loose.”10 Leisure is not just a non-activity or relaxation, but something where we can let go, and be caught up in the crowd, the emotion, the sacred, God, etc. Such letting go is not without a goal but, “In leisure… the truly human values are saved from and preserved because leisure is the means whereby the sphere of the ‘specifically human’ can […] be left behind […] as in an ecstasy.”11 Thus, leisure is the height of human activity where man reaches his highest level, and what is most human comes from what is above the merely human. Leisure does not exist on its own, but: “Culture depends for its very existence of leisure, and leisure, in its turn, is not possible unless it has a durable and consequently living link with cultus, with divine worship.”12 So our worship of the divine is ultimate leisure.

The Church says, “The Eucharistic sacrifice […] is the fount and apex of the whole Christian life.”13 The Catechism quotes this phrase in a way to also apply it to the reserved Eucharist in the tabernacle, which is true because Jesus is sacramentally present there. Nonetheless, the original text says “Eucharistic sacrifice,” which is a specifically liturgical act. Plus, the context indicates that the Christian life here is understood as a succession of acts, and the Eucharistic Sacrifice is a specifically pivotal act of the Christian life. Thus, the liturgy of the Eucharist—including the homily—is the high point in Christian life.

Between the Church’s description of the liturgy, and Pieper’s definition of leisure, a convergence emerges. In fact, Pieper himself alludes to this: “In so far as the cultus is a sacrament, it is celebrated in visible signs.”14 In other words, leisure is the worship we offer God, and sacrament, or liturgy, is the visible sign bringing this worship about, and resulting from this worship. Liturgy and leisure as worship are inseparable. True worship, as the Church teaches, requires liturgy, while liturgy is worship made visible.

Pieper is concerned about separating the world of leisure from the everyday world: not a complete separation, but a separation of realms so the time, place, and mode of leisure are not the same as those of the everyday world. Most use of technology directly in the liturgy requires us to step down from leisure and divine worship to this everyday world. A person can be caught up in the emotion of a Papal Mass, watching it on a screen a mile away, but if the preacher pulls out slides, and starts explaining bullet points like a university lecture, we are brought out of the leisure mode, even if all he says is holy. A homily is a liturgical act, not a lecture on the exegesis of the beatitudes, or any other Scripture passage. Nonetheless, elements can be included in such a way to explain, for instance, how the Greek word used in the beatitudes means both “blessed” and “happy.” Using PowerPoint to do so changes the context for liturgy to a lecture. The practicality of a lecture excludes being caught up in the liturgy.

Aidan Nichols, OP, notes exactly what our modern tendency is, which technology can exacerbate: “What we face today might be called the utilitarianizing of worship, where worship is viewed chiefly as a means to effect changes in man and the human world.”15 According to Pieper, worship, or leisure, can only be properly done for itself, or for God, and not for some utilitarian ideal.

Technology is intrinsically caught up in purpose and utilitarian ideals. Both technology and art are products of human ingenuity, but what distinguishes them is that technology serves a practical purpose, while art serves contemplation, or expression, and thus is an end in itself. Obviously, some things are a mixture—such as the case you put on your phone serves the purpose of protecting against clumsiness, but are also often forms of personal expression. Art can enter into leisure as a form of contemplation or expression, which can, in turn, lead beyond ourselves to the divine. Technology, however, is stuck in the everyday of practical purposes, which can never be above man. We generally want some technology around the liturgy—I want an engineer to approve church blueprints so the church building doesn’t collapse, and most parishes use electronic amplification—but these must always remain around the liturgy,y and not interfere directly in the liturgical acts. Being by nature liturgical, the homily should be free of direct technological interference to avoid leaving leisure, and entering the utilitarianism of the everyday.

Ecclesiastical Rules for Homilies

The Church has specified rules for homiletics. Although most don’t explicitly exclude technology, it doesn’t seem becoming to these rules. We will examine two instructions for the American bishops and Evangelii Gaudium.

The 1982 American bishops’ norms critique a particular style because of the reasons above: “Such homilies [give] the impression […] he interprets these texts primarily to impose ethical demands to impose on the congregation.”16 This takes the homily out of a sense of leisure to a sense of being precisely for some other purpose. It continues, “The function of the Eucharistic homily is to enable people to lift up their hearts, to praise and thank the Lord for his presence in their lives.”17 This puts the homily in a liturgical context as indicated above. The liturgy cannot be for the sake of something else, but one part of the liturgy has a function in the whole. The homily prepares the congregation for the Eucharistic prayer which begins with the words, “Lift up your hearts,” which the above quote from these norms cite indirectly. If it is liturgical, and it is not for some ulterior purpose outside the liturgy, then the indications above about technology apply.

These norms presuppose that the homily is a solitary oral activity—thus not technologically mediated—when discussing whether it should present new information or reinforce old attitudes. They argue that according to social science, a single person talking is not a good way to impart new information but it is, “Well suited to make explicit or to reinforce attitudes or knowledge previously held.”18 A reinforcement of existing beliefs dovetails with Pieper’s idea of leisure because part of leisure is that we get caught up in the act, and it takes over. A new idea is something we need to process but responding, “Amen,” to, “Jesus saves, can I get an Amen?” or a certain head nodding to a message, can become automatic, bringing the congregation deeper into the liturgy.

In their 2012 norms, the American Bishops focus on Emmaus. Since in this encounter Jesus opens up the Scriptures preparing for the breaking of the bread, “Virtually every homily preached during the liturgy should make some connection between the Scriptures just heard, and the Eucharist about to be celebrated.”19 This makes it not just an optional part of the liturgy but an integral part which strengthens applying the main two arguments above to homilies.

The same norms note, “For Paul, the heart of apostolic preaching is the mystery of Christ.”20 The heart is a person, not information. It is Christ crucified and risen we preach, not a philosophical or moral message. Although technology is often far better at presenting information—graphs, charts, bullet points, etc.—it is not a person. If the core message is a person, it would seem that a person is more becoming to represent it, than a technological contraption for presenting information. Technology can present a person as we feel close to the Pope while we watch him on TV; but we are often painfully aware of its limitations in presenting the whole person, as the Pope can’t embrace the sick man over TV, only the sick man who is there. Technology always remains less than a person, no matter how advanced it is: even though Google can answer my questions better than a baby, that baby is a person while Google is tool.

These norms also have an interesting line about Preaching like Jesus: “Jesus did not simply lecture his audiences, but enticed them, by evoking experiences they were invited to think about and try to understand.”21 It would seem to be open to technology as many everyday experiences today involve significant technology, and as story-telling can often be well-done with technology and artistry. However, when we take it in context, there is a priority given to speech as just before this, it states, “Artful human speech […] can reveal truth for those willing to listen and ponder its meaning.”22 This contextualizes it as indicating Jesus’ storytelling should be imitated in the homily by a single human voice, not by technology. Technological storytelling may be an excellent tool for transmitting the Kerygma, or catechizing: we have plenty of good examples of that like Veggie Tales retelling Old Testament stories, and CCC of America retelling saint stories.

Finally, we get to Francis’ concern for the homily in Evangelii Gaudium. It renews again that the homily is liturgical, then he notes another two differences, “The homily cannot be a form of entertainment like those presented by the media,” and “It should be brief and avoid taking on the semblance of a speech or a lecture.”23 These two would seem to further exclude technology as many arguments to use technology are either to provide a form of entertainment, or to provide more information, such as would be helpful were it a speech or lecture.

Francis also wants to ensure the homily maintains a conversational tone, indicating the Church is our mother taking care of us. For this reason, he suggests, “The closeness of the preacher, the warmth of his tone of voice, the unpretentiousness of his manner of speaking, [and] the joy of his gestures.”24 Although technology can enter normal conversation, it takes something away from a warm unpretentious conversational tone. When we pull out our phones as part of conversation, it is usually because of not having provision, while the homily should be prepared. For example, friends might pull out their phone to check whether they can make it to a movie, to search a disputed fact, or to show a picture off. All of these should be foreseen by the homilist: although the last one of showing some picture may often better be accomplished by describing it than bringing a picture to the liturgy.25

Conclusion

In conclusion, we see that technology can be used around the homily, and in non-liturgical preaching. However, the nature of the liturgy prevents it from being part of the homily because it transforms the message of the liturgy, and it brings the liturgy down from its proper role as worship. Rules for preaching reinforce these two reasons, and add a few minor ones that reinforce the idea that the liturgical acts should not be done technologically.

  1. Quoted in Deacon Peter Lovrick, “Media Technology in Preaching: A Catholic Response,” Homiletic & Pastoral Review (May 16, 2017) hprweb.com/2017/05/media-technology-in-preaching/ (accessed: December 7, 2017). My intention with these opening two examples is not to critique the individuals but to give examples of two different opinions on the topic to show both (1) there are diverse opinions and (2) reasonably good arguments from each side focusing on the art of preaching.
  2. Idem.
  3. Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium (December 4, 1963) 52.
  4. Codex Iuris Canonici (Vatican City: LEV 1983) canon 767.1.
  5. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man: Critical Ed. (Berkeley, CA: Gingko, 2003) 25.
  6. Romano Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Tr: Ada Lane (New York: Crossroads, 1998) 66.
  7. Pontifical Council for Social Communications, “The Church and the Internet” (February 22, 2002) 9.
  8. It is possible with chemical processes but this is a far different degree of permanence to a screen which is by nature ephemeral and transient, changing in a split second with a mere finger wave. We have evidence on some old manuscripts that some were removed but this was a painstaking process and not always successful.
  9. Hans Urs von Balthasar, “The Grandeur of the Liturgy,” Communio 5, no. 4 (1978), 344.
  10. Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2009) 47.
  11. Ibid., 52.
  12. Ibid., 15.
  13. Vatican II, Lumen Gentium (November 21, 1964) 11.
  14. Pieper, Leisure, 73.
  15. Aidan Nichols, OP, Looking at the Liturgy: A Critical View of Its Contemporary Form (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1996) 113.
  16. Bishops’ Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Fulfilled in Your Hearing: The Homily in the Sunday Assembly (Washington, DC: USCCB, 1982) 24.
  17. Ibid., 25.
  18. Ibid., 26.
  19. USCCB, Preaching the Mystery of Faith: The Sunday Homily (Washington, DC: USCCB, 2012) 20.
  20. Ibid., 21.
  21. Ibid., 28.
  22. Idem.
  23. Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (November 24, 2013) 138.
  24. Ibid., 140.
  25. Bringing sacred artwork temporarily or permanently into a church is acceptable but it would be a separate act from the homily and thus outside the discussion here. As a general rule, bringing in sacred artwork temporarily which will be referenced in the homily runs into no issues so long as a few rules are followed. First, it should be put out before the liturgy and not moved during the liturgy. Second, the proper place to preach from the ambo or in the sanctuary remains; so, if the preacher will go up and point out specific aspects with his hands, it should be placed where this can be done without leaving the sanctuary. Third, it should not block any essential elements of the liturgy: so not blocking the congregation’s view of the ambo, altar, or celebrant’s chair.
About Fr. Matthew P. Schneider, LC

Fr Matthew P. Schneider, LC is most well-known for his presence on Twitter and Instagram (@FrMatthewLC) where he has over 50,000 followers between the two platforms. He is a religious priest with the Legionaries of Christ ordained in 2013. He is currently enrolled at the STL program out of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He lives in the Archdiocese of Washington where he helps at Our Lady of Bethesda Retreat Center and produces material for Regnum Christi.

Comments

  1. Thank you for using the sanctuary of St. Gabriel’ s Church as the example of technology in church. The technology is used for the benefit of the congregation during the liturgy, not for homilies. In fact I find it distracting as it draws people’s attention away from the celebration at times, however it is very helpful when focused on the celebrant and/ or preacher for those farther away. Technology can be a double edged sword whether on the altar or in the pews and depending how it is used. I agree that it is a great value for other programs such as retreats, spiritual programs or information at the end off the liturgical celebration. I still feel preaching based on scripture and from the heart works better without technology as an aid. I am a deacon and Pastoral Administrator at St. Gabriel’s Church.

  2. I’ve been to a few Evangelical services where the majority of the service was piped in and I got stuck there watching a big screen TV. Or a even one where the pastor showed YouTube videos. Not for me at all. In fact I often cite my fondness for lack of technology in the Catholic service when speaking with my Protestant wife. The production fiasco of a mega church service is off putting to me. As a man in my 30s, I’m confounded with screens all day. Please don’t bring them to Church.

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