ROME, JUNE 12, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: I want to know if the spirit of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal will allow the use of the iPad for the reading of the Gospel by the priest? What does he venerate then — the iPad or the Book of the Gospels? — H.A., Lashibi, Ghana
A: So far the universal Church has made no official pronouncement regarding the use of electronic tablets in the liturgy. At least one cardinal, celebrating in his cathedral, has publicly used a tablet in lieu of a missal, but this does not constitute official ratification. In contrast, a recent statement from the bishops of New Zealand said that tablets should not be used for Mass and other public rituals.
Hence what I say has no official standing whatsoever. I limit myself to what I consider to be the liturgical principles involved.
Although I use a computer, I admit that I am no technology buff and have so far managed to survive without even a mobile phone much less a tablet.
With respect to using phones or tablets I do not see any great difficulty in a priest or anybody else using these instruments to pray the breviary, especially while traveling.
With respect to using a tablet to substitute the missal, lectionary and Book of the Gospels at Mass I would be much more hesitant.
On the one hand, it can be argued that the liturgical books, like any other book, are a means of conserving and transmitting information. In this sense the tablet fulfills the same function as the printed page but with some added advantages. For example, the tablet can contain all the ritual books in one place, and it allows the celebrant to switch the text from one language to another as needed and adjust the letter size to his own comfort level.
On the other hand, there is a principle which, while not essential to liturgy, should be weighed very carefully before using such instruments.
The Church has traditionally reserved the objects used in the liturgy exclusively for the sacred functions. Because of this, these objects generally receive a blessing which separates them from all other uses. One does not use a blessed chalice for domestic purposes; nor would a priest drive around town in alb, stole and chasuble. The reason for this is not the impracticality of the action but because such sacred objects are reserved for a specific time, place and function.
Likewise the books used in the liturgical celebration are usually blessed and reserved for sacred use. They are also printed and bound in a format which underlines their holy purpose.
Tablets, however, by their very nature, are capable of multiple uses. There is something incongruous in using a tablet as a missal or a lectionary and shortly thereafter utilizing it to respond to e-mail, surf the web, or download a movie.
The Book of the Gospels is one case in which I believe that norms exist that apply to our question. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 120d, specifies that only the Book of the Gospels, and not the lectionary, can be carried in the entrance procession and placed upon the altar. This distinction would certainly hold for a multiuse tablet, and thus I think we can say that the norms preclude carrying a tablet in procession, laying it upon the altar, and incensing it.
It is possible to speculate that eventually someone could develop a tablet for exclusively liturgical use with an appropriate design and no other programs installed. That might change the terms of the debate.
Until such a time arrives, I think it best to avoid using such instruments so as to maintain that sacred distinction of the liturgy from the humdrum of ordinary activities.
In special cases, however, such as when a traveling priest finds himself in a bind and has no access to a missal, I believe he could use a tablet in order to be able to celebrate Mass.
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Follow-up: Using an iPad at the Gospel [6-26-2012]
Several readers responded to our June 12 piece on using an electronic tablet as a missal or as a lectionary. Practically all agreed with the argument that the tradition of reserving sacred objects for exclusive liturgical use would preclude the use of these instruments in the sanctuary. One reader commented: "It is all about holiness, or now, the lack of it. The Church for good reason has given us the proper tools (in this case, books) to use and it is sad that there are those that want to do their own thing, no matter what."
Some readers asked about the use of these instruments in other areas of liturgy. An American music director commented: "Just wanted to let you know I have my entire sheet-music library on the iPad and now use it exclusively in the celebration of the holy sacrifice of the Mass as part of the music ministry. I didn't even give it a second thought. If someone were to tell me that it would be used in place of the missal by the priest, I'd really have to think about that. If it were the only option, God would want his Word proclaimed."
I see no difficulty in musicians and others using these instruments instead of multiplying books, folders and photocopies.
Although our reader did not touch on this point, it is worthwhile remembering that while the playback functions of these tools may be used to help learn unknown hymns in rehearsals, the Church's longtime prohibition on the use of any form of recorded music in the liturgy would not allow for their use during the celebration itself.
Finally, a California reader made some interesting observations: "Although iPads and other electronic media are becoming more and more reliable and user-friendly, the possibility of malfunction or operator error does exist (I think of the not-infrequent microphone problems at some parishes). Although these instances are soluble problems (battery not charged, pressing wrong key, dropping), the problems do require attention and an informed, alert response. I think the use of electronic media in the case of public liturgy would contain a distraction, perhaps an inappropriate distraction. Music ministers use technology with mostly no problems, but they are not offering Mass. I am visually impaired so do use an iPad gratefully when traveling. Using an iPad would help with singing unfamiliar hymns, but the Mass Itself I know by heart. I read the readings before Mass, at home, on my computer screen in large print. Therefore, when I hear them at Mass, I am able to understand them more completely. Sorry for the long reply, but I wanted you to know how much I appreciate technology for my worship, but see it could be distracting."
Likewise, it might be possible to use these instruments to help a visually impaired priest to say Mass, even though canon law has other available solutions (such as permission for celebrants to memorize a single Mass formula and use it daily).
A general permission to use tablets in all such cases would have to be weighed carefully. As the legal adage says, "Hard cases make bad law" and liturgical law has many instances of permissions granted for special cases being gradually expanded into widespread use or even abuse.