On Banners, Overhead Projectors and PowerPoint Displays

Author: Father Edward McNamara


On Banners, Overhead Projectors and PowerPoint Displays

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: It is a regular feature at Masses in Australia and New Zealand that children or artists make banners for decorating churches, especially for the different seasons and for special occasions, such as confirmations. Many parishes are now replacing overhead projectors with the words of the hymns, with computerized PowerPoint displays that allow for all kinds of graphics and backgrounds to be added. I have seen everything from small discreet icons to actual video clips of the entry into Jerusalem from Mel Gibson's Passion during the Sanctus and worse. Are there any norms for visual displays in church, and in particular, the use of projected images during Mass? — J.B., Melbourne, Australia

A: There are few specific laws or even orientation regarding this aspect. But perhaps some of the principles formulated by the U.S. bishops' document on Church art and architecture, Built of "Living Stones," might be of help.

With respect to the use of banners, the document says: "127. Fabric art in the form of processional banners and hangings can be an effective way to convey the spirit of liturgical seasons, especially through the use of color, shape, texture, and symbolic form. The use of images rather than words is more in keeping with this medium."

This would at least indicate that tasteful and well-designed banners may have a place within the liturgy, even if the handiwork of children. Indeed, in one form or another, banners such as the symbols of confraternities and other Catholic organizations have long been used on solemn occasions such as Eucharistic processions.

Since the use of videos or overhead projections is such a novelty and is still a rarity, I have found almost nothing official on this theme. Some of the general principles on liturgical artwork in "Built of Living Stones" might help clarify the issue:

"The Role of Religious Art

"143. Art chosen for the place of worship is not simply something pretty or well made, an addition to make the ordinary more pleasant. Nor is the place of worship a museum to house artistic masterpieces or artistic models. Rather, artworks truly belong in the church when they are worthy of the place of worship and when they enhance the liturgical, devotional, and contemplative prayer they are inspired to serve.

"Components of True and Worthy Art

"146. Authentic art is integral to the Church at prayer because these objects and actions are 'signs and symbols of the supernatural world' and expressions of the divine presence. While personal tastes will differ, parish committees should utilize the criteria of quality and appropriateness in evaluating art for worship ….

"148. Appropriateness for liturgical action is the other criterion for choosing a work of art for church. The quality of appropriateness is demonstrated by the work's ability to bear the weight of mystery, awe, reverence and wonder that the liturgical action expresses and by the way it serves and does not interrupt the ritual actions which have their own structure, rhythm and movement ….

"Materials of the Artist

"162. Artists choose materials with integrity because they will endure from generation to generation, because they are noble enough for holy actions, and because they express what is most respected and beautiful in the lives and cultures of the community. Materials, colors, shapes, and designs that are of short-lived popularity are unworthy …. "163. Similarly, artworks consisting of technological and interactive media, such as video and other electronically fabricated images, may also be appropriate for sacred purposes. Subject to the same criteria of suitability as other sacred art, technologically produced works of art can point toward sacred realities even though they do not possess the more enduring form, color, texture, weight, and density found in more traditional sacred art."

Thus, while No. 163 apparently leaves open the possibility of the use of technological aids, it does not elaborate upon the contexts in which these means may be used.

Personally I do not consider that the use of slide shows and videos during Mass is a legitimate option. It is said that a picture paints a thousand words, but even a picture must be interpreted using words, albeit mentally. Thus, these visual elements, instead of enhancing the rite, draw attention away from the liturgical action of participating in the rite itself.

For this reason I believe that No. 148 cited above, by stressing that liturgical art serve and not interrupt "the ritual actions which have their own structure, rhythm and movement," is especially applicable in this case.

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Follow-up: On Banners, Overhead Projectors and PowerPoint Displays [6-22-2010]

Related to our comments regarding the use of videos and slide shows during Mass (see June 8), several readers questioned the very wisdom of using overhead projectors. A Sydney, Australia, correspondent wrote: "More and more churches over the world are using the projector during Mass to show the readings, prayers and lyrics of the songs. They believed that the contents, when clearly presented to the congregation, may help to understand the Mass better. Nevertheless, such projections would inevitably cause distractions which on the contrary make people to drift away from the essence of the Mass."

Personally I believe that a moderate use of these projections can be of use, above all in presenting the lyrics and music of hymns and sung parts of the Mass. In this sense they could almost be considered as the modern equivalent of the large choir books of medieval times. These outsized books which contained the musical notation for Mass and the Divine Office were usually placed at the center of the choir so as to be visible to all.

I am less enthusiastic about projecting prayers, readings and other proclaimed texts as these should be listened to rather than read. Even here, however, it could be argued that the projection is no more distracting than a hand missal or any number of other liturgical resources commonly found in parishes.

It is also cheaper as the parish does not have to invest in hundreds of weekly bulletins or expensive hymnals.

I would agree with our reader that an overuse of these projections could end up being a cause of distraction. For example, to project the text of the Eucharistic Prayer would almost inevitably turn attention away from the altar and toward the screen.

Great care should be taken regarding their location. It must be remembered that they are a complementary resource and not a necessity. If the church's structure does not allow for a discreet location it is better to renounce the use of the projector and seek other solutions. Insofar as possible, the screen should not be in the presbytery and never behind the altar.

In synthesis, I would say that these means may be used if they can help liturgical participation. They are only tools, however, and the proper celebration of the liturgy must never be influenced or limited by their presence.  


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