Beyond “silent” mode: Etiquette for using your cell phone in church

Missal apps offer the Roman Missal (Ordinary and Extraordinary Form) in a variety of user-friendly, east-to-read formats for your digital mobile devices.

Let’s be blunt. Most fellow pew-sitters will downright question your sense of decency if you pull out your smart phone during Mass and gaze at the screen. Etiquette is clear: use of a mobile device in a house of worship is not acceptable–taboo in most circles. Ask Emily Post. That being said, my husband and I (along with legions of others) read from a missal app on our phones as part of our participation at Mass. Eventually, a concerned parishioner mailed a note to our house admonishing us to please “be present” and turn our cell phones off in church. I have already written about this. But it brings up an important point. These Catholic apps are designed for use in worship and are here to stay. So shouldn’t we all agree on certain ground rules? Such rules are not in Emily Post’s recent book of etiquette on use of mobile devices. So, I’ve developed a few of my own based on my family’s experience engaging in this breech of etiquette for a couple of years now. Some explanation follows my list because we should have a particular understanding of a Catholic Mass setting and how our smart phone or tablet affects us and the others around us.

 Etiquette for using a mobile device in a house of worship

Check device settings BEFORE entering your house of worship (I usually do this on the way to church with my husband driving):

That bright light is a distraction to those around you, especially if you are attending an evening Mass or if the lights are lowered for a particular reason.

That bright backlight is a distraction to those around you, especially if you are attending an evening Mass or if the lights are lowered for a particular reason.

  • Silence your mobile device.
  • Dim the light on your screen to lessen the distraction to others around you. If the app offers an option to choose a background that is not bright white, go for it. Bright objects distract others around you, and this is particularly so if you use a device with a large screen like an iPad or tablet.
  • Disable those pesky notification center banners, popups, badges, and sounds by switching to airplane mode. As a double precaution, turn vibration off for all events that you normally select to vibrate when on silent mode (incoming calls, emails etc.).
  •  Open the app you plan to use at Mass and set it to the first text you will read. Then put it in sleep mode.

Don’t even think of entering the church building until you have covered that list in preparation. Now, once you are in the sacred space,

  • Keep your device out of sight until needed. Put your device away the moment your are finished using the app. For the love of God, unless you really need to read the text of the Consecration, make sure your device is put away by then.
  • Hold your device in such a manner that it is not distracting to others–down low and cupped in your hands.
  • Bump up text size if you cannot read when your device is held at waist level. If your app does not offer text re-size option, choose another app that does (or get glasses). That light on you phone really is distracting to others. Keep it low.
  • As an optional courtesy before Mass begins, you may wish to inform those around you that you will be using your mobile device to read the missal texts.
  • You may wish to select a pew off to the side and against a wall to lessen the number of people who will see your screen. But that is just an optional idea.

As you can see, using your cell phone in church requires preparation on your part. Do not walk in expecting to whip out your phone, switch to silent mode and start fiddling with the touch screen. Still not convinced all those elements on the list are important? Keep reading.

Your discretion is called upon in sacred places

While the Emily Post Institute’s book, Manners in a Digital World, (2013) does not offer advice on using mobile devices in houses of worship, it does offer important ground rules for their use in social settings. The most important concept underlying digital etiquette? “Treat others with respect. Think about how your actions will affect the people around you.” Then “use common sense.”

Hence, distractions of any kind should be kept to a bare minimum if not eliminated all together. For that reason, it is common sense to silent one’s phone, lower the intensity of the backlight and keep any fiddling with the device to an absolute minimum. Your neighbor in the pew is attempting to communicate with God. That sentence was written with all sincerity. This is serious business which we are about in that house of worship. God wishes us to have a transformative experience. Let us keep that foremost in our deliberations about any little thing we may do (digitally or not) that would distract us or our neighbor from this lofty mystical endeavor.

Be present

On that note, let us turn to the number-one best-practice behavior for using digital mobile devices, according to the Post Institute: Be present. That simple idea sets the tone for the entire book. And well it should as one’s presence is foundational to social interaction. And as we know, it is foundational to our participation at Mass. The concerned parishioner who sent us the note was spot on about that. Being present means giving our full attention to the entire Mass including the Word of God, the priest and his homily, the prayer petitions,  Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist. Finally, it means being present to those around us.

As one priest from the Arlington, VA diocese wrote concerning use of cell phones in the church setting:

“We have to will to choose Christ above all things, and to love Christ above all things. Each person must strive to participate fully at the Mass, making it a genuine act of worship of God. With all of the pressures and responsibilities that a person faces each day, he must take that one hour each week for Mass and give it totally to God, for the sake of his own soul. Granted, everyone battles distractions which break our concentration at Mass; nevertheless, each person must do his best to eliminate as many potential distractions as possible and focus on the Mass.”

For that reason, no one should even think of using a mobile digital device if he/she is remotely tempted to use it for any other purpose than to aid participation in worship. That admonition immediately excludes children from using them in church, in my opinion. But it also excludes a lot of adults.

Phone-church-stats

2013 Mobile Survey of cell phone usage conducted by Harris  [Graphic: Forbes]

A fairly recent survey of American smartphone owners revealed that many break rules all the time. While 33% check phones during a meal with others and 55% check phones while driving19% admitted to checking their phones during religious services at a house of worship. 

Let’s look at some real-life situations that could tempt you to use your phone for other purposes in a church setting.

  • In certain parts of the country on Sunday mornings, early NFL games are running full throttle. Your team needs a win to make it into the playoffs. Imagine the temptation to check the score!
  • You’re awaiting an important phone call. Don’t think for a moment that that vibration in your coat pocket won’t tempt you to check to see who it is.
  • You leave the cell phone face up on the pew seat and a neon light notification blinks to alert you to a message from your college kid who has just arrived home from school wondering where you are.

If you cannot resist those temptations to engage your phone, leave it in the car. If you cannot discipline yourself enough to set your phone properly so that you don’t receive vibrations and messages and other notifications that appear even though your phone is set in silent mode, leave it in the car. Your soul and the souls of others around you are more important. “…choose Christ above all things.”

Some may conclude that after all this lecturing, it is best to leave these digital gadgets at home all together. We were able to worship just fine without them for the entire history of humankind, for heaven’s sake. Besides, wouldn’t it be better for all of us to take a break from using our cell phones for a single hour on Sunday? Fair enough. But let’s look at the rationale behind their use in a house of worship.

phone-church-teen

Teens aren’t the only ones who have difficulty avoiding the temptation to text during a religious service. 19% of adults do too.

For some, it is a question of accessibility. Folks whose hearing is challenged, for example, appreciate having readings available in text format so they can participate more fully. Not all churches provide complete missals which contain all the readings and prayers, particularly for daily Mass. Have you ever attended Mass in a foreign country? If the native language isn’t English, you are most likely not going to know what the readings are. At times it is difficult to hear the lector due to the faulty sound system or poor enunciation. We’ve all had to endure a child or other poor reader zipping through the text so fast it is impossible to hear it. At times we forget to bring our reading glasses (and we cannot bump up the font size in the missal like you can on your missal app). You may be one who prefers having the rubrics accompany your missal texts so you can focus on details of what is going on in the sanctuary. You may not have committed the new English Mass responses entirely to memory, and the cheat sheet has vanished from your pew. There’s an app for that.

Besides using a missal app, you may need your notepad app to jot down a few salient points of the homily so that you don’t forget them. Let’s say a new insight touched your heart within the Gospel reading. You may open your Bible app and in two clicks have the passage in front of you which you can highlight, insert a brief note and then save for further reflection.

Hey, it works as an extra precaution. Just salvage an audio jack from a broken pair of headphones or earbuds. Disables all audio output including media and alarms (but not boot sound).

Hey, it works as an extra precaution. Just salvage an audio jack from a broken pair of headphones or earbuds. Disables all audio output including media and alarms (but not boot sound).

Outside of Mass, there are apps for many other aspects of Catholic prayer and worship which we may elect to use in a church building: Stations of the Cross, the rosary, Liturgy of the Hours and novenas come to mind. A few months ago, a priest at a  parish near us read his parts of an evening Advent prayer service off a tablet. This worked well for him as he wanted to keep the sanctuary dimly lit. The point is these digital devices are the evolution of the printed word that was originally oral. Where we once used candles, we have electric lights. Microphones and speakers have supplanted the need for elaborate acoustic architectural design, and big screen monitors have sprouted on the columns in some of our most exalted cathedrals.

Sacred or Profane?

When discussing the appropriateness of the use of mobile digital devices in a house of worship, the attention should be on the user, not the device itself.  The Post Institute also emphasizes this point in crafting rules of etiquette for using digital mobile devices. As we can see, it takes a modicum of preparation, discretion and concern for others around us to use these devices appropriately in a sacred place. We have to understand that most people only know an iPhone or a Sony tablet or a Kindle Fire in the secular sense; they are gadgets which we use to Twitter and email and snap photos and listen to music and read books. They are not sacred objects in and of themselves as are nicely bound Catholic missals used for a singular purpose. These devices serve a strictly secular purpose, as far as most everyone around you in the pews knows. These days our gadgets can also serve a more sublime use. The way you use them in church is what separates the dual nature (sacred and profane) of the device in your hand. You can teach that to others by modeling good etiquette when using them in the pews.

What are your thoughts? We would be interested in hearing your reaction to these proposed ground rules. Your recommendations are welcome for all to prayerfully consider.


This blog post was Reprinted in Catholic Anchor (Archdiocese of Anchorage, AK) and referenced in Terry Mattingly’s syndicated column (October 2015).

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Categories: Blog for Catholic Apptitude

Author:Jennifer Kane

Content Evangelist, Jennifer Kane, is a secular Carmelite (OCDS), wife, mother, grandmother and avid Catholic app user who works in the field of corporate communications --BA Journalism; MA English--and communications director at her parish. What began as an e-mail service to priests and seminarians looking for quality Catholic apps for mobile devices has grown into a world-wide community of Catholic app enthusiasts looking for and recommending great Catholic apps.

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17 Comments on “Beyond “silent” mode: Etiquette for using your cell phone in church”

  1. BELINDA HARVEY
    March 19, 2014 at 10:14 am #

    An announcement should be made prior to the start of mass to all to silence theiir cell phone, especially. It is so annoying and distracting to hear these phones going off through the service. Lights from the ipods and tablets are too.

  2. March 19, 2014 at 12:53 pm #

    If you see someone using a cell phone in Mass, it would be charitable to see if they are using it as a Missal before jumping to conclusions. I have used apps to follow the readings before in churches that don’t have them in the books.

    • Pacita Kane
      June 16, 2014 at 12:55 am #

      Today, we had this lady in the front pew to our left that as soon as she sat down,fished out her phone and started tinkering presumably to download the apps for the readings (?). I tried so hard to ignore her but all her ‘finger motions’ on the phone>>>enlarging, leafing through left to right, up and down the screen, tapping with the pen<<< all visible thru my peripheral vision just became unbearable I finally tapped her and informed her she was becoming a distraction to which she reasoned out she was downloading the apps for the readings which she continued even as the priest was already delivering the homily/sermon. What is wrong here? If there is no Missal, wouldn't be listening not enough and perhaps if you need to understand further the readings or the gospel, can't you do the apps downloading at home?

      • August 20, 2014 at 4:44 pm #

        You can….but you’ll still have to page through. For example, I have the Magnificat app on my phone and I use it when I forget my hard copy. Missals don’t always help, because they don’t have the prayers in them, and since I’m VERY hard of hearing (I have a cochlear implant), I can’t just listen, because I won’t understand what the priest is saying.
        While I have the app already on my phone, I do have to swipe through for different parts of the Mass.

      • Rick Reed
        September 1, 2014 at 12:50 pm #

        I’m at a loss to understand how one can’t understand and comprehend the readings without the text in front to read, but then how one can understand and comprehend the homily, especially if the homilist is simply reading from a prepared text (reading to us as opposed to talking to us)? It’s a question I’ve pursued for some time.

  3. Cheryl Hoekstra
    April 6, 2014 at 8:50 am #

    Twice this month I’ve let grown men know their cellphone lights are very distracting to everyone behind them. When they tell me they’re “reading the Bible” (as the Pastor is speaking) … I suggest they sit in the back row. Each time they, along with their wife, simply moved to another seat in the same row. I don’t get that. Our church makes it worse in that it dims the lights when the message starts. People get focused on the message or worship (isn’t that why we’re there?) … and then some idiot raises his 5×3 beacon.

    I also see people increasing numbers of people ignoring their kids all the time too while they have their nose in the almighty cell phone. Very sad.

  4. August 6, 2014 at 12:31 am #

    The question is would you have the problem if someone was flipping through a book? If the answer is no then the idea of using an electronic device should not bother you either. If it is appropriate to use a book or a sheet of paper it is also appropriate to use an I-pod, I-phone, or I-pad. If you are distracted by the person and you are not in the front row then you can move up. It is never a bad idea to get closer to Jesus in the Sacrifice of the Holy Mass.

  5. Rick Reed
    August 6, 2014 at 10:13 am #

    It is important to make this distinction that if one can hear the Lecter and homilist, one should not be reading the text. The readings are designed to be listened to. Most of the prayers are designed to be heard. Reading along with them is not what was intended. So put down your books or phones and use your ears.

    • August 20, 2014 at 4:45 pm #

      Big difference between “hearing” and “understanding”–if you’re Deaf or hard of hearing (as I am), you need to be looking at the words for it to make any sense.

  6. August 8, 2014 at 5:08 pm #

    I completely agree that common sense should be used, but some of the suggestions are a bit extreme to me. I use my iPhone during daily Mass to have the readings in front of me and my newly reading son. I may change apps during Mass to see if the readings are different, or even to read the reflection. If I see someone else using their phone during Mass my first thought is that they’re using theirs like I use mine. Charity dictates that our first thoughts should give others the benefit of the doubt. Additionally, unless someone is blatantly using their device in your face, the best thing to do is just do your best to dismiss them from your thoughts. Use the same skills you use to keep your focus off do crying children, roaming toddlers, etc. May I also suggest wearing a veil – they limit your peripheral vison and serve as a constant reminder to keep your focus on Christ as Mary did. Additionally, veils honor the Blessed Sacrament by showing modesty and reverence before Him.

  7. David
    August 14, 2014 at 12:45 am #

    I always hold my phone at eye level. I find that it is easier on my eyes and that I don’t look like I’m being sneaky reading Facebook or texting. Another thing I used to do is hold it cupped with two hands. It gives a more solemn appearance (or as solemn as you can be while holding a phone.

  8. August 20, 2014 at 5:08 pm #

    Maybe I’m just feeling old & crotchety at the moment (although I’m young, only 61 🙂 ); but it seems to me that we should all be focused on the Mass in whatever way is best for us, and I don’t see what difference it make what others around us do? I’m not sure where the exact line comes in between “being distracted” & “judging”. But then, I haven’t experienced this much around me at church, so what do I know.

    I don’t have a smart phone, but I did use my phone to do some texting during one Sunday Mass, as my daughter in another state had been in a car accident just before Mass began. You could say that might have excused me from Mass, but why not be there to pray for her in two ways, text support & the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?

    Anyway, great article! Thank you for sharing. 🙂

    • September 27, 2014 at 1:17 pm #

      Glad you went to Mass and were able to pray for her. In an emergency like that I can understand why you wanted to keep in touch with her. I leave my phone on vibrate in my purse just in case it is needed for 911 or an emergency call comes in from someone else. Then I would excuse myself (to my family) and just go outside to take care of it.

  9. JAK
    October 2, 2014 at 1:41 pm #

    I hope we can all be generous in our response to those who use Apps during Mass. The acoustics in our church often make it difficult to hear the readings. People with low vision may need an App so that they can enlarge the type. As long as those around us seem prayerful and attentive to the Mass, let us not judge.

  10. June 12, 2015 at 10:18 am #

    For a rebuttal to some of the points made in this blog piece, I wish to point out a terrific article over at the VMNT blog. Check it out! http://vmntblog.com/2015/03/smart-phones-and-tablets-in-churc.html

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Smart phones and tablets in Church? | VMNTblog.com | vita mutatur non tollitur - May 27, 2015

    […] As tablets and smartphones become more and more powerful, Catholics are increasingly utilizing technology to enhance their life of faith. This is apparent in the use of apps for the Roman Missal, the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours), the rosary, and other devotions. While I was in Afghanistan, in our degraded (but not terribly austere conditions), my unit’s chaplain, although wholly orthodox, regularly used his iPad Missal app to celebrate Mass and to preach. Across the Church, the acceptability of such practices is more and more taken for granted. This premise is the raison d’être of the website Catholic Apptitude: […]

  2. Your phone should never make noise in public | Fusion - July 15, 2015

    […] you won’t ever be that person whose phone rings during a work meeting, at a Broadway show, in church, in the middle of a symphony, at the dramatic point in a movie, or, eerily, after a disaster, when […]

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