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):
- 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.
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.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 driving, 19% 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.
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.
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.