Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Video screens do not belong in a Catholic church

This past weekend, I finally had the opportunity to attend Mass at the beautiful new main parish church which is very close to where I live. My family has been members of the mission church attached to this parish for about nine years now, and we sing with the choir there, but it's nice to have the main parish close by now (it will probably make Holy Days of Obligation much simpler, for one thing).

The church really is lovely, and it's clear that a lot of work and attention went into the details. The soundproof, massive confessionals at the back of the chapel used for daily Mass are especially wonderful, and the overall look is of a traditional Catholic parish church.

Which is why the screens were so jarring.

Yes, video screens, mounted on swing-arms along the walls and facing the congregation so that those attending Mass could see hymn lyrics, readings, and so on projected at the left and right hand sides of the church. There were no missals or hymn books in the pews, though in fairness I should say that as the pews have slots to hold such books I don't know for sure if future plans for missals or hymnals might be in the works. Perhaps they are--one can only hope.

Part of my objection to the screens is a practical one. I am one of those people who sings at Mass whether I'm with my regular choir or not. I may not be perfect at sight-reading but I'm adept enough to be able to follow along with an unfamiliar hymn if I can see the music. But the screens don't project the music--just the words. I stood silent during the entrance hymn, which I had never heard before, because without being able to see the notes I had no idea where the music was going. I was not the only one--I would estimate that the vast majority of those attending were not singing any of the music at Mass. But in the old tiny church, they used to--so this isn't a matter of "Catholics don't sing anyway" so much as it is "These Catholics used to sing when they had hymnals, but many of them seem to have given up."

If the goal was to replace hymns with choir-led antiphons (which have easy-to-learn repeated refrains for the congregation to join in) it would be one thing, but somehow I doubt there is any such goal.

Another part of my objection to the screens is the aesthetic. This is, as I said, a fairly traditional-looking church. There is no "in-the-round" seating or gratuitous modern oddity (apart from a large baptismal font of a somewhat modern design as you enter the church, but this is not all that unexpected these days and it was not unpleasant in terms of design). You could easily imagine a pastor deciding to build on the traditional architecture to add other traditional elements. So the screens looked as out of place as a kazoo in a symphony orchestra--they just didn't belong.

I know, because I've heard it from Catholics who are used to screens in their churches, that the idea behind them is supposed to be pastoral and money-saving. In theory the screens will cost less than hymnals, and are touted to be better and easier on the eyesight of elderly parishioners than printed books. I'm not elderly yet, just solidly middle-aged with bifocals, and I can tell you that the screens were hard to read, especially given that you have to turn completely away from the altar to look to your left or right to see one. I'm not sure why people buy into the argument that screens are somehow better than books, given the obvious disadvantages.

My biggest objection to these trendy, trivial pieces of modern culture is just that: they are trendy, they are trivial, and they are pieces of modern culture better left outside the church doors. Given the pace at which technology ages, today's hot new innovative screens are going to be tomorrow's technology nightmares. They will seem as relevant and useful as burlap banners or 1960s hymns before long, requiring expensive updates to equipment and software that will end up costing far more than a quality hymnal like this one. In addition, they add a trivial and temporal note to what is a timeless and eternal act of worship. We have gotten used (however reluctantly) to seeing huge screens at such places as waiting rooms and restaurants and stores, but do we need them at Mass? Shouldn't Mass be a place where the distractions and annoyances of modern life disappear, instead of being mounted along the walls where they will compete with the Holy Sacrifice for our attention?

No, screens and similar "worship aids" simply do not belong in a Catholic church. I am sorry to see them show up where I live, and I hope that the justifications and excuses for putting them in church buildings will evaporate quickly and we will one day think of them as a silly and bad idea that temporarily got implemented instead of a glimpse of further intrusions of what is worldly, banal and mundane into the Mass.