It’s a typical Mass in an American parish, in which the kneelers contain a mix of teens, single adults, young families and gray-haired church stalwarts.
Near the end of a sermon about family life, during this hypothetical Mass, the priest makes a pithy observation that is both poignant and slightly ironic.
A youngish parish council member smiles and posts the quote to Twitter, since he is already using his smartphone to follow Mass prayers in a popular Catholic app. This infuriates a nearby grandmother, who is already upset that her daughter is letting her kids play videogames in church, to keep them quiet.
The Twitter user, of course, thought he was paying the priest a compliment by tweeting the sermon quote, while, perhaps, engaging in a bit of social-media evangelism to prompt discussions with friends at work. But the gesture also infuriated a nearby worshipper, and destroyed her sense of sacred space.
“Everyone used to know the worship rules, and now we don’t. It’s that simple, which means that things are getting more complex,” said Lee Rainie, the Pew Research Center’s director of Internet, science and technology research. He is also the co-author of the book “Networked: The New Social Operating System.”
Every venue in public life “has its own context,” he said, “and you can’t write a set of social-media rules that will apply in all venues. Using technology to enrich our own spiritual experiences is one thing, while interrupting corporate worship is another. ... People are going to have to ask if that phone is pulling them deeper into worship services or if they’re using it to disengage and pull out of the experience.”
Part of the problem is that there is no common definition of what it means to “use” a smartphone in public settings such as restaurants, mass transit, classrooms or business meetings. However, Pew researchers found clear agreement on digital etiquette in two settings, with only 5 percent of Americans approving the “use” of cellphones in movie theaters and a mere 4 percent endorsing their use in worship services.
But would that include using a smartphone to discreetly take pictures during baptism rites or choir performances? What if the pastor asked parishioners to tweet questions during a sermon?
At that point, the rules seem to change. The Pew research, for example, found that 45 percent of those polled said they use their phones to post pictures from public gatherings; 41 percent share quotes or anecdotes; and 38 percent believe it’s acceptable to go online to get information related to group activities.
“If the pastor is actually encouraging something, then that seems to make it OK for most people, but maybe not all,” Rainie said. “Clearly that is not the same thing as sitting in church, checking out your Facebook page.”
Posting at the Catholic APPtitude website, blogger Jennifer Kane offered some modest guidelines, urging the faithful to silence their mobile devices (even the buzzing vibration settings), to dim the screens to be less distracting, and to find essential sites before worship, rather than surfing the Web during Mass. It also helps, she added, to enlarge texts so screens can be discreetly held at waist level.
“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,” she suggested. “Keep your device out of sight until needed. Put your device away the moment you are finished using the app.”
The bottom line?
“For the love of God,” said Kane, “unless you really need to read the text of the Consecration, make sure your device is put away by then.”