Using Tablets for Mass and the Breviary

No Official Norms, But Prudence Is Advised

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

Q: I am a longtime priest and have learned to use modern technology where I can. On the altar in my private chapel I use a tablet for Mass. It’s easier to use than the heavy book, plus everything is conveniently in one place. My question is about praying the Divine Office. I use either my tablet or phone for praying the Office — my four-volume LOTH is on the shelf. While driving, can I officially pray the Office by listening to it without my reading the words? Would this suffice for my obligation to pray the Office? – J.H., Austin, Texas

A: There are two question implied: first, the use of a tablet for Mass; second, the question of how to pray the Divine Office. In 2012 I replied to a similar question and, as far as I know, the situation has not substantially changed. Four years ago I wrote in part:

“So far the universal Church has made no official pronouncement regarding the use of electronic tablets in the liturgy. At least one cardinal, celebrating in his cathedral, has publicly used a tablet in lieu of a missal, but this does not constitute official ratification. In contrast, a recent statement from the bishops of New Zealand said that tablets should not be used for Mass and other public rituals.

“Hence what I say has no official standing whatsoever. I limit myself to what I consider to be the liturgical principles involved.

“With respect to using phones or tablets I do not see any great difficulty in a priest or anybody else using these instruments to pray the breviary, especially while traveling.

“With respect to using a tablet to substitute the missal, lectionary and Book of the Gospels at Mass I would be much more hesitant.

“On the one hand, it can be argued that the liturgical books, like any other book, are a means of conserving and transmitting information. In this sense the tablet fulfills the same function as the printed page but with some added advantages. For example, the tablet can contain all the ritual books in one place, and it allows the celebrant to switch the text from one language to another as needed and adjust the letter size to his own comfort level.

“On the other hand, there is a principle which, while not essential to liturgy, should be weighed very carefully before using such instruments.

“The Church has traditionally reserved the objects used in the liturgy exclusively for the sacred functions. Because of this, these objects generally receive a blessing which separates them from all other uses. One does not use a blessed chalice for domestic purposes; nor would a priest drive around town in alb, stole and chasuble. The reason for this is not the impracticality of the action but because such sacred objects are reserved for a specific time, place and function.

“Likewise the books used in the liturgical celebration are usually blessed and reserved for sacred use. They are also printed and bound in a format which underlines their holy purpose.

“Tablets, however, by their very nature, are capable of multiple uses. There is something incongruous in using a tablet as a missal or a lectionary and shortly thereafter utilizing it to respond to e-mail, surf the web, or download a movie.

“The Book of the Gospels is one case in which I believe that norms exist that apply to our question. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 120d, specifies that only the Book of the Gospels, and not the lectionary, can be carried in the entrance procession and placed upon the altar. This distinction would certainly hold for a multiuse tablet, and thus I think we can say that the norms preclude carrying a tablet in procession, laying it upon the altar, and incensing it.

“It is possible to speculate that eventually someone could develop a tablet for exclusively liturgical use with an appropriate design and no other programs installed. That might change the terms of the debate.

“Until such a time arrives, I think it best to avoid using such instruments so as to maintain that sacred distinction of the liturgy from the humdrum of ordinary activities.

“In special cases, however, such as when a traveling priest finds himself in a bind and has no access to a missal, I believe he could use a tablet in order to be able to celebrate Mass.”

With respect to praying the Divine Office, as mentioned above I see no particular difficulties and many advantages.

It is not clear, however, if the priest can fulfill his obligation to recite the breviary by simply listening to it recited on one of innumerable apps.

In a formal response the Congregation for Divine Worship on Nov. 15, 2000, clarified some issues with respect to the obligation to the Liturgy of the Hours (Prot. No. 2330/00/L). This unofficial English translation was published by the liturgy office of the U.S. bishops’ conference.

The congregation first makes a substantial affirmation regarding the nature of the Liturgy of the Hours:

“The integral and daily celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours is, for priests and deacons on the way to the priesthood, a substantial part of their ecclesial ministry.

“Only an impoverished vision would look at this responsibility as a mere fulfilling of a canonical obligation, even though it is such, and not keep in mind that the sacramental ordination confers on the deacon and on the priest a special office to lift up to the one and triune God praise for His goodness, for His sovereign beauty, and for His merciful design for our supernatural salvation.

“Along with praise, priests and deacons present before the Divine Majesty a prayer of intercession so as to worthily respond to the spiritual and temporal necessities of the Church and all humanity.

“In effect, even in similar circumstances, these prayers do not constitute a private act but rather form part of the public worship of the Church, in such a way that upon reciting the Hours, the sacred minister fulfills his ecclesial duty: the priest or deacon who in the intimacy of the Church, or of an oratory, or his residence, gives himself over to the celebration of the Divine Office effects, even when there may be no one who is accompanying him, an act which is eminently ecclesial in the name of the Church and in favor of all the Church, and inclusive of all humanity. The Roman Pontifical reads: ‘Are you resolved to maintain and deepen a spirit of prayer appropriate to your way of life and, in keeping with what is required of you, to celebrate faithfully the Liturgy of the Hours for the Church and for the whole world?’ (Cf. Roman Pontifical, Rite of the Ordination of Deacons).

“Thus, in the same rite of diaconal ordination, the sacred minister asks for and receives from the Church the mandate of the recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours, which mandate pertains, therefore, to the orbit of ministerial responsibilities of the ordained, and goes beyond that of his personal piety. Sacred ministers, along with the Bishops, find themselves joined in the ministry of intercession for the People of God who have been entrusted to them, as they were to Moses (Ex 17, 8-16), to the Apostles (1 Tim 2, 1-6) and to the same Jesus Christ ‘who is at the right hand of the Father and intercedes for us’ (Rom 8, 34). Similarly, the General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, no. 108 states: ‘Those who pray the psalms in the liturgy of the hours do so not so much in their own name as in the name of the entire Body of Christ.”

While it is not stated with total clarity, I believe that the above documents imply that those who have the obligation to say the office should do so integrally. It should also be done personally which includes community recitation, with a single companion or individually.

This was the opinion of most experts in liturgical law before the council. For example, Father E.J. Quigley’s 1920 study on the breviary from the prospect of moral theology said the following.

“Can a priest fulfil his obligation by reciting the office with a companion? Yes, he can, for such recitation is the Church’s ideal; and the priest who says his part (alternate verses, etc.), as in choir, fulfils his obligation, even when his companion is a layman or an inattentive person. In such recitation a priest should be careful (1) that his recitation be of alternate verses, (2) that the verse recitation be successive and not simultaneous, (3) that the verses, etc., chanted by one companion (or by one choir) be heard by the other companion or choir ….”

The book also recommends that “Pronunciation of the words of the office should be integral. That is, the words and syllables are to be repeated fully without mutilation or abbreviation.” And that “Pronunciation should be continuous. That is, the recitation of each hour should be continuous, non-interrupted.”

The above work attempts to determine the grade of sin involved for failing to pronounce well or for interrupting the recitation, but we have omitted these references since current canon law speaks of a grave obligation to be faithful to this commitment but no longer mentions mortal or venial sin. This is in line with the code’s general criteria to not formally oblige ecclesiastical precepts under pain of sin.

In addressing this point the aforementioned official response says:

“Question #2: Is the obligation sub gravi extended to the entire recitation of the Divine Office?

“Response: The following must be kept in mind:

“– A serious reason, be it of health, or of pastoral service in ministry, or of an act of charity, or of fatigue, not a simple inconvenience, may excuse the partial recitation and even the entire Divine Office, according to the general principle that establishes that a mere ecclesiastical law does not bind when a serious inconvenience is present;

“– The total or partial omission of the Office due to laziness alone or due to the performance of activities of unnecessary diversion, is not licit, and even more so, constitutes an underestimation, according to the gravity of the matter, of the ministerial office and of the positive law of the Church;

“– To omit the Hours of Morning Prayer (Lauds) and Evening Prayer (Vespers) requires a greater reason still, given that these Hours are the “double hinge of the daily Office” (SC 89);

“– If a priest must celebrate Mass several times on the same day or hear confessions for several hours or preach several times on the same day, and this causes him fatigue, he may consider, with tranquility of conscience, that he has a legitimate excuse for omitting a proportionate part of the Office;

“– The proper Ordinary of the priest or deacon can, for a just or serious reason, according to the case, dispense him totally or partially from the recitation of the Divine Office, or commute it to another act of piety (as, for example, the Holy Rosary, the Stations of the Cross, a biblical or spiritual reading, a time of mental prayer reasonably prolonged, etc.).”

Therefore, in conclusion, I believe that in general terms the use of an app that recites the Divine Office is insufficient to fulfill the obligation acquired at ordination. I admit, however, that my opinion is an inference and that there is no official stance one way or the other, and such an application might receive official approval someday.

Such applications may be profitably used by any member of the faithful who is not obliged to recite the Divine Office but who desires to do so. I believe it is also a legitimate option for priests and others who would normally be obliged to pray the Office but who would be dispensed due to meeting one of the conditions mentioned above in the official response.

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Readers may send questions to [email protected]. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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