A policy defining how churches can – and can’t – use digital projection screens took effect Dec. 3, 2023.
CHARLOTTE — Just as families, schools and workplaces rethink the increasingly pervasive use of digital technology, Catholic churches locally and nationally are examining the challenges posed by screens at Mass and other sacred liturgies.
A new policy defining how churches in the Diocese of Charlotte can – and can’t – use digital projection screens took effect last weekend, as the new liturgical year began. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is also examining the issue and weighing whether to develop national guidelines for technology use during Mass.
As some other dioceses have done, the Diocese of Charlotte policy – promulgated by Bishop Peter Jugis and shared with pastors in August – prohibits the use of digital projection screens during Mass so worshipers can focus on the liturgy without distraction.
Parishioners may continue to use smart phones and other personal devices to access information to assist in their understanding of and engagement in the Mass. The policy went into effect Dec. 3, the First Sunday of Advent.
“It is important for sacramental reasons that people aren’t distracted during Mass, and that they are concentrating on what’s happening at the altar – not on words on a screen,” said Monsignor Patrick Winslow, vicar general and chancellor of the diocese, whose office studied other dioceses’ policies and commentary from the USCCB in drafting the local policy.
More online: Read the full text of the Diocese of Charlotte’s “Norms on the Use of Digital Screens and Projection Devices”
“Digital screens are useful and can elevate a program or talk, and one of Bishop Jugis’ pastoral goals is to increase our digital evangelization,” Monsignor Winslow said.
“Nonetheless, we also want to preserve the essence of the Mass as a holy celebration in which people participate fully in the Eucharistic sacrifice offered on the altar.”
Two projection screens came down last week at Holy Cross Church in Kernersville, and 600 new hymnals recently arrived as Father Noah Carter, pastor, prepared to embrace the diocese’s new policy.
And the diocese’s two biggest parishes – St. Matthew and St. Gabriel in Charlotte, who regularly used screens at Mass – announced the new policy on the eve of the change, prompting both praise and criticism.
“The intent of the screens is good – to help parishioners follow along with elements of the Mass – but there are a lot of concerns about them,” said Father Noah Carter, pastor of Holy Cross. “Ours were positioned on the right side of the church and forced people to look away from the sanctuary. Since we shifted back to hymnals, I have already noticed that people seem to be singing with more gusto. Families and friends are sharing hymnals and they have the lyrics and music together in front of them – it’s kind of drawing people together.”
Father Carter has been following the national conversation and had planned to remove the screens early next year. He inherited the screens when he became pastor in 2019, which had been installed years earlier in part to avoid the cost of hymnals and were regularly used during Mass to project readings, musical lyrics and Spanish translations.
In an email to the Catholic News Herald, he shared a 2021 newsletter from the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship, describing the rationale against screen use: “The bishops have the perspective that since so many people spend much of their time looking at screens, the Sacred Liturgy ought to be a prayerful break from that experience. The bishops also believe that screens are a distraction from what is actually taking place in the liturgy.”
Digital projection screens have become more common inside churches as a means of replacing expensive printed texts, providing a visual worship aid for large crowds, and projecting prayers and hymns to encourage participation.
Still, screens during Mass can be distracting or disruptive to the liturgical celebration, the diocese’s policy says, and they lack “due sacramentality” for the Mass, the Church’s highest form of worship.
Using screens to project hymn lyrics, prayers and liturgical texts may also violate licensing and copyright protections, the policy notes – a concern also raised by the U.S. bishops during their General Assembly in November.
Only a handful of the diocese’s 92 churches currently use screens during Mass and other liturgies. They now will need to find other ways to transmit the same information. They must also move screens and equipment from view, so that they are not visible except on those rare occasions when they are permitted.
To make Sunday readings, hymns and other information available for parishioners, churches may choose to provide hymnals, print material in bulletins or as handouts, or use QR codes to access information on personal devices – a technology popularized by restaurants and other businesses during the pandemic to share menus and other information.
Electronic devices, however, may not replace missals, lectionaries or other books used by the ministers during Mass, the policy says, unless needed to accommodate people who are sight or hearing impaired.
The diocese’s approach, Monsignor Winslow said, “enables each person to decide for themselves if they want or need a personal device as a worship aid – rather than unintentionally diverting everyone’s attention toward a screen away from the sanctuary.”
Under the new policy:
- Non-retractable screens, televisions, projectors and other digital displays may not be permanently situated in the sanctuary or nave.
- Cameras should be mounted “in unobtrusive and discreet locations.” (Livestreaming Masses and other liturgies for the sick and homebound may continue under the new policy.)
- Screens may only be used inside churches before or after Mass “when there is an extraordinary need to share some sort of media message.”
- Some exceptions may be acceptable, but prior approval from the bishop is required to use screens and projectors during liturgies inside a church or chapel.
Not all digital projections are prohibited, though:
- Screens may be used in parish halls or other “overflow” spaces during liturgies when the church is full.
- Retractable screens may be used for non-liturgical events in churches, such as talks and presentations, as long as “they are discreet and unnoticeable when retracted.”
- Screens may also be used as needed for liturgies not celebrated in a church, such as at a convention center, arena or outdoors.
Monsignor Winslow noted that this local policy is a first step in the evolving landscape of leveraging and regulating technology until the broader Church determines whether or how to incorporate digital technology into the liturgy.
The Church already prohibits the use of pre-recorded music during liturgies and offers guidance on televising Masses.
Now, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is revisiting technology use in worship for the first time in nearly 30 years.
The U.S. bishops last issued guidelines on digital transmission of the liturgy in 1996.
At their General Assembly in November, Bishop Steven J. Lopes, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Divine Worship, introduced the question of whether “new national guidelines might merit further consideration.”
The bishops spent 20 minutes discussing the topic and providing written feedback to the committee, including input about livestream liturgies and screens in liturgies, whether those were used well or poorly, and what “opportunities and threats does this practice present?” for both. It also asked if any dioceses in the bishops’ respective regions had guidelines regarding the use of technology in the liturgy.
— Catholic News Herald. OSV News contributed.