A Liturgical Via Media

Attendance at church on Sunday is significantly down from what it was years ago. The absence of so many, especially young people, indicates that the liturgy they experience is too often out of touch. They are used to an interactive, media-saturated environment at work and at play, yet they come to church and are given mostly just words. What can the church learn from contemporary media? Can it integrate such media even into the liturgy?

The church has a long history of successfully integrating the popular media of various eras into its worship. A fresh look at the historical record may help us respond more wisely to the opportunity today’s media offer, especially video and digital graphics.


Over time there have been four main media cultures: oral, literate-manuscript, literate-print and now electronic-digital. During the oral era, Jewish worship was primarily sacrificial. Israel celebrated God’s steadfast love and power by sacrificing grain and animals in the various temples throughout the country and, after Josiah, in the one Temple in Jerusalem. Temple architecture and ritual were built around sacrifice, with the altar in the open. Building interiors had little importance. There may have been some Scripture reading in the period of the Second Temple (after about 500 B.C.), but there were probably no homilies. Still, because Jews believed that God had helped them and that God spoke directly to persons, there was some storytelling, prophecy and song in the Temple precincts. In short, the Jews integrated the available oral communication system into their worship.

The Jewish way of worship changed when scribes recorded the stories in manuscripts. Culture became literate, and when the Temple was destroyed, synagogue worship replaced Temple worship. Scriptures replaced sacrifices. The worship of both rabbinic Judaism and apostolic Christianity depended on the reading and interpretation of the Scriptures. Buildings became central. The congregation moved inside to hear better the reading and interpretation of the Scriptures and the prayers. Christians began using basilicas, in part because of their good acoustics and their capacity to hold the large crowds who needed to hear. The reading of Scriptures and preaching within these magnificent buildings became major media events. Now that the Eucharist was the sacrifice being offered, the altar too moved inside, first into homes, eventually into basilicas. Worship had sacralized literate communication culture and restructured sacred space to accommodate it. Christians also began to incorporate statues, mosaics, frescoes and paintings from Greco-Roman culture into their worship space—practices unsettling to some—that eventually led to the iconoclastic controversies of the eighth century.

The printing press transmuted a literate-manuscript culture into a literate-print culture. Both Catholics and Protestants embraced it, but differently. For Protestants, the printing press gave new prominence to the Scriptures and opened them to private interpretation. More and more, Protestants commented upon the Scriptures in sermons and publications. In Calvinist churches, the worship experience consisted of long readings of Scripture and a long sermon accompanied by several hymns, with only infrequent celebration of Holy Communion. They modified church architecture to enhance preaching and in many churches eliminated images in order to focus attention on the written word. Meanwhile Catholics, led by the Jesuits, also enhanced preaching but in addition filled their sacred space with more and more elaborate imagery (the Baroque style). Catholics depicted both Scriptures and tradition in mosaics, paintings, statuary and windows. In short, both sides of the Reformation successfully enriched Christian liturgy and kept it vital by integrating the emerging media culture and adapting church architecture and décor accordingly.

This history makes a case for integrating today’s digital media into our worship. Though still young, the indomitable advance of electronic culture over the past century has already solidified certain characteristics. These include a preference for direct experience rather than abstraction as a way of knowing, multimediated sounds and images on screens as a central mode of presentation, and participative interaction within a community rather than private reading and reflection as the preferred way of learning. Films, television and audiovisual programs have become dominant communication events. Electronic culture spawns networks as its characteristic form of social organization and teamwork as its primary mode of production. In short, it generates community.

Basic to electronic culture’s popularity are images on screens. Happily, projection of images onto various “screens” has been standard practice in Catholic worship. Every visitor to the Roman catacombs sees images on the walls that persist from the earliest centuries, including the famous orans and the good shepherd. The same visitor to Rome is amazed by the mosaics on basilica walls. These “images on screens” are integral parts of their worship environment. In St. Peter’s Basilica and elsewhere, images projected by carved stone surround the visitor. The Sistine Chapel is a virtual cyclorama dominated by Michelangelo’s “big screen” Last Judgment. Farther north, the color and imagery of both carved stone or wood and stained glass prepare all who enter places like Chartres or Notre Dame for prayer and worship. Images on screens have long been a part of Catholic worship.

God’s people appear always to have made the communication systems of each era holy by using them to communicate with all who gather to worship. This long history encourages today’s church to integrate digital media into our people’s worship experience and to do so energetically and confidently. The ability of electronic media to project images with surrounding sound is unparalleled in its power to energize people’s experience, participation and interactivity. They can help worship be more of an event in people’s lives. Electronic media can strengthen social networks within parishes and can open new dimensions of liturgical teamwork with meaningful opportunities for creative women and men, perhaps especially youth.

How might the typical parish regularly use electronic images projected onto large screens in its worship? One parish among others with such screens is Good Shepherd in Cincinnati, Ohio. Good Shepherd designed and constructed its screen as an integral part of its sanctuary when it was built in the late 1970’s. Since then Good Shepherd has grown to become now the largest parish in the archdiocese. The screen is behind and above the main altar, approximately 20 feet wide and 10 feet high. It is the same color as the wall and blends seamlessly into the décor when not illuminated. Images are projected from behind the screen.

Good Shepherd uses the screen mainly during post-Communion meditations. A team selects slides from the parish’s collection of over 5,000 images covering a wide range of topics and themes. This use of the new visual media parallels the traditional use of paintings, statuary and stained glass to surround the worshipers. One big difference is that the congregants can actually and easily see these images. They as a community can focus their attention on them when invited to do so, and the images can be changed rapidly to fit the occasion and the moment.

Good Shepherd’s use of video in liturgy is a far cry from the experiences that have left many like Tom Beaudoin (America, 10/1) with a “disappointing aftertaste.” But this is just the beginning of what might be done. Appropriate images on such screens can dispose people for worship as they congregate to hear the word and give thanks. Imagine Rubliev’s “The Hospitality of Abraham” (often called simply “The Trinity”) welcoming people as they gather on Trinity Sunday or on the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Lectionary cycle C), when the Genesis account of the visit of the three strangers to Abraham is read. Imagine Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son” greeting people on the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C), when that gripping story is proclaimed. Ponder the impact of having Lucas Cranach the Younger’s “Jesus and the Fallen Woman” up on the Fifth Sunday of Lent (C), when Luke’s account of the adulterous woman is read. Such images on screens can do much to prepare people to hear the proclamation and enter the celebration of the day.

During the Gloria evocative images of the splendor of creation can motivate heartfelt acclamation of the Creator. Images congruent with the various readings can give people something to focus on while lectors proclaim, activating their eyes and imaginations as well as their ears. Images of Jeremiah and Isaiah, of Matthew and Mark and Luke and John might be projected when their writings are proclaimed, helping congregants get to know these authors of the sacred books. The homilist can include references to such images to advance his reflection, as the author of America’s column The Word did to Cranach’s “Fallen Woman” in his commentary for the Fifth Sunday of Lent this year (Am. 3/26). Homilists can even use brief film clips to make connections between contemporary culture and biblical wisdom.

Other uses of such integrated screens and visual technology can easily be imagined: key words, symbols, computer graphics, editorial cartoons, headlines from newspapers, images of the saints of the day or week, the music to be sung, including new melodies for familiar texts and new texts for familiar melodies, texts to be recited and/or prayed aloud together, occasional messages from the bishop (how many audiotapes have you sat through?), close-up images of the presider and lectors and homilist, announcements, the purpose of second collections and the like. People living in the electronic culture expect such visualization of words and sounds on screens. Both spoken and printed words have significantly lost their grip on popular communication. Given our history, our widespread neglect of the electronic visuals available to help us communicate more effectively with a visually oriented people is nearly incomprehensible.

Some fear that use of electronic media will reduce the congregation to a passive audience. Not so if skillfully used. If anything, our continuing reliance on orality and literacy has contributed to both reduced attendance at liturgy and the passivity of those still in the pews. How many interactive homilies have you been part of? Indeed, carefully prepared use of video can greatly enhance the conscious and active participation of people in worship. This is within the capability of parishes. More and more frequently, Catholics experience excellent music and excellent proclamation at Mass. We can achieve the same quality as we train visual ministers as members of our liturgical teams.

Probably the biggest obstacle to the use of multimedia is that it requires planning and teamwork. Too few presiders today consult even with the music director before writing their homilies. Working as part of a team in planning liturgy will require priests to place a higher priority on liturgical planning in their busy schedules. It will also require a less clerical mindset and the welcoming of more lay persons with still another secular skill. Finally, the community will have to have patience. Not every choir meets professional singing standards. We don’t expect every work of art in our churches to rival Michelangelo; nor should we expect every liturgy incorporating digital media to rival a million-dollar TV spot in technical execution.

Our Catholic history is one of the appropriation and full integration of each era’s new communication culture into its worship. The risen Christ now seeks to be present to the people of electronic culture. That calls for tasteful and skillful use of digital media in worship. This has already been done in every sanctuary, from cathedrals to chapels, in sound systems. Our tradition requires that a capability to project electronic images onto a quality, fully visible screen also become a standard capability in every parish and worship space. When screens are as omnipresent and regularly used in Catholic churches as hymnals and/or missalettes and microphones, we will have begun integrating visual electronic culture.

If we do not adapt today as we have in past eras, God’s people will increasingly experience our worship as boring, not stimulating and out of touch. Our worship today is a residual expression of oral and literate culture for people who do not primarily live there. Vital witness to the risen Christ requires full integration of digital communication techniques to enhance our worship while fully respecting the authentic nature of our liturgy. Our worship spaces need to be adapted accordingly, starting with an aesthetic integration of large screens in our sanctuaries and installation of quality projection equipment. Our liturgy teams need to embrace persons trained to use such technology well. Unless we integrate electronic modes of communication, our celebration of the mysteries of faith risks losing its vitality and meaning in this electronic era, leaving more and more of our people unmoved and more and more of our youth untouched.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

“We will just do what we need to do to help people in need,” said Antonio Fernandez, C.E.O. of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of San Antonio.
Emma Winters January 18, 2019
The study found Latina immigrant women in Arizona who were pregnant during the contentious S.B. 1070 passage had babies with lower birthweight compared with those in prior years. Average birth weights did not decrease among U.S.-born white, black or Latina women during the same time.
J.D. Long-GarcíaJanuary 18, 2019
This week's guest is Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, founder of New Wave Feminists, a pro-life feminist organization dedicated to changing the divisive language surrounding the abortion debate.
Olga SeguraJanuary 18, 2019
Psychedelics can blur the line between science and spirituality—but Christian mysticism cannot be studied.
Terrance KleinJanuary 17, 2019