When Pope Francis rails against smartphones at Mass, what's the best way to cover this news?

Recently, Pope Francis criticized folks who are glued to their iPhones during Mass, calling such flippant behavior “a very ugly thing.”

Chances are the typical Catholic didn’t hear of Francis’ remarks, even though they were widely covered. All the same, the New York Times decided to have some fun with the idea.

This is what appeared in last Sunday’s paper:

Dianne Alfaro sat in a pew in the back of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, her head bowed during Mass on Sunday morning. She cast her eyes down as the hymn “Jerusalem My Happy Home” swelled around her.
As the words “Hosanna in the highest!” echoed in the cathedral, she never looked up. That is, until she finished buying a pair of black boots off the internet on her iPhone.
“At some point, the priest during the Mass says, ‘Lift up your hearts.’ He does not say, ‘Lift up your cellphones to take pictures,’ ” Pope Francis said last week during a general audience at St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, where he urged Catholics to leave their phones home.
But during Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, it seemed either the pontiff’s message had not yet reached across the Atlantic or the churchgoers were not listening.

The article goes on to record interviews with several people attending services at the cathedral that day, many of whom were quite involved with their cell phones. It is clever, I admit, and honest about what people are really doing in those pews.

It’s also what reporters and editors used to call a quick-and-dirty: Reporter and photographer visit one church, take notes, interview a few people, then put in a call to the archdiocese for comment. A bit more could have been done.

How about seeking one or more reasons why these folks are rummaging through their emails during the service? Here's a spicy one to pursue: Because they’re bored. The service is predictable and stale. (Although one does wonder why some folks would go to the trouble of visiting a cathedral only to troll the Internet.)

Plus, the modern person doesn’t have a concept of what it is to disassociate oneself from the world for an hour to attend Mass. The closest to it is the 24-hour weekly down time that Orthodox Jews observe during the Sabbath where no technology can used.

People have fierce opinions about this topic. When tmatt blogged a post about two years ago about fights over the issue, he got 15 responses. 

I wish the reporter could have interviewed a few priests about the matter, like this one who said that ringing cellphones during all times of the service drive clergy nuts. Worshipers only notice this at the service they personally attend, but priests put up with it constantly in service after service.

Another priest quoted in this National Catholic Reporter story said peoples’ phones often go off during the consecration of bread and wine –- the holiest part of the service -– itself and that parishioners commonly ignore church officials’ pleas at the beginning of the service to turn the things off.

Are there churches that have gone as far as to install signal scramblers at the doors? It would be interesting to know. I'm also curious as to who is calling parishioners on Sunday mornings. It's not like it's a business day with affairs to transact. 

USA Today went so far as to offer a humorous take on the papal advice by suggesting that priests and parishioners could save time in the confessional by texting their sins and absolutions. I'm surprised that Saturday Night Live hasn't done a skit on this because it would be funny. Wanna bet that Catholic Stephen Colbert gets there first?

The Times did a good job of showing the flippant way that many people at a major cathedral are treating their hour of Mass. But how about a piece about the frustration felt by lots of other ordinary Catholics?

There are frustrated priests who have to put up with this; frustrated worshipers whose concentration is shot because of the ringing of a cellphone in the next pew, and even the frustrated cell phone users themselves who are fiddling with their phones. Why are they so disassociated from the service in the first place? 

It would take more time to research than a few hours of throwing together one's notes after a visit to the cathedral, but it would be a much better read. This topic was worth taking seriously.

Please respect our Commenting Policy