Editorial: Imago Dei, Imago Video

by Duncan G. Stroik, appearing in Volume 12

The “ars celebrandi” is meant as an invitation, not to some sort of theater or spectacle, but to an interiority that makes itself felt and becomes acceptable and evident to those present. Only if they see that this is not an external, showy “ars” – we are not actors! – but the expression of the journey of our hearts, which also draws their hearts, only then does the liturgy become beautiful, it becomes the communion of all those present with the Lord.  --Benedict XVI

Most people would agree that television and film have become the primary cultural medium of expression today.  Theater, dance and live music just cannot compete for people’s time in the same way as video, television and movies which are so convenient, economical and numerous. Thus it is not surprising that Christian churches of many stripes have sought to employ this cultural medium in the service of the gospel.  In fact, it could be argued that the Church has not done enough to employ medium of film today.

But what of video in the service of liturgy? Is the use of video necessary to make the liturgy relevant and to spice up the mass?  I am told that there are dioceses in the west where video screens are built-in to churches like giant side altars.  In other places, video cameras and screens help the faithful to watch processions or baptisms, not unlike the behind the scenes cameras on the David Letterman show.  I even have the sneaking suspicion that some people believe that it is necessary to see a baptism for the sacrament to be valid.  No early Christian baptisteries here please, with the catechumens journeying into a separate building for their receiving of new life – we want to see close ups of the whole event.  Mystery is old fashioned—what the people want today is full disclosure.  

The phenomena of televising Protestant mega churches and outdoor papal masses has existed for decades, and with their size it was only a matter of time that the Church would embrace the technology of the rock concert with large video screens showing close ups of the preacher or pope.  Just as in sporting events, we have to compensate for the fact that people can get a better view at home on tv than they can in person.  The use of large video screens at papal masses, though well intentioned, results in unfortunate situations such as the faithful waving to the video screen rather than focusing on the actual liturgy taking place around them.  Then there is the example of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City where tv monitors were attached to the columns in the side aisles so that the faithful sitting there could see everything.  What is more distracting, being in a glorious Catholic church in Manhattan and not being able to see the priest at the pulpit, or being in the same church and seeing ten priests and ten pulpits?

In previous eras, a bishop asked his priests from time to time to read a letter, preach on a special theme, or talk about the diocesan campaign from the pulpit.  Today, the bishop can bypass his priest and provide a larger than life delivery directly to all the people through the medium of video.  Instead of a sermon on the readings today, we are entertained by a jazzy show with the successor to the apostles as actor.  Ultimately, the use of video calls into question the meaning and purpose of the liturgy.  Is it something we receive and participate in or is it something we produce and watch?  If it is a show that we produce then we can learn from the Protestant seeker churches who do whatever it takes to get the message across.  Typically this results in a couple of foci not unlike the Late Show –the person of the preacher balanced by the band who give us jokes and musical interlude, on a stage with a lightshow and video clips.  As we follow the lead of “Mega-churches,” Catholic churches more and more resemble in architecture, disposition and tenor a religious entertainment show.

Perhaps the most important criticism of video in church is that it helps to destroy any sense of prayer or sacred character in the mass.  It is an interruption of the flow of the liturgy, by religious entertainment, of our worship of the Triune God. Any solemnity that was there in the church previously is out the window once the video starts.  At the beginning of the show, ahem presentation, the priest and acolytes non-process out of the sanctuary, the screen comes down, the lights dim, and we focus our attention soley on the screen (not on the altar, the tabernacle, the angels or saints in glory, or the Lord crucified).  If the video takes the place of the sermon, we lose any connection to the scriptures.  The music and piped in sound can be jarring and, if in the service of fundraising, are normally of a style more appropriate for advertising than for worship. 

It would be better to show the video after mass and preferably in the parish hall.  Then we would not confuse the people by pretending that the video is part of the heavenly liturgy.  Of course you would lose some people, because given the option many would prefer not to watch.  “We came to mass to pray, to fulfill our obligation, but not to see a second rate video” they would say.  Of course, others of us will be happy to watch it, and some may ask to take the dvd home and watch it there (as long as they return it within five days).

The church in the modern world is a cultural building, but it is also a counter-cultural place.  It is a place where we can actually retreat from the bombardment of video and other technological sensations.  The church should be a place of prayer, silence and permanent beauty.  Everywhere we go there is ubiquitous pop music, powerpoints and television screens vying for our attention.  The house of God, sans ipod and cell phone, is one of the few places we can be caught up into something greater than ourselves and our need to be distracted by the hum of information, news and noise.  And though it may seem most difficult for the youth around us, they are the ones most in need of a video-free experience.  According to Monsignor Stuart Swetland, director of the Newman center at the University of Illinois, the “millennials” are very incarnational when it comes to the faith.  The world that they have grown up in is made up of so much virtual reality that they have a hunger for a tactile reality: for crucifixes, icons, candles and incense.

This is where the Church needs to do what she does best, including in her music, preaching, art and architecture.  It is ludicrous to argue that video provides a twenty-first century version of the paintings on the Sistine chapel or stained glass windows.  The moving picture is by definition transitory, without stability or integration with the architecture.  Religious statuary or paintings (even if of varying quality) can become friends and patrons, reminding us of the heavenly hosts who intercede for us and who worship with us.  A fleeting image has no lasting presence.  No matter how wonderfully it is edited, it can never become an icon for veneration. 

Finally, the use of video in church seems to indicate a lack of respect for the house of God, and to fight against the nature of the church as a holy place.  There are many good things which are inappropriate to do inside a church, i.e. basketball games, square dancing, superbowl parties, or massage therapy.  Yet Christians who build multipurpose spaces for worship promote all of these within them, along with the use of video.  The use of audio visuals by the Church is certainly here to stay, and will likely grow in sophistication and influence.  Yet if they are to remain places “distinct from the ordinary, and therefore possessing a special and unique dignity” in the words of Jósef Pieper, our churches should remain video free.