Spectators or participants?

What sort of policy do you have for photos in church during sacramental celebrations? I’m thinking particularly of First Communion celebrations, where a kind of liturgical anarchy seems to have invaded the church.

In the age of the ubiquitous mobile phone, everyone can be a photographer, recording images of an event to be cherished subsequently. But people do not always think about how they might be impacting the rite, other people, and, most of all, themselves.

All of us have seen celebrations whose character has been completely transformed by hordes of competing relatives (dads and uncles especially) who have swarmed all over the church, not only getting in the way of liturgical ministers but of each other, fighting for the best position. The atmosphere of the celebration has been derailed. Even if there is a parish ban on photographs, and an official photographer is present as the only one to record the “event”, the mobile phone has now transformed the playing field so that people are free to ignore any policy that might be in place.

From a ritual point of view, we now see phenomena such as, instead of holding the worship aid and singing the entrance song, everyone is holding up their phones taking pictures of their kids in the entrance procession. Of course, no one can see past the forest of phones…. And once your phone is out, the temptation to check your emails or your social media feed instead of being part of what is going on can be difficult to resist.

But it’s the actual distribution of Communion that causes me the most concern. How do you tell people truths that they may well not understand? That it’s impossible to “photograph” a sacrament, and that by attempting to record a “magic moment” they are actually depriving themselves of the opportunity to enter into that moment by being fully present to it. That taking a picture in effect “distances” you from what’s going on. You become a spectator instead of an integral “part” of the action.

Yes, you were there, but as a recording agent, not as a true participant. You’re on the outside, looking in. By trying to record the action, you significantly dilute the imprinting of the action in your mind and dilute its effect on you, so that it will be more difficult to recall and relive subsequently except by looking at the digital image. Your life will, in effect be changed, and not for the better.

I’m sure many parents would be mystified by all this because, for them, the sacrament is all about their offspring and not about a communal celebration of the presence of Christ in the midst of the community. It’s their children’s day, not the Church’s. They want to be able to replay the “event” for ever after, share it with their friends and online. The rite thereby becomes a spectacle. Symbols and symbolic action become objects for gawking at, not for entering into.

This is doubtless what Guardini had in mind when he questioned whether people today even have the capacity to take part in the liturgical act.

The same principles apply to photographs at baptisms, confirmations, ordinations, weddings of course, and this weekend, the Rite of Election. Let us hope that those who embark on the next stage of their Christian journey will not be too distracted by the demands of today’s technology and media.





6 responses to “Spectators or participants?”

  1. Cherie Sprosty Avatar

    The wise DRE at a parish in California held the last three formation classes for both the religious education and the parish school students with both the children and their parents present. The parents recieved formation for their part in the sacrament along with their children. The first Eucharist was held at Sunday masses, the entire class broken up into smaller groups over several weeks. The parents walked forward with their child, who stepped up to receive the Eucharist. There was a parish photographer and videographer who discreetly recorded the mass for the families. At the beginning of the mass everyone present was told that their phones needed to be turned off so that they would not disrespect the holiness of this Mass. The ushers would discreetly and firmly remind any latecomers of the policy if a phone was raised up to record the liturgy. With that concerted effort, it worked well. It took several years for this to become established, but the results were well worth the effort. The parish community embraced the children and their families.

  2. Alan Griffiths Avatar
    Alan Griffiths

    I don’t want to sound like the wicked granny at the christening or the spectre at the feast, but isn’t part of the problem the way we have ‘whooped up’ celebrations such as these? The white dresses and little suits for first HC, or Ordinations that are treated like weddings (they always used to be on penitential days, the so called ‘Ember Days’) and weddings themselves that ‘have to be perfect’ – there seems to me to be an obsessional neurosis about all this.

    Call me a miserable old so-and-so if you like, but I can’t help the feeling that we have allowed all this to happen gradually and merged ourselves into the secular mindset of ‘celebration.’

    Then when you see bishops at Vatican mega-concelebrations snapping away on their smartphones you realise that this has spread to the top! The Pope will be doing it next, I guess.


    1. Pete Williamson Avatar
      Pete Williamson

      Most of the HC’s in my area the priest makes it clear that there will be time for pictures afterward and no pictures or videos are taken in Mass. Afterward, pictures are done first by a professional and then parents can have a short time for the entire class and then do their own personal pictures after that. The fact that people still celebrate First Holy Communion, Weddings, and even ordinations of young men to the priesthood as a communal affair is quite delightful. Simple flowers in Church and large gathering in the VFW or K of C hall for the reception that includes hundreds of people from the community and other family members for weddings and ordinations. And gatherings at home with family and friends for first HC. I think when done in this way it still emphasizes the integrity of the rite itself while also offering a less formal celebration that builds on the more transcendent community within the liturgy and rite itself. People try to make excuses for celebrating that are less than wholesome, this is something authentic to celebrate and in my opinion, it should not be taken from them.

  3. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
    Karl Liam Saur

    The energy spent on capturing a moment for posterity is energy taken from having an actual memory of the moment. It is a zero sum game.

    We have a surfeit of captures, and a deficit of actual memory.

    1. Todd Voss Avatar
      Todd Voss

      Agree and not only about in Church!

  4. Elizabeth Harrington Avatar
    Elizabeth Harrington

    Banning photos during the celebration of baptism, confirmation and first communion make the ceremonies run more smoothly and respectfully, but it is a negative response to a well-meaning desire on the part of families who seldom come to church to record an event which is important to them. We want to make them welcome and give them a good experience. Thinking about this issue in my parish, we realized that a set of photos which helps the family to understand the rite could have an important catechetical function as they are shown and the story is retold. So we established a new parish ministry of photographer. The parish photographer knows where best to stand without being intrusive and can capture some of the key moments of the rite. The parish gives the families involved a CD of the photos as a gift.

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