Concerning the obsession for photos at Liturgies – A Consideration of a Liturgical and Pastoral Problem

Consider the scene. The Bishop has taken his place at the entrance to the sanctuary. He is prepared to confirm some twenty children. It is a sacred moment, a Sacrament is to be conferred. The parents are in deep prayer thanking the Holy Spirit who is about to confirm their children for mission….. Oops, they are not!

Actually, they are fumbling with their cell phone cameras. Some are scrambling up the side aisle to “get the shot.” Others are holding the “phone” up in the air to get the blurry, crooked shot. The tussling continues in the side aisle as parents muscle to get in place for “the shot.” If “the shot” is gotten, success! If not, “woe is me.” Never mind that a sacrament has actually been offered and received, the point was “the shot,” the “photo-op.”

Consider another scene. It is First Holy Communion. Again, the children are assembled.  This time the parents have been informed that a single parishioner has been engaged to take shots and could they please refrain from amateur photography. This is to little avail, “Who does that deacon think he is telling me to refrain, denying me the shot!?” The cell phones still stick up in the air. Even worse, the parish photographer sends quick word via the altar server, “Could Father please slow down a bit in giving the children communion? It is difficult to get a good shot at the current (normal) pace.” After the Mass the photographer has two children along side, could Father perhaps “re-stage” the communion moment for these two since, in the quick (normal) pace of giving Communion, their shot was bad, as the autofocus was not able to keep up…”Look how blurry it is Father.”

It would seem the picture is the point.

I have seen it with tourists as well. I live just up the street from the US Capitol and it is fascinating to watch the tourists go by on the buses. Many of them are so busy taking a picture of the Capitol (a picture they could get in a book, or find on the Internet), that I wonder if they ever see the Capitol with their own eyes.

The picture is the point.

Actually I would propose, it is NOT the point. Real life and actual experience are the point. Further, in the Liturgy, the worship and praise of God, the experience of his love, and attentiveness to his Word is the point. Cameras, more often than not, cause us to miss the point. We get the shot but miss the experience. Almost total loss if you ask me.

At weddings in this parish we speak to the congregation at the start and urge them to put away all cameras. We assure the worried crowd that John and Mary have engaged the services of a capable professional photographer who will be able to record the moment quite well. “What John and Mary could use most from you now are your prayers for them and expressed gratitude to God who is the author and perfecter of this moment.” Yes, we assure them, now is the time for prayer, for worship and for joyful awareness of what God is doing.

Most professional photographers are in fact professional and respectful and know how to stay back and not become a part of the ceremony but to discretely record it. It is rare that I have trouble with them. Videographers still have a way to go as a group, but there are many who I would say are indeed professional.

Pastorally it would seem appropriate to accept that photos are important to people to make reasonable accommodations for photos. For major events  such as weddings, confirmations, First Communions and Easter Vigils, it seems right that we should insist that if photos are desired, a professional be hired. This will help keep things discrete, and permit family and others to more prayerfully experience the sacred moments. Infant Baptisms are a little more “homespun” and it would seem that the pastor should speak with family members about limiting the number of amateur photographers, and be clear about where they should stand.

That said, I have no photos of my Baptism, First Communion or Confirmation. I have survived this (terrible) lack of “the shot” quite well. Frankly, in the days I received these sacraments, photos of the individual moment were simply not done in the parishes I attended. Some parishes did have provisions for pictures in those days. The photo at upper right is of Cardinal O’Boyle at St. Cyprian’s in Washington DC in 1957. But as for me, I do have a photo of me taken on my way to Church for First Communion, but there is no photo of me kneeling at the rail. I am alive and well. There are surely photos of my ordination. But I will add, the Basilica and the Archdiocese were very clear as to the parameters. Only two professional photographers were allowed, (My Uncle was one of them them) and the place where they worked was carefully delineated.

Hence, pastoral provisions are likely necessary in these “visual times”  which allow some photos. Yet as St. Paul says regarding the Liturgy: But let all things be done decently, and according to order (1 Cor 14:40).

A final reiteration: Remember the photo is not the moment. The moment is the moment and the experience is the experience. A photo is just a bunch of pixels, lots of 0’s and 1’s, recorded by a mindless machine and printed or displayed by a mindless machine. A picture is no substitute for the actual experience, the actual prayer, the actual worship that can and should take place at every sacred moment and it every sacred liturgy.

And here is some very rare footage of a nuptial mass. It is of my parents in May 1959. What makes it rare is that it is film, not mere pictures and that it is filmed from the sacristy. My parents told me years ago that they presumed it was filmed by a priest who alone in those years could get access to the sacristies and other back areas.

34 Replies to “Concerning the obsession for photos at Liturgies – A Consideration of a Liturgical and Pastoral Problem”

  1. When my kids were confirmed, we got the same admonition you give.

    Baptisms and First Communion are the times where I see excessive “Camerology”. Parents seem to want pictures of their kids at the moment they receive the Eucharist, but it’s not reverential. I think it’s more about the kid than awe of what’s actually occurring. They all take pictures of the kid…but I never, ever saw someone taking a picture of the priest saying “This is my body which will be given up for you”.

    I never see people taking pictures of the priest saying “descend on these gifts” or “Lift up your hearts”.

    That’s when I really get the goosebumps.

    I’m sorry, but the moment your child receives the Eucharist is different from the moment your child receives their diploma.

    1. I have to extend this line of thinking to the Godparents at Baptism.

      Personally, I’ve had some terrible Godparents for my own kids. My wife and I always “honored” one of my brothers and one of her sisters by asking them to be Godparents. I hate to say it but all of them were away from the faith, living with mates in sin outside of marriage, using alcohol and drugs…you get the picture. And we’re far from alone in this lack of responsibility.

      I really wish the priest would have examined more closely both us and our choices of Godparents and counseled us firmly.

      I totally love the Godparents of my kids…and some of them have turned around (like me), but we were clueless and in no way responsible enough to promise God that we would raise our infants in Faith. The Holy Spirit led us to dodge many bullets because my children are all Faithful !! It certainly had nothing to do with us.

  2. I agree. Allow a professional team in advance if desired; individual parishioners and their guests should remain focused on participating in or politely observing the liturgy/rite. It is good to have a photo to help us relive a wonderful experience.

  3. I hate the staging too, but I think maybe the need for pictures is just a continuation of the faithful’s desire in Catholic history for relics. ( ). An instagram pic is not the same as a third class relic, but it’s a physical reminder of a grace conferred, so I wonder if it could even be considered, by logical extension, a sacramental. Even if it can’t be carried that far, I think there is still a legitimate need in a sacramental people of these kinds of icons… as long as they’re kept in proper perspective.

    Our priest has always kept a pretty good balance between what I think is a real, human need for pictures and the dignity of the sacraments.

  4. Our parish is pretty good about reining in picture-taking during First Communion and other sacraments. I am grateful for that.

    They also sent out a special flyer asking the parents to refrain from bringing balloons into the church and tying them to their pew. I am grateful for that as well.

  5. At my Lutheran parish, taking photos or videos during services is strictly verboten, for all of the reasons you mention.

    Those who serve as ushers at my parish are expected to address any scofflaws, but of course it’s a judgement call whether it’s less disruptive to head over to issue a reminder or to give the camera-wielder a pass. In the five or six years I’ve been an usher, I’ve only once asked a parishioner to put away his camera, and that was only because I happened to be sitting right behind him. He wasn’t too thrilled with me, even though I pointed out that I was refraining from recording my own daughter’s first performance as a handbell ringer (They played Ode to Joy. My then-1st-grader kept her place by singing one-two-three-four two-two-three-four three-two-three-four four-two/and-three-four with the music.) The gentlemen did put away his camera, but not without some grumbling.

    I think that most people will obey restrictions on taking photos/films as long as they’re aware of said restrictions ahead of time, and understand the reasons behind them. Not only do parishes (of various denominations) vary in terms of their photography policies, we also live in an age in which one can easily record every moment of one’s life [consider the Jim Carey movie “The Truman Show”]. The proliferation of cameras during services is perhaps less an issue of respect, and more an issue of catechesis (or lack thereof).

  6. Excellent publish, very informative. I’m wondering why the opposite experts of this sector do not understand this. You must continue your writing. I am confident, you’ve a great readers’ base already!|What’s Happening i am new to this, I stumbled upon this I’ve found It absolutely useful and it has aided me out loads. I am hoping to give a contribution & aid different customers like its aided me. Great job.

  7. My daughter was married a few years ago in a beautiful Catholic church Mass ceremony. Unfortunately, as soon as she began to come up the asle, many of the people sitting behind us stepped right out into the asle and kept taking pictures. I could not see my own daughter coming up the asle because of this. I wanted to shout to everyone to get back it their pews and stop it. It was especially sad for me because I had spent the last year and a half battling cancer as did the mother of the groom and we had so much looked forward to this and were so happy to have survived to see the day. Unfortunately we did not get to see everything because of people’s obsessions!

  8. Surely the church should look into it that the Liturgy is maintained with its sacredness and worship rather than secularizing it.

  9. It is funny because I agree with everything you said about the shot and yet I thought the shot of your parent’s wedding really beautiful.

  10. I have been a professional photgrapher for forty five years, an I can tell you that MOST Catholic parishes have been more liberal that MOST protestant denominations in what they would allow for photographs. The policy I have always adhered to was 1st, Always check with clegry on rules ahead of the ceremony, 2nd, if you are a female be sure to bring some bedroom slippers to avoid the “Clack -Clack” of high heels, 3rdf, always approach your shot from the sides, and do not cross in front of the congregation and LAST but MOST IMPORTANT – STAY OUT OF THE SANCTUARY! Don’t be part of the Ceremonies, Capture them!
    These giuidelines have served me well for thousands of weddings, hundreds of First Communions and dozens of Ordinations and First Masses.

  11. Loved the video of your parent’s wedding…such reverence and beauty. It brought back memories of my own nuptial Mass.

  12. Is that your parents talking in the background? It sounds like them. Good memories!

    Well, you know that I agree with the “no photos” admonition! I wouldn’t even have a designated photographer unless it was a professional who could take the photos with a VERY long range lens!! 😉

  13. I have a treasured First Holy Communion photo of my Grandmother taken sometime after the Mass by a professional photographer, as in the early 1900’s cameras were not a household item. In the photo she is standing solemnly in her long white dress holding a lighted candle. The wedding photo of her and my grandfather displayed the same solemn attitude.

    Ceremonies in general–like graduations–have no formality or solemnity anymore, which is unfortunate (perhaps the military has been able to maintain decorum). As for the sacraments, I do not think people understand what they are receiving, or they would not be so flippant.

  14. There is so much focus on memorializing an event on digital media today that people are not living the event. I’ve seen parents so engrossed in taping Christmas morning present opening and birthday parties that they are not present for their children during the event. It’s sad. If they will put the camera down and enjoy the moment, they will have actual memories in their brains and won’t need the video. IMO, there should be absolutely no photography of sacramental ceremonies, including weddings. Photos can be taken after events. Before the ceremonies, those preparing to receive the sacraments should be preparing their souls, hearts and minds in silent prayer.

  15. I do not think that any photos should be allowed during the sacrament itself. Before or after is fine but not during.

    I have taught in my parish’s CCD program for several years and have seen some unbelievable sights like the Dad who crawled up the middle aisle after Communion, flopped on his stomach next to his daughter’s pew and took pictures of her giggling at him. We have had to re-route how the kids return to their pews because they were being constantly ambushed by relatives with cameras commanding them to “Smile!” while they still had the host in their mouths.

    I certainly understand a family’s desire to record a milestone, but lately it seems as if the parents have no appreciation for the Real Presence of Christ in the church and the result is some pretty inappropriate behavior.

  16. I agree wholeheartedly, Father. Hooray! Finally someone speaks out! …Let’s spend more time living life and less time photographing it. …In the 1950’s, my Dad used to have a clunky 35 mm camera that was impossible to set properly. The honeymoon photos at Niagara Falls, for example, were one big “oy vey”. When the nifty little Brownie flash cameras came out, my Mom was in her glory; but black & white film and flashbulbs and developing costs were still relatively expensive, so that kept the lid on the number of photos taken. Color film came out around 1964, and it was quite expensive in the early days. My Mom would carefully stage each shot, lining up the kids, always reminding us, for Pete’s sake, OPEN YOUR EYES and BEHAVE because “THIS IS COLOR FILM!!!” The memory of her taking the photo makes me smile even more than the photo itself…

  17. In one of the documents on the liturgy issued directly after Vatican II, it expressly states that photo taking at Mass should only happen for serious reasons and is to be discouraged – I don’t happen to have my copy of VII documents with me (!) but I will look it up and come back and give you the exact text, if I have time in the next couple of days!

    PIcture taking at Mass, I have noticved, is entirely out of hand. I believe it offends our Lord, but in any case, it offends me deeply (and the more solemn the Mass, the more deeply it offends) because this is the WEDDING FEAST OF THE LAMB, not a photo shoot, not an opportunity for self-promotion, nor “making memories.” One picture before or after is enough, as in days of old. It is especially inappropriate to take photos during the consecration, thus distracting everyone at the most important moment when our hearts should be burning with love for Christ, not thinking about photos!!

  18. When I am baptizing a baby, I don’t mind the photo-ops, and even joke about it. When I joke about it, seemingly condoning it, people are a bit more discriminating and less pushy. I do have to say that back in Washington we had some religious extremists who were photogging with Polaroid cameras the consecration at every Mass, trying to get the “Flash of God’s Energy” during the transubstantiation. Fr Cesare, hooray for him, banned cameras from the church, except for weddings, professional photographers only. Try being on the altar and getting blinded by flashes, totally distracts everyone from the liturgy. Respect for the liturgy and the practice of the faith are the important issues in our lives. I often wonder if some people are trying to gather evidence to support that they did what they should have done for their judgment time. Trust that God knows all things; photographic evidence isn’t going to fool Him a bit.

  19. The parents at my parish before I recently moved had to attend a preparation meeting. There was no talk about the shutterbugging, but it’s a good idea. The other thing to watch out for is that one parishoner asked if Father was going to “open up communion” for you know, everyone, Catholic or not. Thankfully, he did not, but everyone should be ready for this seeing that many non-Catholic relatives will be in attendance.

  20. Laura makes a good point. The desire for pictures is the Catholic and human desire for the incarnational. That said, the best parish practice may be to hire a professional to capture images discreetly (it’s possible) and convince people it’s in their best interests to attend to the moment.

    It can also help to realize that our culture has devalued the sharing of our individual stories. We can recover that, give people the know-how to do it with their kids, and we still have a nice album to page through while it happens. Keep it positive, and minimize the chiding: this gets results.

  21. I do photography at my parish and have grappled with this issue, and continue to ponder it. My case is different though. However, with regards to parents tripping over each other during a sacrament, I’m in agreement – set the cameras aside and let someone from the parish take some broad shots of the event, then let the children pose with the priest or bishop after Mass.

    I began handling liturgical photography on August 15, 2005 – my first Assumption Day at Assumption Grotto in Detroit. They didn’t have a photographer, and I offered to take a few pictures for the feast day. It became an art. Typically, I will go to 6:30 AM Mass that day and not take any pictures. Then, I spend the rest of the day photographing (many links to examples are in my blog sidebar).

    However, I asked for guidance from the pastor and he told me two things: Absolutely no flash during Mass, and to be discreet. Imagine shooting in a dark, old church without flash, or out at the grotto in the evening. I learned, with a tripod.

    Interestingly, I have talked to him about big sacramental days like First Holy Communion and Confirmation. Some parents tried to hire me, but something didn’t feel right. The pastor allows pictures after Mass, and he will even hold up an unconsecrated host for a post-Mass pose at the altar rail. But, he does not allow photos during the Mass. I am permitted to take some shots discreetly, but the rule of thumb is that I may not photograph individuals receiving. How do I justify one child and not another, so it is a good rule. And, you are right – we all survived not having, “the moment” captured.

    My main purpose for photographing, was to share the beauty of the Mass in forms not seen by many these days (I began when Grotto celebrated ad orientem Latin Novus Ordo Masses; and now photograph mostly extraordinary form Masses. I’ve also photographed certain Masses in the extraordinary form to be able to discuss certain things for learning purposes. An example of that is in this post, taken some years ago (if permitted to share here):

    I take less pictures now than I did some years ago, to the disappointment of some parents whose altar boys had grown, or new ones who had entered. But, I recognized some time ago that the photos I take are not about the people, but about the action. Having good stock photos to use for liturgical discussion is important. Having artistic liturgical photos can stir some souls who view them (the eye-candy). I’ve witnessed this.

    All things in moderation.

  22. I’m glad someone was able to capture Mass as it used to be celebrated, for posterity. People kneeling for communion as the host was placed on the tongue by the priest without being put in the recipients hand. Formalities of the altar servers assisting the priest and raising the vestments at the consecration. Every picture tells a story. I don’t have photos of my receiving the sacraments either and never was one to collect memories on photographs but some things are worth recording just so those who were not alive or present can grasp what it was realy like. Seeing is believing.

  23. Yet another example of the lack of solemnity many have during the Mass today, right up there with inappropriate dress, leaving during communion, and (my personal least favorite) applause during the liturgy for the musicians. Wide use of Protestant hymns instead of our great Catholic tradition of chant also must make the list. At least we have a great new English translation!

    1. Don’t blame us Protestants for the hymns currently used at Mass!! Particularly not “One Bread One Body” written by John Foley, a JESUIT.

      Marty Haugen was reared as a Lutheran but don’t blame us for anything else.

  24. Thanks, Msgr., for sharing the beautiful footage of your parents’ nuptial Mass!

  25. The family film is beautiful. Humans finally ordered according to God’s order. It’s like looking into a window at a point in time so long after Adam and seeing some of his children reconciled to God and docilely letting Him order their disordered selves, finally and beautifully. Oh, if only we could all be so pleasing in the sight of God.

  26. I am an amateur photographer. I LOVE taking photos. And yet, at my own wife’s baptism (she converted after 3 years of marriage) I just couldn’t bring myself to walk up and start shooting during the baptism. Somehow it felt like I would be cheapening what is a most sacred moment. So I don’t have a single photo of the “event.” I have photos of just about every other occasion, but not this one, But it doesn’t matter. Jesus called her and she answered “yes.” That’s all that matters.
    God bless you, Msgr. Pope.

  27. I like the comments on the possible motives; and possible combination of motives; mentioned here. Yet, could there be more, some of which may not be consciously known?
    Proof of having been present at the event being photographed, which can possibly be enhanced (been there done that) by the fact that the technical quality isn’t as “good” as that of the photos taken by professionals? If so, shouldn’t the benefits of a faith based experience be better displayed by focusing on the experience more fully so as to let other people see a positive change in us from a more personal involvement with the Holy Spirit?
    However, if I fear that my involvement in the event is going to be less than that of other people; due to limitations which I suspect (erroneously or otherwise) within myself; I may be tempted to seek to distract the focus of those others with camera flashes and the like so that I can hide from my fear that they may be “better than me”
    Temptation is one thing – giving into it is another.

  28. Here’s the relevant passage from Magisterial teaching, which I mentioned above – whether there has been further teaching on this matter since this, I don’t know. This is from Eucharistium Mysterium – Instruction on the Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery (1967):

    “Great care should be taken to ensure that liturgical celebrations, especially the Mass, are not disturbed or interrupted by the taking of photographs. Where there is good reason for taking them, the greatest discretion should be used and the norms laid down by the local ordinary should be observed.”

    By the way, not everyone wants to have their picture taken without their permission while they are worshipping, especially during Holy Communion. If we only understood what that moment is, no one would ever be tempted to invade it with photography or videotaping.

    I have been greatly offended and made highly uncomfortable by someone taking my picture or running video (or very likely doing so) even at the very moment I am to receive Jesus in Communion..and this was truly for no reason, not even on the excuse of it being a First Communion or something. That is not right.

    It has been so bad at a few Masses I’ve participated in that it felt more like a press conference to me than Holy Mass, or like this was the Holy Mass Show. Again I say, that is not right!!

  29. While watching the latest news on the Colorado wildfires this morning, including footage of homes burned to the ground, it occurred to me that for most people the most devestating loss would be their photo albums. Furniture and appliances can be replaced – photos cannot (unless one has stored them digitally online). The albums may have little or no financial worth, but they are priceless in terms of preserving memories and passing along family stories. My paternal grandmother died when I was a toddler; I know her by what my father told me about her as we looked through photographs and home movies. My maternal grandfather died when my mother was a young teen; her family couldn’t afford a camera and thus there were no pictures to inspire curiosity on my sister’s and my part, and my mother seldom mentioned him. [When we were cleaning out my grandmother’s rowhouse after her death, I found my grandfather’s social security card. As I looked at it, I realized I had never even asked his name.]

    I still believe that people should show respect in liturgical settings, and that parishes should set limits, but maybe we should view inveterate picture-snappers a bit more charitably.

  30. Not quite to your point but below is a poetic comment on the irony of trying to “capture the moment” (I have read this in a collection of his poetry I purchased, but a quick Google turned up many instances of it on the net, so I am presuming “fair use” applies. Buy Wendell Berry’s poetry… it is great!

    The Vacation
    By Wendell Berry

    Once there was a man who filmed his vacation.
    He went flying down the river in his boat
    with his video camera to his eye, making
    a moving picture of the moving river
    upon which his sleek boat moved swiftly
    toward the end of his vacation. He showed
    his vacation to his camera, which pictured it,
    preserving it forever: the river, the trees,
    the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat
    behind which he stood with his camera
    preserving his vacation even as he was having it
    so that after he had had it he would still
    have it. It would be there. With a flick
    of a switch, there it would be. But he
    would not be in it. He would never be in it.

  31. Good manners are at issue and not our phones. I use my iphone for notes on the homily. I can use it when I have no hymnal near me to find the song and sing it. We have the Liturgy of the Hours on our phones, For some who cannot afford purchasing a breviary, this is the solution, etc. etc. We need to remember what a gift (including spiritual) our technology is.

Comments are closed.