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Is It as Good to Pray the Breviary from Electronic Devices as It Is from Traditional Books?

December 4, 2018 34 Comments

It is hard to overestimate the convenience of praying the Liturgy of the Hours from an online breviary. Not only are they convenient but they also help to lessen the complexities that often go with setting up the traditional book. For example,

  • Do the psalms come from the day or the Common?
  • Do we use the Common of Pastors or that of the Doctors of the Church?
  • Do the Advent weekday prayers and antiphons outrank the sanctoral ones?
  • Is today a memorial or a feast in the U.S.?

Setting the ribbons correctly can be a challenge, and the complexity of the “rules” during the Octave of Christmas is almost nightmarish.

The availability of these breviary apps has lessened the likelihood that we are without a way to pray the Liturgy of the Hours merely because we don’t have our prayer book with us. Most of us today are rarely without our cell phone close at hand.

So, what could be the problem with using an electronic breviary? The problem is the loss of the “sacred.”

To say that something is “sacred” not only indicates that it is holy but that it has been set aside for a unique and special purpose. For example, the chalices used at Mass are not ordinary cups. They are set apart for only one special use: to contain the Precious Blood. It would be wrong to use them in the rectory for a dinner party. It would also be wrong to bring ordinary cups over from the rectory to use as “chalices” for the Precious Blood. Sacred things normally have but one use or are used only for things related to God and the worship of Him.

This also applies to sacred books and texts. In the liturgy it is expected that we normally read the prayers and readings directly from sacred books such as the Lectionary, the Book of Gospels, and the Missal; liturgists and bishops’ conferences have generally frowned upon using digital readers. For example, the bishops of New Zealand banned the use of iPads as Missals in the liturgy, explaining that because “iPads and other electronic devices have a variety of uses, e.g., playing games, using the internet, watching videos, and checking email,” the bishops have decided that “This alone makes their use in the liturgy inappropriate” [*].

Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, has a similar view: “Perhaps it is very practical to pray the breviary with my own mobile phone or tablet, but it is not worthy: it desacralizes prayer” [**]. This is not a formal instruction from him in an official capacity, but his views should elicit thoughtful consideration even when it comes to the private recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours.

Some may consider such objections fussy or puritanical, but I think they make some sense. A sacred text, as a general norm, deserves a sacred book where it is preserved and from which it is read.

General norms are not absolute norms, so there will be exceptions, even generous ones, given the pace and mobility of modern life and the seeming need to have many things at hand. Perhaps one is traveling or wants quick reference to the texts in order to pray on a busy day. Maybe the complexity of the Divine Office, which can serve as a barrier to the laity with less liturgical background, can be overcome with the use of a cell phone app to direct prayer.

Striving to protect the general norm of keeping sacred books and texts together accomplishes certain worthy goals. Let me mention just two.

First, it reinforces the idea of the sacred, which has been so eroded today.

To some degree, our sacred actions should look, feel, sound, and be sacred or “set apart” from ordinary things. For example, church buildings should look different, sound different, even smell different from the world around them. Their essential function should be as a place for the worship of God; they should not merely be assembly halls.

The liturgy itself should have a sacral character. In the past this was emphasized by the use of Latin, particular styles of music, and specific gestures and tones of voice. Much of this has been lost today and it is often a difficult or even controversial path to bring it back. Even if the vernacular and a wider variety of music have their place, the sacred “otherness” and “set apart” quality of the Church and the liturgy has severely diminished.

Praying the breviary out of sacred books is a small step in the right direction. This is certainly more important in public recitations of the breviary, but even in our private recitation there is value in keeping that sacred time an experience that is at least somewhat “set apart” from ordinary things.

Second, it reminds us that prayer should involve some sacrifice.

We live in times when people are unduly insistent that everything should be convenient, easy, and fast—and often quick to become indignant when that is not the case.

There will be times when it is helpful to have immediate access to the breviary texts, but we ought not to forget that in biblical thinking, prayer and sacrifice are joined. The notion of prayer without sacrifice is a modern Western one. Biblical prayer involved offering a “sacrifice of praise.” Thanksgivings were made by way of sacrifices such as the offering of first fruits and libations of wine and oil.

Demands for worship that is convenient, quick, and with little cost are not usually indicative of a heart full of extravagant love (see Luke 7:44-47).

We do not want all forms of prayer and worship to become so burdensome or difficult that people avoid them, but certain small sacrifices such as using the sacred book even in private recitation of the breviary can be an act of love and a step back from the excessive insistence on convenience.

As I hold the breviary each day, I feel that I am holding God’s people in my hands as I pray for them and with the universal Church. I just don’t get that feeling when I pray using my iPhone.

More could be said, but allow this to suffice. Please accept these thoughts as general norms or observations; they are not absolutes. There are exceptions we ought not to presume that anyone who does not follow this way of thinking is impious. Every now and again, though, we do well to consider the meanings of even small actions; it is part of living a reflective life.

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Comments (34)

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  1. Libby says:

    When my great aunt passed away, I inherited the Bible she had used daily since girlhood. I remember the impression it made on me to feel the cover of the book—made soft by her hands. The gilt on the edges of the pages worn from much use. She would tuck slips of paper to bookmark favorite verses. You get the idea.

    I could switch from using my LOTH (book) to using an app on the phone, but I want to leave a testimony of prayer to my children as my aunt did for me. I want them to see the visible use and time I spent with my copy of the Divine Office.

  2. Kelly says:

    Thank you for this. As someone who prefers physical books over electronic any day, I couldn’t agree more with your reasons. But I also appreciated the reminder not to look down upon those who choose to pray on their phones.

  3. SPM says:

    For the record, I use the books except when travelling (which always seems to be when the volumes change), and for the mess of the Octave of Christmas when the ribbons distract from prayer. So, I agree with the general trend.

    However, lets take this argument back roughly 500 years. Would we have argued that printed sacred texts distracted from the sacredness of the liturgy? Should we use only sacred books that are written by hand?

    • TJF says:

      I believe that the question you pose below would be a false analogy; the breviary remains a book whether printed by press or written by hand. The medium remains the same. An equivalent argument regarding modern technology would be: would it be more reverent to pray from your computer or your smartphone? Book to electronics is apples to oranges, not Golden Delicious to Honey Crisp.

      Pax.

      • J. Montgomery says:

        The prayers are what they are whether they are expressed through written word, printing press, or electronic device. In the context of his comment, expression through printing press came about due to an advance in technology. Similarly, expression through electronic means has come about due to advances in technology. As the article is about how the prayers are accessed – through one form expression over another as it were, I see his point.

  4. Steve Colby says:

    Yup. The iPhone is great for reading blogs and a thousand other things, but that versatility is a distraction.
    The device that holds the breviary is also constantly demanding that I check email and Facebook (where I found this link).

  5. Mary Ellen Cooper says:

    Msgr. Pope, thank you for this reflection. I tend to agree and find that I am returning more to the use of the books.

    However, because the iPhone app I use is the one produced by DivineOffice.org and is recorded, I find that using the books with the recording is actually, for me, a wonderfully worshipful experience. I have a real sense of participating in corporate prayer, which is not otherwise available (for me) for the morning and evening offices. On Sundays and holy days especially, with all the antiphons, psalms and prayers sung, it is a time of beauty and joy.

  6. Molly M. says:

    Thank you for this post, Monsignor. I am someone who regularly prays with my mobile device, and I also frequently follow the readings and Order of the Mass that way. In some small way, those activities “baptize” my digital devices, but I admit that I found your essay very thought-provoking. I will certainly think about setting aside sacred things for sacred purposes and your view that prayer should involve sacrifice. Thanks for the eye-opening perspective.

  7. Douglas says:

    Msgr. Pope, thank you for this. My mom and I have had this conversation. She wins, with her macular degeneration and having survived multiple retinal surgeries. She longs for the printed book, but is very happy to settle for the electronic.

    Studies show students and shoppers who use computers retain different information than those who use paper information. Students who use computers to take notes are more likely to remember details, while those with pen and paper are more likely to remember concepts.

    An analogous situation appears in music: we appreciate analog music recordings differently than digital recordings. But music generated by real live wood and steel instruments is far more beneficial than electronically reproduced music. A hand written thank you is much more meaningful than an electronically created thanks.

    My mother really enjoys her electronic version, and is better off with it than being without. But she knows her sight is gone and is grateful for the vision she has.

    This author prefers Dixon Ticonderoga Number 2 pencils, fountain pens, and Pilot G2O pens in various weights and colors, and uses papers ranging from 16 pound to 110. Sometimes the medium is the message. He also has been without a microwave oven for almost 10 years.

  8. I almost always and only use books. Apps just don’t do it for me.

    The only exception to this occurs when we do a public candlelight celebration of vespers during Advent. Then we prepare our service texts and music for projection, white text on a dark background so as to preserve the darkness and highlight the light and beauty of the candles. That is the only exception.

  9. Taylor says:

    I like the books and candle light personally.

    The argument you make, if applied to humans, would disqualify us from even attempting to lift up a prayer since we tend to be constant sources of sin. If an IPad is not worthy of the Sanctuary, all the more unworthy the habitual sinner there behind the Altar or the Ambo. We see the sliver in the “eye” of the IPad, but do not perceive the “lumber yard” in the one using the IPad to sin.

    We should simply say that the sacred books are more familiar, more specialized, more holy. We should not assign the sinful works of the human user to them, because then only the book could remain in the Sanctuary.

  10. Tina says:

    I use an app to pray the Divine Office. I would LOVE to use the books but they are too expensive at this point in our lives. In a few years maybe we can afford it!

    • John W Stevens says:

      The Book of Christian prayer is just $33 on Amazon, and the Saint Joseph’s guide (helps you place the ribbons) is just $3. Hope that helps.

      • Maurice Richard says:

        In Canada Christian Prayer is about $96 and St. Joseph’s guide is $12.

      • pauvre says:

        My phone cost less than that, and would never have learned to pray in common without the Divine Office and iBreviary apps. I also have the Shorter Christian Prayer, thanks to a generous soul who wanted me to learn to pray that way, too, but I still struggle with it when the prayers change because of Memorials etc. or when praying in common (what page was the antiphon we’re repeating?). If we’re going to say that because it’s more proper to use the books vs. the apps, then a) the cost shouldn’t be prohibitive, and b) perhaps people with greater means might be willing to give them as gifts to those who cannot otherwise afford them.

  11. Morrie says:

    This struck a nerve. It provided a clue or supplied a variable which had been missing in an equation. Went off a lightbulb. I know now the rationale for setting aside (making holy) activities, buildings, objects, music, dress, style of worship, style of prayer, etc.

  12. [Take this tongue-in-cheek. I know it fails the “sacrifice” concept later in your article.]

    What if you had an iPad in a nicely gilt case that was set aside strictly for liturgical use and was locked down so that only the liturgical text app could be used?

  13. Kevin says:

    Really?!?! This is an issue? The logic of the premise discussed in the article seems inherently flawed given that everyone reading this article is using a “device”. I started praying the Liturgy of Hours 14 months ago and I’m thankful each day for this blessing from God, if you will. I use an app or a website, depending on my location. Am I really somehow less blessed? Am I really being less reverent? My shock and my concern is predicated on this: When we evangelize, when we disciple, are we really going to be more concerned about form than substance? I’m much more concerned about the inside of the cup than the outside. If it’s your preference, Monsignor, to use a candle and a book, I respect that. I came across the idea to recite the Divine Office in a Catholic Digest article in September of 2017. It named some websites I could use and also and app. I started using both as both were immediately available. Should I have waited and gone to a Catholic book store before I started?

    • Stephen Garland says:

      Kevin, would it hurt to give it a go when convenient? A book and candle sounds very settling and peaceful. Surely the act of preparation for prayer, the setting and physical actions and offerings, can either be inside the cup or an idol!. You started where you started, you are now where you are. Let go!

    • Deacon David Oatney says:

      My dear Brother;

      You are not less blessed because you were introduced to the Liturgy of the Hours through electronic media, and I think if you read the article very closely, Monsignor Pope is very careful to point that out…

      However, I would submit that you might be more blessed if you are able to use the books. I think it’s quite understandable if you are not, I point this out in my own comment that I just published, if you have the time to read it.

  14. Nico says:

    I very much agree that a physical text set aside solely for prayer is ideal for prayer. But I think the conveniences of using an app point to the shortfalls of our current Liturgy of the Hours: why are the books so big and bulky? Why not provide two-column editions that can be easily carried around throughout the day? Why not use thinner bible-paper? Why include psalm-prayers and alternative hymns from the roman office hymns?

    The book publishers have a lot to improve if they want to keep our business.

    My pre-Vatican II volumes are fantastic: very small and convenient to carry, 1-week psalter, no superfluous options to confuse me when I have only 10 minutes to pray. The Consilium should have preserved that no-nonsense practicality when they were producing the LoTH.

  15. Ryan says:

    I agreed that Catholic things are to be sacred.

    I have a Kindle on which I “only” have catholic books on it. I have the readings for mass and the liturgy of the hours both from Universalis on it as well. Why can’t a digital thing also be sacred? This feels much different than an iPhone with the Facebook app along side.

    I have a Sunday missal and Christian Prayer in book form as well it’s just much easier to carry the Kindle with me.

    But at the end of day would I have Father bless my Kindle? I dont know and can’t exactly put my finger on why not.

  16. Antonia says:

    Thank you, Msgr. Pope! This clarifies my intuition about the subject. I just couldn’t pinpoint why the books seemed like a better idea. I’ll try to make my way to them ASAP.

  17. Wayne Smith says:

    As is almost always the case the Church leaves us out of the picture. Who are we? We are the blind Catholics. Msgr. Pope does not even consider us or those with learning disabilities though he is a wonderful teacher. Msgr. Pope can you tell me if your Archdiocese has Braille versions of the Divine Office? If so, please take a look at the size and complexity of those volumes. The USCCB offices are in DC, do they have Braille volumes available? Should it be a requirement? Even this Comment section is not accessible and I needed sighted help.

  18. Mario says:

    Years ago, I tried using the Breviary once. I ran into the complications noted at the beginning. I think it was around December that I tried to do it too. So I switched to the Universalis app, which by the way wasn’t a free app. It was like $30 or so, but the Breviary books were $100 plus on Amazon if I remember correctly. And this was at a time when money was tight for me. I appreciate the sentiment here of keeping things sacred. However, I’m agreement with previous points made by Kevin and SPM regarding the substance rather than form of prayer and how typed books were once an advanced technology. Maybe it’s because I’m the product of Jesuit education, but there is also a value in making everything you do sacred, even on your computer and phone.

  19. John W Stevens says:

    I entirely agree. That said, when I was learning to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, I leaned heavily on the divineoffice.org web site to verify I had placed the ribbons in my breviary correctly! I then prayed out of the book, and yes, having that book be for and only praying the hours makes it special in a way that working off a web site on a computer or phone simply cannot mimic. Given a choice between not praying, though, or praying off the web site, always choose to pray.

  20. SPM says:

    Monsignor,

    One more thing. You are closer to the decision makers than I will ever be:

    The Liturgy of the Hours for Advent is roughly 1700 pages long, and it is the shortest of the four. Tell them to get rid of the poetry. Look at how the Office is actually prayed. Add another 100 pages (less than 1%) or so and put the prayers and readings where they are actually needed. This is most evident for the Octave of Christmas. The publisher/designer of the version we currently have insists on saving a few lines of space by not repeating a prayer or a psalm in a book that is ~2000 pages long. I would hope that when a new edition is printed they will talk with the priests and deacons who actually pray the Office. It is certainly true that there should be a penitential aspect to prayer, but I am not sure flipping ribbons and bookmarks constantly necessarily counts.

    I will not even start on the hymns. I am sure Father Lucien Deiss was a holy man, and I appreciate the effort he made, but really…

  21. Nina says:

    My uncle, a priest, passed away in 2007 and I discovered his breviary set. My pastor at the time was kind enough to teach me how to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. I purchased a “carry case” for the book and brought it with me to daily Mass. I came across the iBreviary app with the advent of my first smartphone and I immediately “unburdened” myself of the book. A few years ago, before a Saturday Vigil Mass began, I was doing Evening Prayer using my smartphone in the pew. Suddenly the display changed and showed a call was coming in. I panicked and, thinking the phone might ring, quickly bent forward and VERY quietly whispered, “I’m at Mass, I’ll call you back” and ended the call immediately. This took three seconds. Our parochial vicar witnessed this and approached me saying (not so quietly), “You should be ashamed of yourself. You’re in church! Put that thing away.” After Mass, I spoke to him. “Father, not as an excuse but as an explanation, I was using my phone to pray the office and panicked when a call came in, because I thought it might ring. So I quickly told the caller I was at Mass and hung up. I thought it was prudent in the moment.” What followed was an even louder berating that attracted the attention of others. The drama ended with, “Just accept the correction!” (Needless to say, I immediately went back to using the book.) I was not angry, just mystified. I never meant for that to happen. I thought he jumped to a conclusion. I wish he had explained the “sacredness” of the book at that time. It would have been a BIG help to me then! Then last year I read an article where Cardinal Sarah spoke about this very issue. He said this:

    “It is not worthy: it desacralises prayer…These apparatuses are not instruments consecrated and reserved to God, but we use them for God and also for profane things! Electronic devices must be turned off, or better still they can be left behind at home when we come to worship God.”

    My phone is always OFF now and tucked away in my purse while I’m at Mass. Now I get it! Thank you for this article. (One last thought: perhaps Father could have asked to speak to me privately after Mass in the sacristy. To all the priests out there, please give your parishioners the benefit of the doubt!)

  22. Israel B says:

    I agree with the premise Msgr. Pope offers. There is something emotionally powerful behind holding a Holy object. However, Book versus iPad/smartphone may represent a false dichotomy.

    Before clearing that hurdle, one must first commit on the Yes or No to daily prayer. If the iPad/smartphone gets you over that first hurdle, that is a net positive.

  23. Fr. Brent says:

    One thing that I didnt’t seen explicitly mentioned here, but which fits in the discussion on sacredness: a physical breviary Is a sacramental that disposes one to receive grace. I have not seen it argued that a phone/tablet does the same, though perhaps it could be argued from the ‘only liturgical apps’ approach.

  24. Deacon David Oatney says:

    I very much enjoyed this reflection. Like many, I have IBreviary on my own phone and laptop, and I have a 3 year old daughter who is daily care I am primarily responsible for, so there are times when I particularly cannot avoid the use of the electronic medium…

    However… I was encouraged via a passing remark during a reflection I happened to hear on a retreat for deacons recently that I ought to return to the use of the liturgical books whenever possible. I have done so since the retreat, and since doing so I have noticed a marked difference in my prayer life and my liturgical life. I never realized the complete extent to which the electronic media that I was using to pray the Breviarywhat’s really bringing about a great deal of distraction in my prayer life, and as a result was bringing about a great deal of distraction and disturbance in my relationship with God…

    I do think that electronic media have their place in prayer, especially for those not initiated in how to pray the Office, or those of us who are sometimes unavoidably distracted by the daily duties of life, or especially those who could not afford the cost of the liturgical books, which quite frankly can be very expensive, especially for many lay people. But where the books can be used, I think we ought to use the books, and I think that that is especially true for the clergy.

  25. Jim Anderson says:

    Msgr. Pope,

    Could you discuss with the Institute of Catholic Culture the possibility of producing a webinar series on praying the Liturgy of the Hours?

  26. Marc says:

    Our society’s misunderstanding and loss of the concepts of the sacred and the profane is so great a wound that, from my perspective, the question of whether one uses the printed breviary or an online version of the Office is a mere triviality, no more, no less. Since I’m not myself afflicted with that particular loss or misunderstanding I’ll continue to use the online version when the printed version is not at hand.

  27. Guy says:

    Of course it is. The point is praying it

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