When it comes to liturgical details, the Vatican has clear guidelines about sacred objects that are blessed for use during a Mass. "The Church has always sought," notes the Book of Blessings, "to ensure that all those things that are involved in any way in divine worship should be worthy, becoming and beautiful. ... Those objects that through a blessing are set aside for divine worship are to be treated with reverence by all and to be put only to their proper use, never profaned."
This includes books on the altar, as noted in the 2001 text Liturgiam authenticam (The Authentic Liturgy): "The books from which the liturgical texts are recited in the vernacular with or on behalf of the people should be marked by such a dignity that the exterior appearance of the book itself will lead the faithful to a greater reverence for the word of God and for sacred realities."
But the question some Catholics are asking these days is this: Can there be an app for that? What if clergy used iPads containing the Roman Missal?
At this point, the hierarchy has not publicly approved this leap, noted Father John J.M. Foster, who teaches liturgical law at the Catholic University of America. But that doesn't mean that the Vatican might not support the limited use of an iPad application, which recently was created by an Italian priest who is a consultant with the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.
Nevertheless, it's hard to imagine priests walking in processions with iPads lifted high. Could that happen?
"Not yet," said Foster. "That doesn't mean that some parish somewhere isn't going to make PDF copies of the Gospels, put them on an iPad and hand them to the deacon. ... However, we shouldn't assume that something can be used in the liturgy, simply because it has not been forbidden."
This buzz began in June, when Father Paolo Padrini said he was releasing an app offering the Roman Missal -- the texts that are read and sung during Masses throughout the year -- in Latin, English, Italian, French and Spanish. Two years earlier, he created an iBreviary for the iPhone, containing the Catholic book of daily prayers.
The Catholic blogosphere reacted immediately. Certainly in iMissal would help priests, such as military chaplains, who were constantly on the move. Priests with weak eyesight could change font sizes in a few seconds. But what would happen if the app crashed during Mass? Could laypeople read along, or would they be tempted to check their email?
The church, however, has faced technical questions before. Hand-written volumes gave way to those printed on presses. However, priests cannot hear confessions by telephone. Internet confessions don't work, either.
Speaking as a "self-professed geek who is a lover of both technology and theology," Jeff Miller of the Curt Jester website confessed that he has mixed emotions about liturgical texts on mobile devices.
"This might be a question answered by the Vatican sometime in the future, though they are notoriously slow in answering questions of this type," wrote Miller. "I can certainly see why some priests would appreciate an electronic version of the Roman Missal. It would be much harder to loose your place and in fact easier to find the correct section each day. I love electronic versions of the Liturgy of the Hours because it makes it so easy to read ... without having to thumb through a bunch of ribboned bookmarks."
Some changes will be needed, stressed Jeff Geerling of Open Source Catholic. For example, the screens on these devices will need to operate without strong backlighting. Imagine the blue-glow distraction of iPads during candlelight services. And that omnipresent aluminum shell?
"An appropriate case," he noted, "would need to be manufactured to (a) mask the logo on the back, and (b) downplay the fact that a bit of electronic technology is being used. Something simple; perhaps a nice red leather case?"
At this point, noted Foster, no one knows how these apps will evolve. One thing is certain. Priests would need to look up prayers for special occasions and rites.
"There would still be work to do," he said. "That's why we have all those ribbons. It's not like you could just call up a day of the year and everything would be right there so that you could keep scrolling on and on and on. It's not that simple."