iPray: Catholics using smartphones, other tech to pray

By Jill Kruse and Dan Russo
Witness Staff

DUBUQUE — On a recent weekday at the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center in Dubuque, a group of staff, including Archbishop Jackels, gathered in a conference room for midmorning prayer.

Participants pulled out smartphones and tablets. With a few quick touches on screens, those assembled opened an app called iBreviary, which contained the entire text of the day’s Liturgy of the Hours, a series of daily prayers said by clergy, religious and lay people of the Catholic Church worldwide. Tricia Tranel, a specialist with the Archdiocesan Resource Center, stepped forward to lead the recitation of the first psalm.

“It’s nice that we all have the same translations,” she said afterward, of the advantages of using the app. “I think there’s something powerful about praying together, and it also makes us aware of other people’s intentions and needs.”

The center staff has been gathering together for Mass at least once a month for years, but only recently began the daily morning prayer, acting on a suggestion from Father John Riccardo. The priest was the featured speaker at the Pastoral Leadership Study Day in Waterloo in October for people who work in parish ministry. Father Riccardo urged all staffs to pray together daily so that they could be more effective as a team in serving the church.

In the case of the pastoral center staff’s effort, technology immediately played a key role in the group prayer, especially since many participants don’t own the traditional breviary prayer books, which would have cost money to purchase and take time to learn how to use. Tranel and her pastoral center colleagues are just a few of the many local Catholics who are using technology, especially smartphones, to enhance their spiritual lives.

“It makes it more convenient,” said Tranel, who uses several prayerful smart­phone apps, including one from Magnificat magazine, which offers daily meditations.

Most people who use smartphones and devices, Tranel included, recognize that there are plusses and minuses to the technology. Pope Francis recently made headlines for his comments during a general audience at the Vatican Nov. 8 when he was critical of the over-use of cameras on mobile devices at Mass.

“It makes me so sad when I celebrate (Mass) in the square or in the basilica and I see so many cellphones in the air,” said the pope, according to a report from the Catholic News Service. “And not just by the lay faithful, some priests and bishops, too.”

Although the pope has expressed the idea that too many photos can take away from people experiencing the passion and resurrection of Jesus during the Eucharist, he has also recognized new technology’s potential to foster prayer and evangelization. Pope Francis has an active presence on social media and started an effort called “The Pope Video,” during which he shares his special prayer intentions each month via a video that is shared over the internet.

Technology as a Tool for Christ

Smartphones and other mobile devices are an increasingly important part of life. According to a recent survey by Pew Research Center, in 2017, about 77 percent of U.S. adults say they own a smartphone. This is up from just 35 percent in 2012. Judy Ramsey, adolescent faith formation director at St. Joseph Parish in Marion, is among those who are using this technology to pray.

“The apps on my phone are my main source of Scripture reading,” said Ramsey. “I use my Bible apps for the daily readings and to follow my favorite Catholic blogs and websites. The advantage of using my phone is that the entire Bible, (the Catechism of the Catholic Church) and prayers of the church are in my back pocket. There is no way I would actually carry those books with me all day.”

Ramsey keeps in mind the positive and negative aspects to the new technology as she works with teens at her parish.

“We have been able to pass on to our young church the advantages and disadvantages of having a device in their back pockets,” said Ramsey. “We often have them pull out their phones and model how their devices can assist them in prayer and learning. I am proud to say that by sophomore year, most of our young people have a Bible app on their phone and are part of a church based group text. They use that group text to send our prayer requests and encourage each other in their faith.”

Ramsey is careful to educate teens and parents on the downsides of mobile devices, while constantly also using them for good.

“Because of smartphones, computers, tablets and TV, for that matter, our young people are smothered with negative influences,” she said. “Protecting their innocence and teaching them how to balance the information they have access to must become part of our responsibility. Helping parents understand how these devices can help and hurt their families is also part of our responsibility and youth leaders.”

Suzy Luecke, faith formation manager and RCIA coordinator for St. Patrick Parish in Cedar Falls, is another person who has embraced a smartphone as part of her spiritual journey.

“I utilize it on a daily basis to see the Mass readings before I go to daily Mass,” she said.

Luecke also accesses reflections from Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire ministry on her mobile device. Aside from her personal prayer, Luecke reports that for Advent, her parish will be sending out digital materials to the community from Catholic apologist Christopher West for people to access on their devices.

Text messages coming in during prayer can offer distraction, but overall Luecke believes the impact of her smartphone has been beneficial, and she would encourage others to try praying with a device.

“I think at first it was a little awkward,” she said. “If (you are) thinking of trying it, ask someone who knows technology to help (you). Give it a try and don’t be afraid of technology.”

A Priest’s Perspective on Tech

Like many laymen and women, priests also sometimes use their smartphones for prayer.

Father Aaron Junge, associate pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish and Catholic Student Center in Ames and SS. Peter and Paul Parish in Gilbert, uses his iPhone 7 as a tool to help him in his spirit­ual life.

The 27-year-old priest likes to utilize the iBreviary app to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, particularly if he is traveling or for other reasons doesn’t have the physical copy of his breviary at hand.

Father Junge also accesses the daily Scripture readings on his smartphone and uses the Reimagining the Examen app created by Loyola Press, which helps him to prayerfully reflect on his day or on a particular situation.

His phone is especially useful to him, Father Junge said, because as a priest “those moments of time to pray may present themselves suddenly and having quick access to some resources to guide that prayer or make note of fruit from prayer is very helpful.”

However, Father Junge also recognizes the negative aspects of using a smartphone for prayer and the technology’s limitations.

“I think that the use of a smartphone in prayer is a mixed bag,” he said. “On one level there is the immediacy of having almost any resource in the tradition right at your fingertips. However on the other, it can be easy to allow that to be an excuse for us to keep one eye or ear on the world — in our incoming emails or texts — and not focused on the Lord who wants to be with us totally.”

In order to keep away distraction, Father Junge makes a point of not having his smartphone on or with him during his morning holy hour.

Father Junge also said he doesn’t believe the smartphone or any particular app is the “magic bullet” to connecting with young people, because, in his opinion, there is still something more sacramental in opening a physical book for prayer.

“You feel the page turn. You can watch the font fade over days, weeks, months, years of use. You can underline, highlight, scribble notes. You can feel the joy of pulling a book that God has used to speak to you over and over off the shelf in a way your phone wont let you,” he said.

As a priest, Father Junge said he also enjoys seeing others with their physical Bibles and prayer books and journals too, calling it a “beautiful thing” to witness.

“The wear and tear, the dog-eared ­pages, the coffee stains,” he reflected, “all of it reveal a heart that has continually gone to the Lord in a way that a pristine glass screen just can’t.”

Apps and Online Resources for Catholics

Education Resource Center of The Archdiocese of Dubuque

The Education Resource Center of the Archdiocese of Dubuque has an online catalogue of resources for adults and children and also shares useful information online via its Pinterest page, a form of social media. For more information, visit dbqarch.org.

Apps for Catholic Prayer

  • Laudate – Includes Liturgy of the Hours, daily Mass readings, many Catholic prayers and more.
  • Prayers 2000+ – Includes many Catholic written prayers.
  • Bible – Catholic Study – Full Catholic Bible text, daily Mass readings and more.
  • iBreviary – One of the first Catholic smartphone apps. Contains Liturgy of the Hours prayer and other features.
  • FOCUS Equip – Offers a guide for Bible study, video and audio talks, and more.
  • The Pope App – This is the official app for Pope Francis, which provides news on him, the Vatican and much more.
  • Mea Culpa – An app that helps you make a good confession by guiding you through an examination of conscience and offering other help.
  • Truth & Life – An app that gives you access to the entire Bible and also provides audio recordings of books of the Bible that you can listen to, among other extras.

(Photo by Dan Russo, image of hands courtesy of Pixabay.com)

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