A blessed smartphone or tablet? Yes. Parishioners at St. Matthew’s Church in Marsala (Sicily) were asked by Fr. Alessandro Palermo, a 30-year-old parish priest, to bring their smartphones and tablets to church for a special benediction this year before Christmas on the feast of St. Lucy: “With the advent of the Internet, social media and the technological revolution, mobile phones have become very important, we keep them always with us.”
Indeed, as we well know, the eyes of young and old, from elementary school students to grandparents, are glued to these devices. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell predicted this ominous development. Big Brother says: “The people will not revolt. They will not look up from their screens long enough to notice what’s happening.” Cardinal Robert Sarah calls such distraction “the dictatorship of noise” – overuse and abuse of technology, especially smartphones, and the inability of people to discern good from evil, hurtful from beneficial.
According to a Pew Research Center survey, 95 percent of Americans now own a mobile phone of some kind. The share of Americans that own smartphones is 77 percent, up from just 35 percent in 2011. Moreover, technology and mobile phones are constantly adding functions, which has the potential to increase overuse – and abuse.
Misuse of a cell phone or smartphone can result in a number of physical problems: digital eyestrain, blurred vision, headache, and other symptoms.
But worse than physical damage, misuse of technology can cause moral damage. “Eyes and sight must be educated, protected, trained even when we look at the screen of our mobile phone. It is not a question of health (staring too much with your eyes on a screen can hurt people’s vision), but it is also a moral issue,” explains Fr. Palermo.
In other words, smartphones can tempt us to evil thoughts through evil sight, so the eyes of the person who uses technology need protection and benediction. The tragedies caused by misuse of smartphones have ruined lives and have caused even death. “That is why a blessing can do good, not to the phone but to the people who use it,” said Fr. Palermo.
The Church has long urged people to reflect on the moderate and moral use of technology. Inter Mirifica (“The Means of Social Communication”), the Second Vatican Council’s decree promulgated by Blessed Pope Paul VI on December 4, 1963, addressed concerns and problems associated with the media, starting a tradition in the Church of giving more attention to the importance of the means of modern communication. The decree invites people not just to communicate, but to reflect on what they are communicating.
Since communication is key to the life of the Catholic Church, Inter Mirifica seeks to instruct people, especially the young, about media:
Those who make use of the media of communications, especially the young, should take steps to accustom themselves to moderation and self-control in their regard. They should, moreover, endeavor to deepen their understanding of what they see, hear or read. They should discuss these matters with their teachers and experts, and learn to pass sound judgments on them. Parents should remember that they have a most serious duty to guard carefully lest shows, publications, and other things of this sort, which may be morally harmful, enter their homes or affect their children under other circumstances.
This amounts to applying ancient virtues to modern circumstances: Moderation and responsibility, a beneficial use of the media, being on guard about what is harmful to the Church and its evangelizing mission.
But what does Saint Lucy have to do with smartphones?
Saint Lucy (Santa Lucia in Italian) was a Christian martyr, patroness of Syracuse in Sicily who lived between A.D. 283 and 304 and died during the Diocletian persecutions of A.D. 304. According to tradition, she had her eyes gouged out. So she is the patron saint of the blind, glazers, and authors – and by extension seems poised to become a special guide for the beneficial use of digital media.
“That is why I want to bless the smartphones,” comments Fr. Palermo. It’s important to understand what happens when the Church blesses an object. The Catholic Benedictionary or Book of Blessings includes benediction of “the instruments of social communication” (No. 927), or the blessing of things designated for ordinary usage.
The Church sees reasons to bless many kinds of things: from grapes to wine for the sick; from medicine to beer, cheese or butter; from lard and oil to salt and oats for animals; from fire and airplanes to railway cars. Then, why not bless the most cherished modern object: the smartphone? The following formula from the Rituale Romanum of 1962 may be used by any priest for the blessing of anything that does not have its own special blessing:
God, whose word suffices to make all things holy, pour out your blessing + on this object (these objects); and grant that anyone who uses it (them) with grateful heart and in keeping with your law and will, may receive from you, its (their) Maker, health in body and protection of soul by calling on your holy name; through Christ our Lord.
[It (they) is (are) sprinkled with holy water.]
The Church has always displayed a passion for and attention to communication, through word or image, pen or paint. For every affliction and addiction, the Church has a Benediction. However unusual it may at first appear, in blessing mobile devices, the Church has begun a much-needed outreach, urging people to get the best out of technology and to use smartphones smartly, so that, rather than instruments of immorality, our devices become instruments of virtue and well-being.
**Image: Santa Lucia by Jacopo Palma il Giovane, 1620 [Church of SS. Geremia e Lucia, Venice]