Cardinal Sarah says we shouldn’t pray with our phones. I’m not so sure

A Maronite priest holds a mobile phone (Getty)

Until a week ago, I had generally been in total agreement with pretty much everything Cardinal Sarah says. But his remark last week gave me pause: “Perhaps it is very practical to pray the breviary with my own mobile phone or tablet, but it is not worthy: it desacralizes prayer.”  The cardinal also suggested that priests should not use electronic devices even for praying the liturgy of the hours. With the greatest respect for His Eminence, it’s worth considering why many Catholics, clerical and lay, find these prayer apps indispensable.

For me, these apps have been a great introduction to the prayer of the Church. Being a recent convert, the Liturgy of the Hours was something I only stumbled across online months after my reception in to the Church; but I was able to find various apps with ease, and these (however infrequently prayed) gave me access to the Church’s life that extends beyond what had been my limited experience of just Sunday Mass. Would I have so naturally prayed the Hours with a Breviary, where most of my effort would be spent tracking down the appropriate prayers? For me and millions of the faithful these resources have allowed prayer to feature in the here and now of everyday life.

Cardinal Sarah argues that electronic devices “desacralize” prayer. My understanding is that the (formal) technicalities of prayer must always take a back seat for love and humility, which alone (but of course inspired by grace) drive us to prayer. Are these physical books anything more than instruments to prayer? Am I somehow praying a different prayer when using a mobile device? Is it less pleasing to God?

His Eminence has a point that these devices can be “unworthy” for prayer. At least with physical Breviaries, one can enter into a state of prayerful concentration (prayer being the sole and express purpose of the book), whereas phones will always bring potential temptations and distractions. But there may be another solution. The early Christians sanctified the secular calendar and gave it a new significance, through which the (literally) menial could be seen to contain the treasure of the magical, and the day the eternal. Perhaps we too should make use of what is at society’s disposal, especially in an age of such rapid technological advancements – using everything for the glory of God, subjecting all knowledge to Christ  (2 Cor 10:5), for nothing in itself is unclean (Romans 14:14). As the Pontifical Council for Social Communications has said, “the Church has taken a fundamentally positive approach to the media”, and it seems only fitting to realise the potential of media for the Church in the modern world, reading the signs of the times.

As the cardinal himself concedes, electronic devices are “very practical”. I can attest to this: navigation of the Breviary and mastery of those dreaded ribbons takes time, in my case a frustratingly long time, and I cannot see the Church discouraging easy use of a prayer aid for such clueless neophytes. If you are easily distracted, you can always switch on airplane mode.

The Liturgy of the Hours has already developed much over the centuries. Now might be the time to accept this subtle formal adaptation, translating the exact same content to a medium more immediately relevant to us.

We should allow grace to infect every aspect of our lives. If that means using devices we might associate with the profane, perhaps that can be an occasion of conversion for us. Cardinal Sarah is of course right that mobile phones can be used for sinful activities. But it might be precisely the use of phones in prayer which can deter us from these occasions of sin.

There is an even more salient point here: it can be unhealthy to make too great a distinction between the sacred and not-sacred in our everyday lives, especially when we take the not-sacred (or secular) to be something intrinsically bad, closed off from and opposed to the Faith. We must engage with the not-sacred in our lives, and we should embrace the secular (as in not explicitly religious) elements of life not with contempt but as a state of affairs willed and loved by God, recognising this is the case for the whole created order.

Maybe I’ve misunderstood His Eminence. But simply put, I consider it a blessing that the same device that many times becomes an obstacle to God should at others help me to stay more consciously in His presence.