August 5, 2020

What you can and can’t project at Mass

What you can and can’t project at Mass

Maybe it’s the pandemic that forced you to set up a screen, or perhaps your church building was designed with screens, but you haven’t made much use of them before now. In any case, these strange times may leave you wondering what on earth you should be using the screens for.

I recall, years ago, when screens and projection became popular in the classroom. Many of us dutifully transferred all of our notes to slides, with all the excruciating detail that we wanted students to understand. It didn’t take long for us to realize that using screens to replicate what we were saying could lead students to a kind of zombie-like state. We learned that what we put on the screen needed to enhance the learning experience, not simply replicate what we were going to say.

I have been thinking about this as we have heard that some parishes are moving to the use of projection systems in the liturgy. To my mind then, there are similar principles to follow and some direction from the USCCB that we must follow.

Projecting readings and prayers

Based on instruction that ultimately comes from Rome, the USCCB does not give permission to project the readings and presidential prayers of the liturgy. I believe there are a couple of reasons why the neither the Holy See and the USCCB nor those of us involved in parish liturgy should want to project these texts. Whether using a missal or hymnal with readings like we publish here at OCP, or a lectionary or the Roman Missal for presidential prayers, there is a spiritual dimension to ink on paper. That is why liturgical books and missals should be sent to be recycled with a degree of reverence. They are the instruments that mediate God’s word. The lector lifts the reading off the page, and the priest makes the prayer on the page the prayer of the community. Putting them on a screen can interfere with that living prayer relationship. So, because we don’t have permission and because it really doesn’t help the liturgy, don’t do it.

Projecting words and music for the assembly to use

It took me a while and multiple experiences, but I have come to see that at the times when the assembly is supposed to sing or recite something together, screens can work very well. In these days where singing is prohibited in some places, projecting and reciting the texts of liturgical responses, along with well-loved liturgical music can be very effective.

OCP, GIA and others gave permission to parishes for the use of their titles for livestreaming when the churches were closed. For OCP missal and hymnal customers of 50 or more books, we’re offering free use of OCP-owned, administered or published copyrights until the end of the 2020 liturgical year. So as we start to open, if the regulations of your diocese or state are leading you to use projection, even on a temporary basis, be sure you get the necessary permissions.

Projecting images

Beyond these uses, some parishes are exploring the use of projection of the visual arts in other parts of the liturgical celebration. While keeping the focus on the altar, and on the liturgy as it unfolds, I have seen an increased use of thematic images by preachers to support their homilies and to support the prayer of a given Sunday, either before or during the liturgy. It seems to me that the same principles need to apply in these moments.

First, the Catholic parish needs to be exemplary in their attention to issues of justice. Images often have copyrights associated with them, either for the artist who made the art or for the photographer who made the image. I know that the internet can at times be an almost lawless place where images and words are posted with little concern for copyrights. But we should not be taking food from the mouths of those who make art. So, if you find an image that will make your sermon come to life or a sound recording that you want to play before or after Mass, again, permissions are generally simple and inexpensive to acquire. Let’s set the example.

Second, the liturgy is live. There may be times when a prepared sound recording or visual image can enhance the live experience, but the live moment is the moment of God’s grace. We have to keep that as our central focus. Always.


In the end then, use projection with care, project what you have the right to project, and constantly evaluate its use. Is it coming between the people and the ministers of the liturgy? Is it helping or hindering their common prayer? Keep these concerns in mind, and then share your experience with projection. As this technology becomes more prevalent in Catholic churches, the experiences of people like you will help shape the future.

Dr. Glenn CJ Byer
Dr. Glenn CJ Byer

Dr. Glenn CJ Byer has written widely on the liturgy, including books and articles on the meaning of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, marriage preparation, the renovation of churches and the anointing of the sick. He speaks widely on the role of lay ministers in the Mass.