Unholy Smoke! Eucharist Celebration Not a Photo-op, Says Pope

By Fr Joshan Rodrigues –

Rev. Fr. Joshan Rodrigues

In a double whammy of sorts, Pope Francis has this unique knack of putting his finger on issues that may seem to be small and insignificant but nevertheless make headlines across the globe. Some have called him the ‘King of One-liners’ while some marketing and advertising professionals have begun looking upto him as a ‘Guru’. His “Who am I to judge?” is still fresh in the public consciousness even today. Regardless, Pope Francis is now setting the agenda for the media in a reversal from his predecessor.

This last week was no different. Pope Francis hit a double six, so to say, one in word and the other in action. During his Wednesday audience, Francis has now begun to address the liturgy and the sacraments, having concluded the series of audiences on the theme of Christian hope. While speaking about the Eucharist, he said:

“Why does the priest presiding at the celebration say at a certain point: “Lift up your hearts”? He does not say: “Lift up your cell phones to take a photo!”. No, that’s bad! I tell you, it makes me sad when I am celebrating here in Saint Peter’s Square or in the Basilica to see many cell phones lifted up, not only by the faithful but also by some priests and even bishops! But please! Mass is not a spectacle: it is going to encounter the Passion and Resurrection of the Lord. This is why the priest says: “Lift up our hearts”. What does this mean? Remember: no cell phones.”

There is some great wisdom here. Mobile phones have become such an integral part of our life that it intrudes into every waking moment of our life. For many, the first act after waking up in the morning, is to check their phone for messages. Cell-phones have invaded classrooms, corporate meetings, family gatherings and now even Church. It’s common practice in most churches in Mumbai to make an announcement before every Sunday Mass reminding people to switch off their cell-phones. Even then you still have the odd one going off. It’s not uncommon to see people sometimes exiting Church during Mass to take an ‘important’ phone call. The Lord of Heaven and Earth who is before us and in whose awesome presence we are standing has sadly become ‘less important’.   

There are a lot of books being written about this today (many of which I am reading) which caution us about cell-phones invading private and sacred spaces. The more ‘connected’ we become, the more ‘isolated’ we are becoming; more ‘alone’ we feel. It is highly recommended that we switch off our cell-phones when we are in prayer and at Mass. You don’t need a cell-phone to connect to God. For myself, I have made it a point not to use my cell-phone even for praying the Divine Office (even though there are apps for that); I use the traditional breviary. At some level it seems wrong for me to carry my constantly pinging cell-phone inside the Church or chapel. It has also rightly been prohibited to use an iPad in Church to substitute for the Missal or Lectionary.

A priest colleague of mine here in Rome who is from Peru told me how once he spontaneously entered a Church to attend Mass when he was a seminarian. It was a small Church with not many people present. At the time of the Penitential Rite, suddenly the Church reverberated with the sound of angelic voices in high choir singing the ‘Lord have mercy’. This guy frantically looked around to see where this beautiful choir was. But to his surprise he saw no one. It took him a few minutes to realise that the priest celebrating Mass had an iPad on the Altar connected to the Church’s audio system. Now I’m sure the priest had the best intentions in mind and wanted to make the Mass as beautiful as he could for those participating. It can be difficult to find people to sing for you during the week. And hence I am not judging him. But yet there is something amiss when we have to use an iPad to give praise to God instead of the offering of our own human voices.

In parenthesis, I must admit though that a Papal Mass at St Peter’s cannot be compared with say, Mass at my parish. Most of the people present there have come from all over the world (probably once in their lifetime) and it is moment of great joy and excitement for them to be at Mass with the Pope in St Peter’s Basilica or Square. Can you blame them if they want to take a picture?

Coming now to the second whammy! The next day (Thursday), news emerged from the Vatican, that  as of 2018, smokers wanting to buy cheap cigarettes at the Vatican will have to go looking somewhere else, since Pope Francis has decreed that the sale of tobacco will no longer be allowed inside the walled state. “The reason is very simple,” said Vatican spokesperson Greg Burke, “the Holy See cannot contribute to an activity that clearly damages the health of people.” Burke cited statistics indicating the harmful effect of cigarette smoke. Every year more than seven million people die in the world due to complications caused by smoking, according to the World Health Organization. In Italy, taxes have caused cigarette costs to surge – making it not uncommon for citizens to opt to buy their smokes in the Vatican, where prices are considerably lower.

This news made ripples across the globe, understandably so. What was surprising to see was that newspapers and media outlets that usually never cover any Church news also jumped onto this juicy bit of news with questionable intentions. However, what was alarming was that no context was provided. It must be said, that smoking is seen differently in different parts of the world. To see priests or religious smoking in India would appear scandalous to the general public. But here in Europe, smoking is considered a normal habit for everyone, priests included. I must admit that when I first arrived in Rome, I was shocked to see some priests smoking, but I soon realised that I had to look at it from a European point of view. In fact in my personal experience, I have seen more Italian women smoking than men here in Rome. An Italian would probably tell you that banning cigarettes here in Rome is akin to banning fizzy drinks at schools in Mumbai.

Pope Francis banning cigarette sales in the Vatican is a huge symbolic gesture. Even though he realises that banning it will probably not stop people from smoking (you can buy cigarettes just outside the Vatican walls in Italian territory); yet as the spiritual leader of more than a billion Catholics around the world, his every word and gesture has huge social implications and carries an ethical weight for the rest of the world. This small but powerful action can encourage governments and peoples across the world to do more to kick out this habit and live healthier lives. Our body is after all the Temple of the Holy Spirit. 

Fr Joshan Rodrigues is from the Archdiocese of Bombay, India. He is currently studying Institutional and Church Communications at the Pontifical Holy Cross University in Rome. Travelling, reading and social media are his passions. His drive is to make Church teaching more accessible to younger audiences and he holds G.K. Chesterton, Bishop Robert Barron and the Venerable Fulton Sheen among his role models for this task. He analyses different aspects of daily Christian life and culture through catholic lenses in his blog, Musings in Catholic Land.