The Awareness Heuristic: School Shootings and Flying Monstrances

I suspect that by now many Pray Tell readers have seen the video of the monstrance being flown in by drone that has been making the internet rounds. This has, predictably, produced howls of outrage, not simply from those who believe (to quote one website reporting on this story) “The Vatican II Sect is from the deepest pits of hell, and we must pray fervently that Almighty God may soon rid the world of this apostate institution once and for all,” but also from fairly sober quarters who, rightly, have a hard time seeing how this is an appropriate expression of worship of our eucharistic Lord.

At the same time, however, I want to say, “get a grip people.” Yes, this is at least materially bordering on sacrilege (I hesitate to guess at the motivation behind it, but I suspect it was not a desire to mock the Holy Eucharist). I mainly want people to get a grip because it would be a grave mistake to think that things such as this, though they draw a lot of attention, are a good indication of what is wrong with liturgical worship in the Church today.

In looking at reactions to this, I was put in mind of a column by David Ropeik, a statistician at Harvard, written in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland Florida. In it, he notes that if we take the total number of deaths from such shootings since the Columbine killings, we see that a student has a 1 in 614,000,000 chance of being killed in a mass shooting at school. This, he is quick to note, is not nothing, but it is a far, far lower risk than a child has of being killed “traveling to and from school, catching a potentially deadly disease while in school or suffering a life-threatening injury playing interscholastic sports.” Further, even if we are looking only at gun deaths, children are far more likely to be killed at home with a handgun than at school with an assault-style weapon. But that doesn’t seem to make any difference in terms of our fear-level. The sheer wrongness of cases of children being killed at school, he notes, “trigger powerful emotions that swamp the odds” He goes on to note,

As a result of what the cognitive sciences call “the awareness heuristic” — a mental shortcut we use to quickly assess the likely frequency of things we don’t know much about — the more readily an event leaps to mind from our memory, or the more persistently it’s in the news, the more emotionally powerful and probable it feels…. [One] effect of this disproportionate fear is to direct attention to the risks we’re most afraid of and away from those that actually pose the greatest threat…. Fear also leads us to do things in pursuit of safety that may do more harm than what we’re afraid of in the first place.

As they say, “hard cases make bad law,” not least because hard cases are exceedingly rare, and their emotional power might lead us to pose solutions that will actually make things worse in the vast majority of not-so-hard-cases. And the attention that we pay to school shootings must not lead us to ignore all the other ways in which young people are victims of gun violence

All of which is to say that flying monstrances are the school shootings of the liturgy. Yes, they are bad—so bad, in fact, that they can transfix our gaze and making us both ignore more pressing questions and propose solutions that might have a cascade of unintended, and negative, consequences.

Flying monstrances are a threat to the faith. But so is bad preaching, amateurish music, poor proclamation of the scriptures, bored celebrants, inattention to symbols, childish catechesis, and so forth. And these things are, I dare say, far more common than flying monstrances. So let us by all means, say “no” to flying monstrances. But let us not let this distract us from the pervasive threat of mediocrity (whatever you might say about flying monstrances, mediocre they are not!) nor lead us to propose solutions that would harm the liturgy more than help it, such as a return to overly rigid rubricism (I’m all in favor of moderately rigid rubricism) or the elimination of all attempts at local inculturation.


  1. Curiously, I seem to hear a choir valiantly performing a magnificent piece of music, somewhere behind all that hollering and clapping by the congregation. Or was that dubbed in?

  2. There was a time when anything monstrance was certainly something pre-conciliar. The Catholic Right is certainly fond of technology, so I’m not entirely willing to let this one be pinned on a thought for progressive worship.

    Otherwise, I appreciate the focus on better preaching, music, etc.. Somehow it is much easier to legislate against particular bugaboos. It is deucedly hard to promulgate quality. Slavish adherence to rubrics, translations, etc. certainly does nothing to support, let alone inspire, a push for greater artistry and competence. Say the black, do the red sets the bar frighteningly low. Maybe that was par for 1960, but we can do better today.

    1. I’ve never encountered anyone who endorses “say the black, do the red” who sees that as the only bar to be set. It is always accompanied by a desire for better preaching, music, artistry, etc.

      1. A lot of online people seem to treat it as a magical/Tridentine thing. Many misunderstand the basics of liturgical options. It’s not unimportant, mind you. But when a person gets to college, usually coloring within the lines or not taking candy from strangers becomes less of a concern.

      2. Again, I would say my experience does not allign with your mischaracterization.

        Also, a good professor would have no problem reteaching a concept to a group of students if they seemingly had no grasp of it, regardless of how basic it may be.

  3. FWIW, Ropeik’s statistic was for any given day, meaning that the chance of a student’s “chance of being killed in a mass shooting at school” over a k-12 plus college academic career is about one in 200,000, which helps to explain the concerns of students and parents.

    1. Still, in terms of proportionate risk, school shootings are pretty low on the list of things that pose threats to children. In you look at the odds over a lifetime of someone in America dying in any sort of mass shooting it is 1 in 11,125. Odds of dying in a car accident are 1 and 491; drowning is 1 in 1,133; and choking on food is 1 in 3,461. So my point remains the same: there are far more dangerous activities that we think little to nothing about because 1) they don’t horrify out basic sense of what the world should be about and 2) they don’t garner headlines.

      1. It’s important to broaden the focus from those who are killed to those who experience gun violence. According to one source, 187,000 school-age persons have been exposed to gun violence in their schools. I’m sure a simliar significant number exists for those who have experienced in their neighborhoods police brutality, or in their homes abuse sexual, physical, or psychological.

        That doesn’t deny the need to call out flying monstrances. But it does help us to keep things in perspective. Many people experience technology as a moment of awe. Fair enough. But that impulse can be channeled for a better presentation.

  4. The prospect of a school shooting is so dreadful, and the consequences so potentially horrifying, including a lifetime of post-trauma even if one survives, and being mutilated and in pain for life, as many shooting victims are — not to mention death and the loss of those near to you — that a high level of public concern seems to me totally rational and justified. These young people are hiding under desks during drills, and given the chance to imagine bloody and fatal attacks repeatedly. They are not supposed to be afraid, or their parents are supposed to not be concerned, because it’s unlikely to happen often? Even once is too much.

    The problem of school shootings is not comparable to concern over flying monstrances. (What a sentence!) There are serious reasons why a religious community surrounds holy things with certain taboos and subjects them to regulations; especially if they want to continue to maintain that they are holy. I do not deny that. I think a regulation (perhaps not needed before) to prohibit using drone technology for the display of the Blessed Sacrament would be altogether reasonable and fitting. Human hands and not machines ought to have custody of the consecrated species. Let’s call people back to sanity here. But if holy things are mishandled, or if liturgy is celebrated in a manner unfitting, no one will die or be maimed for life. The school shooting scenario is of a completely different order of severity.

    1. Would it help if the drone had a lace fringe or flew a banner of the liturgically appropriate color?

      Silly notions of how to express an appropriately awe-ful, joy-ful, and intimate reverence toward the Eucharistic species have been around for a long time. Just for grins, Google “Scoppio del Carro.”

      A feature of Easter Sunday morning at the cathedral in Florence, this involves a rocket-powered dove launched from the altar to ignite a 30-foot stack of fireworks piled on a cart just outside the door of the church.

      That particular bit of craziness apparently has been with us in more or less its present form since the late 15th century. So we can’t even blame the Reformation. Or the Counterreformation. Or Vatican II. Or the return of Roseanne.

      1. I don’t think people have an issue with it being a crazy expression of devotion that uses modern technology – they have an issue with it involving the Eucharist being treated in an irreverent way. Looking up “Scoppio del Carro,” it seemingly does not involve placing the Host on the rocket dove.

        BTW, I’ve heard lots of stories from older Catholics about the popularity of fireworks, sparklers, etc at devotions/processions before the 1960s.

      2. Pat, why do you pose this question to me? It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with what I am saying.

  5. I actually think this comparison might be more appropriate than we may like to think. Public celebration of the sacraments is the Church’s primary tool of evangelization, and the way we celebrate it greatly informs the faith of the of the masses. People tend to assume that whatever they see in their parishes is totally legit and licit (because why shouldn’t they?). In my capacity as a liturgical assistant and catechist, it breaks my heart whenever I see that look of confusion in someone’s eyes when I try to correct misconceptions that they learned in other parishes, because that aura of comfortability and trust fades, and a few years ago a local parish basically collapsed due to this phenomenon on a larger scale.

    Liturgical abuses aren’t just bad because of the indignity they inflict on the rites themselves, but because impressionable people see them and come to view the liturgy and the faith as something that it is not. Flying monstrances won’t literally kill people in the same way that mass shooters will (unless the drone crash lands into the congregation…), but it can help kill their faith, which in the context of the Church would be complete failure of its primary mission. As much as I would like to write off this metaphor as a fire and brimstone clickbait headline, there’s a surprising amount of reality to it in my experience.

    1. Patrick,

      If I may press the point I made above just a little further, in light of your comment.

      A misunderstanding of faith, or liturgy, or doctrine, can be corrected by instruction and example.

      There are physical harms resulting from gun violence that cannot be corrected. Death, paralysis, loss of functions, and chronic pain are only some examples; for adults, these may also include loss of jobs, financial ruin, and possible addiction to pain killers.

      The young man just released from the hospital had part of his lung removed, and three bullets in his legs. He faces multiple surgeries going forward. After the Las Vegas shooting, there was a story of a woman, now paralyzed for life. These are the people lucky enough to survive. The exit wounds from semi-automatic weapons are horrific, and much larger than the entrance wounds. Bones are not only broken by these bullets, they are splintered. The best medical care in the world cannot put such injuries right.

      A bad liturgy simply is not on this same level. Let’s keep this straight, lest we become ideologists rather than Christian believers.

      1. Rita, I do not mean to minimize the terrible evil that was unleashed on Parkland, and I stand in solidarity with all those who I marched with two weeks ago, who rightly realize that these unspeakable tragedies are a result of our collective failure to protect our children. So consider your message received!

        The scale of the problems we experience in the Church are obviously different than society’s school shooting problem; no ones’ physical lives are at stake with monstrance-carrying drones. But our analogous failures in the Church, such as non-observance of liturgical rubrics and tolerating sexual abuse, still inflict grave spiritual harm to the faithful, even if no one actually gets killed by a falling monstrance (a liturgist’s worst nightmare). The fact is millions of people have left the Church because these and other failings, and many will die without ever coming back. But my hope is that just like the Parkland survivors are leading the cause for change in school safety policy, those of us who are rightly disturbed by the sorry state of the Church in many places can be motivated to renew the Church in Christ’s image. I think there’s a common lesson with both of these unfortunate events that can be easily obscured by the apparent hyperbole.

      2. By way of reply to PF:

        What a very inappropriate and egregious association! To equate non observance of liturgical rubrics with tolerance of sexual abuse and to charge both, in the same breath and in equal measure with the decline in church attendance is to have lost any sense of proportion.

  6. Doesn’t intention matter?

    In school shootings, someone intentionally uses a gun to kill children. Accidents, illness and similar threats are more dangerous, but not intentional. Addressing the evil, incongruity, insanity within us is much more pressing than addressing accidents or illness, though those have been addressed as well over the years. (Seat belts, vaccines, etc.)

    Using a drone to carry a monstrance is not intended to kill anyone’s faith. I’d question the “faith” of anyone who lost it bcause of such an act, meaning I doubt it would be a consideration during planning. If St Clara’s religious visions can make her the patroness of television, who knows what experience inspired the use of a mechanical drone.

  7. I’m wondering, Patrick, if you are among the liturgical police who tell Catholics that choosing to hold hands during the Lord’s Prayer is forbidden by the rubrics and that it would be a better practice to hold their arms in the orans position? The rubrics, in fact, have nothing to say about what the faithful are doing with their hands or arms during the Our Father. Might you also be telling them that they are forbidden from making any gestures with their arms and hands while responding to the prayers of the Mass? I’ve never given any assembly instructions on either of these matters, but i honor these practices as long held local customs which are not contra legem. Monstrance carried aloft by drones is, however, a step too far and I predict it will not become customary in Brazil or anywhere.

    1. “The rubrics, in fact, have nothing to say about what the faithful are doing with their hands or arms during the Our Father.”

      As surely as we’ll remind likewise the priests who direct congregants to hold hands and wait to start the prayer until the priest is satisfied by the sufficency of the connection (and can be even more directive).

    2. IMHO holding hands during the Our Father is a relatively minor issue for the reasons you mentioned, and I think one could make a good argument for it. It’s not a hill I choose to die on.
      The issues I usually concern myself with tend to fall along the lines of readers paraphrasing the lectionary, mistreatment of the Eucharist (i.e. dishwashing unpurified vessels), and the sorts of things that the GIRM actually does talk about. Again, people could make arguments for those, but I didn’t write the GIRM, and it’s not my job to make judgment calls in its stead. If that makes me the big bad liturgical police, then that’s fine, I guess. Not my hill to die on either.

  8. I think intention matters a great deal.

    I’d like to point out two additional things:

    First, a monstrance is an object of popular piety more than liturgical. The use of it is never connected with the Mass.

    Second, I’m not totally convinced that the use of a monstrance with drone isn’t the work of so-called Catholic conservatives. Bad ideas are not confined to the Left. Given a wide range of resources, including technology, anybody can devise something more clever than reverent.

    1. Just curious: do people the entire world over associate the use of a monstrance with “conservative” Catholicism? I’ve often gotten the impression that Latin Americans retained more of their devotional culture after the council, so it might not have liberal/conservative connotations like it does for some American Catholics.

      I don’t associate the use of the monstrance with particularly conservative Catholicism, but I do associate discouraging Eucharistic Adoration with a very narrow form of supposedly liberal Catholicism.

  9. The video is from the Church of Sao Gerardo Majella in Sorocabo Brazil. He is known as a “flying saint” of whom many stories are told, like the following:

    “Gerard had withdrawn to his room to pray. At the dinner hour, the archpriest went himself to invite him to dinner. But to his astonishment he found the brother ravished in ecstasy and raised about three feet from the ground. Filled with amazement, he withdrew, but returning shortly after, he found him in the same state. The whole household, all witnesses to the extraordinary event, unable to sit down to dinner, awaited the guest with tears of emotion. At last he appeared, his face all inflamed. “Please do not wait for me,” he said to the archpriest. “I do not wish to inconvenience you.” To preserve the memory of this rapture, the archpriest marked on the wall of the room the height to which he had seen the Saint elevated.“


  10. I was one of those who, in disbelief, reposted the flying monstrance clip on Facebook. A Brazilian friend, a liturgist and musician, responded:

    Unfortunately! Give power to insane people to decide what is lex orandi, and you’ll see their great capacity to destroy years of study and post conciliar liturgical practices! Obviously it doesn’t represents our common thought. Shame on me! O Lord, have merci! Let’s “pascalize” the Catholic Church!

    As a Brazilian, he is clearly embarrassed by something that is not typical of what goes on in Brazil as a whole. His point about well-intentioned but uninformed people having the power to make decisions affecting the prayer life of the community is well made. We see examples of this, albeit not so dramatic, every day in our own communities. Precisely because they are not so dramatic, we often fail to recognize them for what they are.

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