I’m not trying to Google “Extraordinary Form of the Mass”

In the eyes of any student, colleague, or friend who’s ever known me, I’m doing something crazy this year—I’m using technology in the classroom.

I have passionately rejected technology in all its glowing, mind-sucking forms.  I preach to students about the gloriousness of being “free” from the terrible stress of a blinking, buzzing phone during the blissful hour of theology class.  I insist on paper copies of texts.  And I DO NOT use powerpoint.

Until this year, that is.

Let me explain.  I was struck in the second week of the semester with every teacher’s nightmare: I lost my voice.  Determined not to lose another class day for my small, upper-level liturgy seminar, I jumped on the lifeboat of technology.  I made a powerpoint presentation.

To my surprise/dismay, the whole practice worked pretty well.  So well, in fact, that I tried it again—and again.  I’ve found that the visual powerpoint gives us a “third eye” in the room—one who can help us keep on task and avoid the rabbit holes that students (or I) are tempted to fall into with our opinions on liturgical subjects.

Also, the course is titled, “Liturgy and the New Evangelization.”  If I want to take the USCCB’s or Pope Francis’ calls to evangelize using “the new media” seriously, I should probably consider using some technology more robust than a dry-erase marker.

And yet, my reluctant, heel-dragging foray into technology in the liturgical classroom has run me into a new, and much deeper issue.  I incorporate images into my slides by using Google.  But try Googling “Roman Catholic Mass.”  Look at the images, and what do you find?

  • Of the first 15 images, 6 are images of the presider, ad orientem
  • 9 of them show the presider flanked by an all-male entourage [that is, no female altar servers]
  • 10 show an image of the presider at the altar during the Eucharistic Prayer
  • 6 images show an elevated host and/or chalice.

Now, please know I have no issues with traditional church spaces, and I quite agree that Eucharistic Praying is unquestionably worthy of symbolizing “the Mass.”  I do take issue with the focus on the presider alone, with the maleness (and whiteness) of the assisting ministers, the absolute absence of the gathered Body of Christ, and the clear preponderance of images of Mass in a form other than that which is universally practiced as our Roman Catholic Eucharistic liturgy, also know as “the Ordinary Form.”

Where is the Ordinary Form of the Mass on social media?  On Google?  Anywhere, out there, on the vast and billowing waves of the world wide web?

Some scholars, such as ethicist Lisa Sowle Cahill, have noted that “fringe” groups at either extreme (“left” or “right”) have made better use of technology and media than more “mainstream” groups.  This perhaps is the case across most disciplines, but it seems that persons searching to learn more about the Mass, Catholicism, the practice of liturgy, or the Eucharist, are being schooled into visioning fairly marginally representative images as normative for Catholic practice.  This concerns me greatly.

I do not have an immediate answer for this—but I do have a question, or perhaps even a call to action.  Can Roman Catholic liturgists, parishioners, ministers (lay ecclesial and ordained) make an effort to post and share media which reflect the experiences of the lay faithful within the Mass as unfolding Tradition and the Holy Spirit have given it to us—that is, in the Ordinary Form?

Can these images be more inclusive?  Can we see the Liturgy of the Word and the Opening Rites?  The renewal of Baptismal vows during Easter?  The signing with Ashes on Ash Wednesday?  Can we see male and female lectors, altar servers, greeters, and musicians?  Can we see reflected in the Google search, “Roman Catholic Mass,” the exponential growth in numbers of our Latino/a brothers and sisters?  Or recognize that our congregations house refugees from Burma?  Or recognize the voices of our historically marginalized African American Roman Catholic congregations?

My own small solution—at least for my class—is to make attempts to dig deeper than the first 15 slides which Google shows me.  But I’d like to see a day where we get beyond doing crafty searches to outwit Google.  I’d like to Google “Roman Catholic Mass” and come up with an image of the People of God.


  1. This could be a very fruitful thread, folks, but what would make it most fruitful would be taking inventory of unspoken assumptions about the whys of the observations that triggered it. (My initial temptation was to put popcorn on the list for this weekend and watch if and how this thread unfolds.) Suffice it to say this observation should shock no one who’s paid close attention to how technology can be used versus how it is typically used in American Catholic parishes which are institutionally sclerotic by comparison and rarely if ever undertake inventory of unspoken assumptions. It’s been a generous generation in the making (going back before the advent of Wikis and blogs to Usenet discussion boards in the early years of the Net), and it has legs. And I’d suggest that folks identify unspoken assumptions: for example, that the visuals and audios we’d like would necessarily attract folks we need to attract.

    1. I hate to tell you this, ma’am, but the photo you posted is of my old church of St Joseph in Macon from several years back…

      And that IS an Ordinary Form Novus Ordo Mass done exactly by ruberics…ad orientum, at new altar pulled away from old altar, and a special titular saint Mass for the church. Likely was a female lector that Mass as are many lectors there. Same with some of the best altar servers, but I do not see any of them at THAT particular Mass.

      1. What you said may well be true but I don’t see how it’s relevant to the post topic, which as I read it is about why Google searches for Catholic liturgy are waaaay misrepresentative of the reality in Catholic parishes. Why the huge discrepancy?

      2. Just a comment that what is portrayed in the picture is not a Novus Ordo Mass done “according to the rubrics” since this s type of elevation is called for during the sociology and not during the narrative of institution.

  2. I hope I will be permitted to make several comments on this post.

    1. We should not be surprised to see far fewer photos of the “Missa normativa” as celebrated in typical suburban parishes (or really anywhere) because it is not at all photogenic or aesthetically remarkable. This should be quite obvious. Indeed, opponents of traditional liturgy complain that it is too much about aesthetics. Well, if that’s true, don’t blame it for getting the lion’s share of photos. No one really wants to look at photos of a bunch of people standing in pews, or some semi-disheveled altar servers, or a priest in a hideous polyester chasuble. This is not to say that nothing else matters but external beauty; it’s simply to acknowledge the magnetism of beauty.

    2. Just a little thought experiment here: If a Google search could be diachronic and not merely synchronic — that is, if you could search for how Roman Catholic Mass looked for the majority of our 20 centuries of Christianity — then the Google search would come up with 99 out of 100 ad orientem pictures, and 99 out of 100 all-male entourages. In that sense, what you are seeing here is more faithful to the historical reality of the Mass, whether some people care for it or not.

    3. Nor is it surprising that the priest would be featured more often than not, because he is the only person in the entire building who is absolutely necessary for a Roman Catholic Mass. A Protestant mega-worship service might happen without a minister, or even with one, but it is not the sacramental sacrifice of Christ. Maybe if you google “Roman Catholic worship” or “Roman Catholic prayer service” or “Roman Catholic praise and worship” you will find something more to your liking.

    1. Peter, your second comments misses the point of the post. This isn’t re-hashing what you think the Catholic liturgy should be based on what you think the 2,000 year history is. The point of the post is that the Googled images *now* do not reflect the predominant reality *now* of what Catholic liturgy is. And your third point is technically true but not reflective of the ecclesiology of the Roman Catholic church as expressed in Sacrosanctum Concilium. The very interesting question of the post is, why doesn’t a Google search for “Mass” or “Catholic liturgy” bring up images that reflect what the Catholic Church believes Mass and liturgy are? We don’t believe that Mass is just a priest celebrating, we believe it is a priest leading a community. Why don’t those images come up?

      I think your point about what is aesthetically appealing makes a contribution to the post topic. The rest of your comment does not.


      1. The results of a Google search are comprised of both the *now* and history; and there is a lot more history than there is *now.*

  3. I Googled “People at Mass” and got a lot of diverse crowd pictures.

    I think a lack of congregation pictures comes in part from the awkwardness that arises when photographing “average” people – that is, it makes people uncomfortable and less likely to act natural (sometimes even upset) when they are photographed and that tends to make bad pictures. Even candid pictures can lead to people making unflattering faces unintentionally. I notice many Mass pictures that do show the congregation tend to be wide shots taken from behind. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Ash Wednesday photo was from a televised Mass where people expected to be photographed/filmed.

    Also, Catholic imagery in popular culture is still very traditional – likely because it is striking and photogenic (as Peter was saying).

    I do wish more pictures of traditional liturgy could show the diversity of the people who participate, as it is my experience that such groups actually are a little more racially and economically diverse than the “typical” Masses are (which are more segregated by linguistic/ethnic differences).

    1. Your last point is quite true: at my local FSSP parish there are people of Asian, African-American, and Caucasian descent, and in the latter category a lot of different European lines represented.

      1. Also, clicking the link provided didn’t yield the same image results for me as it did the writer. The first image shows a woman doing the readings for the Liturgy of the Word. At least four out of the first fifteen images show the congregation. I also couldn’t tell the race/ethnicity of the people in most of the ad-orientem images, but the captions/links indicate at least two are likely not white. One depicts people standing for communion.

      2. Jack and Peter, please don’t miss the point of the post. This isn’t a competition between who’s more diverse, Vatican II Masses or other Masses. This is about the fact that the internet doesn’t represent the reality of Catholic liturgy today, not by a long shot.

      3. I certainly wasn’t trying to make it a contest. However, I think it is important – especially here at PrayTell where I have seen this misconception put forth numerous times – to note that traditional liturgy isn’t somehow antithetical to diversity.

        But to touch more directly on the topic – I think one reason why typical Catholic liturgy is underrepresented online is because those who prefer it don’t feel the need to promote it. I can attend about thirty Masses this weekend that are more or less standard Vatican II style Masses at convenient times without driving more than fifteen minutes, and there really isn’t any danger that such Masses won’t be around whenever I want them. In contrast, those who attend the Latin Mass – or even a rather traditionally styled Novus Ordo – typically have to be very self-sufficient, are often met with open hostility from people with real power and influence, and often have to repeatedly justify their existence. I know that that the Latin Mass I attend, regardless of its numbers or how much time talent or treasure we invest in the parish, might not be around in ten years if the next pastor is unsympathetic.

        I think there are other reason too – traditionalists have a zeal for the words and actions of the Mass I don’t ever experience in average Catholic circles for example – but I don’t want to go on too long.

  4. Just for kicks and giggles I Googled “Lutheran Mass” and got images that would make the “face the altar” crew jealous….same images of chasubles, dalmatic, tunic vested men. Lots of us in nice chasubles facing the people (my practice), lots of alb and stole Pastors. Also lots of images of Pope and Lutheran presiders together….amazing number of Roman Catholic shots. Google responded more to “Mass” than the “Lutheran” modifier.

  5. An interesting experiment would be to google other forms of Christian worship as they are identified, as well as non-Christian forms. When I looked at “synagogue service,” I found mostly people-plus rabbi, but about 25% people only. When I looked at Catholic Mass, it was about evenly split between clergy-only and both. Many images that appear on google searches are from the faith communities and show the “bias” of the photographer.

  6. I think unless it’s worship in the round, it’s bound to happen. Pictures of the congregation are either a) folks praying with their eyes closed or b) folks looking at something. What is the more interesting picture, usually? People looking at something, or the object of their attention? I can’t imagine picking a church based on pictures of the congregation at worship. It would be like choosing a restaurant based on the clientele, rather than the food. Such an endeavor is fraught with all sorts of sociological implications that probably aren’t spiritually healthy.

    “Sir,” they said, “We would like to see Jesus.”

  7. I wonder if this is an English thing, it’s interesting to compare this search with one for other languages, for example:

    Spanish: Misa Catolica
    German: Katolische Messe (also katholische gottesdienst)
    French: Messe Catholique
    Polish: Msza Katolicka
    Italian: Messa Cattolica
    I may be wrong, but the German and French seem to have more communal depictions.

  8. Could it be that photographers and picture editors naturally look for the most arresting image – and a bunch of people in strange dress doing unusual stuff will always go to the top of the heap ahead of a picture of a bunch of ordinary bods in street clothes?

  9. Is this really so surprising when the image of the Catholic Mass in popular culture is also dated? Just take a look at what is commonly portrayed (when it is at all) in movies and television shows. It is rare to find an accurate/sympathetic portrayal of contemporary Catholic practices in those media. Why should the Internet be any different?

  10. There could be many things at play here.
    1.) your search terms
    2.) what people WANT to see when they google same or similar terms. (Demand)
    3.) that those who love tradition are younger and more technologically adept (ie the future of the church loves the beauty of the EF).

    The above are objective considerations. Personally, I think the OF is not photogenic. Like a mother who loves her baby, those attached to this form do not realize this. People searching for an aesthetically pleasing liturgy will be drawn to photos of the EF. The photos you found, however, are not a good representation of the diversity (racial and economic) of my own FSSP parish – which is actually more diverse than my OF parish.

  11. The answer is pretty obvious. Google Catholic parish or Google catholic congregation. The folks at Google obviously think that the Canon in the traditional form with the priests and servers is the “Mass”, not the people. In this they have lots of visual history behind them. See my blog imaginemdei.blogspot.com

  12. This type of image may depend on something much simpler–liability and usage rights.

    Based on applicable laws, images cannot be displayed online without the consent of those in the video or still photo. This means that if someone created footage of a Mass / service from the front of the church looking into the congregation, EACH PERSON whose face is identifiable may have to grant permission for the image to be posted. I know there are exceptions, but this arose recently in a different circumstance and due to this reason, certain shots of a particular event were not used (or were not able to be used). In addition, if the footage includes minors, then the situation moves to a whole different level.

    I’m not saying that this is the sole reason, but I’d be surprised if this hasn’t been an issue with some.

    1. Actually, in the US Mass is considered a public event, and no permissions are required. Even if minors are in the picture. Now, if you take a tight shot, you might ask permission as a courtesy, but it’s not legally required at a public event.

      If we want to see more photos of “regular” Masses, we need to take more photos and post them. Traditional Masses have a small but highly-motivated set of adherents who want to promote their liturgies. Which is great. Too often, parish websites just have pictures of buildings. Or worse, stock photos. We’re still not great at using modern media.

  13. Check out CatholicStock (dot) com! Maybe your school will get you a subscription. There’s beautiful imagery and videos of a variety of liturgical styles.

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