On Solemnity and Selfies

Perhaps it is because I was raised a Roman Catholic in a pre-digital era. Admittedly, I have strayed from that lifestyle, not a “good” Roman Catholic for some time. I was not a victim of the truly evil and heinous acts that have been revealed. I was, however, experienced with the other aspects of Catholic education that are often risibly recounted by generations of Roman Catholics educated in parochial schools. From a working-class family in the City, I learned from a tender age that my father worked very hard to not only feed and shelter us, but to also guarantee a better life through education performed in a parochial school. It could not have been easy for my parents. My father paid for me to be educated better than he had been. My father paid the parish so that the good sisters would beat the crap out of me when he or my mother couldn’t be there to do it themselves. It was his sacrifice. Many of the Good Sisters punctuated my transgressions in a manner to ensure I never did that again. Fear can be, I’ve found, a motivating factor.

I remember the big Sacramental events of my youth, Holy Communion and Confirmation. The priest or bishop officiating would, at times, pause and glower at the congregation. They were glowering at the parents running up and taking pictures with the ubiquitous small cameras that every family now owned. The bulbs flashing like paparazzi feasting on a different red carpet. At my Holy Communion the pastor of the parish stopped the proceeding and said he would not continue until the solemn occasion was respected by the congregation and waited until everyone took their seats. It didn’t bother that one family, every parish had one; they had the 35mm camera with a telephoto lens. After the event we were all shuttled off for the photographs.

Time moves forward and even the Roman Catholic Church alters their position. Now there are spaces for all the photographers, professionals and amateurs, and the officiants often pause at the appropriate time for the perfect photo-op. Everybody’s happy. The solemnity of the occasion has been preserved.

Now I have my own teenager. They have no fear. Armed with their cellphones they perceive themselves as omniscient and omnipotent. There are no boundaries or taboos regarding when and where a picture should be taken. How many shots does it take to capture the essence of her avocado toast? Solemnity? I am grateful she can spell it.

It is difficult to teach your children that sometimes to simply stand and absorb an event has a much greater impact than looking at it through a lens. I learned that lesson myself, but not in church. I learned it at Disney World, a secular solemn event. Disparate families had made the long and exceedingly expensive pilgrimage from across the globe to gather before the Magic Castle. There were fireworks and Tinkerbell flying overhead. Children gaped at the wondrous spectacle. The adults, I included, stood proudly next to them – with our hands raised holding our phones. If you listened carefully, beneath the din of explosions and the sighs of awe, one could hear it, the unmistakable creak of cramping muscles and the drip of lactic acid. I looked down and saw the wonder expressed on my daughter’s face. No picture can capture that emotion, that magic at that moment. I put my hand down and watched with her. How many gigabytes of jpegs would it take to recreate that feeling, hers or mine?

We are all learning where these incredible gadgets belong in our developing lives. We must develop a sense of when is a picture, a video, a selfie or a TikTok segment the appropriate medium to memorialize an occasion, but also when none is required. Old fashion memory.

We all must develop that muscle. Even the clergy.

Recently, I watched a segment on the news of the procession of the casket for the late Pope Emeritus Benedict to St. Peter’s Square. It was televised for all to see. It probably does not get more solemn than the funeral of a Pope, even retired ones. As the pallbearers passed a group of Cardinals, one of them pulled out his cell phone and took a picture.

Anathema! Your Eminence, really? What were you thinking? Need to prove you were there? “Look, mom, I’m the second mitre from the left!” You’ve been selected to the top 1% of your population, perhaps at the funeral procession of the very man who put you there – so you’ve met, and you have a picture with him commemorating your solemn event – and you couldn’t resist the temptation to snap a picture? You are present to bear witness. Fingers on lips! Did you update your Facebook page? It’s a funeral, Padre!

How do we teach teenagers decorum?

But let he who is without sin update his blog first.

Again, I’m from a pre-digital age. Therefore, in accordance with my experience I have concluded that the appropriate act of contrition for the phone wielded is thus:

The entire population of the Sisters of Charity should congregate in Vatican Square. Each will wrap the knuckles of the offending hand with a wooden ruler– just once. Selfies for every one. Not as onerous as Henry II’s flogging after that “Who would rid me of this priest?” transgression. Then his Eminence should write “I will not use my phone while bearing witness at a solemn event,” for each day of the late Pontiff’s life.

He won’t do that again.


Richard G. O’Reilly is a Brooklyn native currently living in exile further East upon that same Island. Attorney by trade, he has been writing for as long as he can remember and currently confronts the vagaries of his cherished teen aged daughter.