Even God has to compete with my iPhone! I am not proud to say that, but I must make that confession before I continue on this Jeremiad about what I will call Planet-i — the culture of ME — that I, as many of us, are seduced by, and, to a greater or lesser degree, fall captive to. 

First, let me say what I do not mean to say. I marvel at the wonders of technology that tech companies like Apple and Microsoft have advanced. We are all better off for them, especially considering how they have revolutionized so much of our lives, in fields like medicine, communications and transportation, for example. 

Like any tool, however, a piece of tech is, basically, a machine.  Equipped with AI, we might crown it a robot, putting a face on it, but it is still a thing, an object. To respond to it as if it were a person, or even a pet, turns it into an idol, controlling us by our enabling it. It can even dominate and encage us. Can we confidently say our devices are not becoming our masters? 

The problem is not the phone, but the “I” attached to it. Literally. iPhone has become Phone = I. What Marshall McLuhan foresaw decades ago (see Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man, 1964) is now our reality. We have virtually become the screen images we are mesmerized by and absorbed in, so much are our thoughts and activities caught up in them. We live as it were — I have no other word for it — on Planet-i. 

This did not start with Steve Jobs. As any good salesman — and he was, among many other things, a marketing genius — Jobs promised us more of what we thought we wanted: a world we could control, or better, a world that I myself could control. Does this not seem, however, to be just a logical progression of the individualism native to Western culture, but now commercialized (and on technological steroids!), marketed to every “I” as the center of reality? This is the gospel of Planet-i: that happiness comes from what I can define, demand and control. I am the creator and master of a universe, which revolves around — me.

Strangely and ironically, does it not seem that the more each of us has been gaining “control” over what we each call “my” life, the more isolated, lonely and frustrated we are becoming? Why is that? An illustration from our Catholic experience might help make the point, because the shadow of Planet-i has even fallen over the Church.

Maintaining viable parishes has becoming increasingly challenging as parish leaders strive to meet the needs and demands of their congregations. The more successful operations have found ways of delivering what their — if I may be blunt — consumers demand. Shopping is a big part of the weekend and parishes must compete in the marketplace of consumer commodities like every other enterprise. 

As we have become increasingly accustomed to planning and controlling our lives — it feels like we often have no choice because the demands on our time and energy are overwhelming — we have also grown more dependent upon all systems go, functioning and predictable. It is not unusual to hear someone speak of a 9 or 10 a.m. Mass in St. Anybody’s church as “my” Mass. “My” Mass because it “works” for me.

Parish leaders have generally been quite sensitive to the needs and demands of parishioners, so much so that we have reached a point where the supply for Masses tailored to the convenience of attendees has far outpaced the number of priests and ministers able to celebrate them. To be sure, this puts strain on the priest, who many times must shuttle between churches or rush to the next Mass, without a moment to mingle among his people, let alone recollect himself spiritually.

This raises a deeper question, however, than the supply or energy of priests, or, for that matter, the convenience of either priest or parishioner. What or whom is the Mass supposed to be for anyway?

We all know the correct answer, that the Mass is the un-bloody sacrifice of Calvary, re-presented in the form of a meal, instituted at the Last Supper, where God comes to us now, in Word and in the substance of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ. The almighty, transcendent God of all love, life and creation is truly accessible to us. Heaven comes to earth. This is powerful. It is also a bold affirmation that God — and not “I” — deserve pride of time and place because it is the same God, not me, who created the universe and is the center and origin of all that is and of all we celebrate in the Mass. 

Planet-i operates on the opposite, might we even say a devilish principle: that “I” am the center of my world and that my choices, my convenience, my demands come first. As Jesus warned in last Sunday’s Gospel, we have to make a choice. We cannot have it both ways. In words of the Scripture, “You cannot serve both God and mammon” (Luke 16:13).

Back to our example, we have perhaps more Masses than ever around our Diocese, yet few of them fill a whole church with people. We have priests, active and retired, shuttling from church to church, so they can start and finish on time. How many who attend, however, have time to get to mingle with fellow parishioners or the priest they are celebrating with? 

Logistics differ, of course. The mechanics of parking availability, gathering spaces, halls and other facilities to accommodate worshippers may or may not be conducive to personal engagement and community gathering. The Mass itself is certainly intended to forge communion with Christ and with one another. The sheer number of Masses, however, can work against this, so much so that our experience, getting in and getting out, very much replicates our trips to the mall. Often enough, we find ourselves disconnected, lonely in a crowd, isolated from our fellow parishioners and even our priest. The experience of loneliness and isolation that often besets us in our everyday lives can haunt us even in church.

But it is not just in church that the isolation and disconnect occur. On Planet-i, we cannot only multi-task, but multi-dine as we dither about yet other projects and fantasies. The family meal, once a staple of American culture, has often become an undefined time in which family members feed in different places, in front of separate screens, each eating different meals (maybe even individually ordered online), with little chance for conversation. Again, the isolation and disconnect, living — or partly living — on Planet-i.

One way to envision a parish is as a family of families and family for those not with family. Our mission is to build and support that communion. By this I mean we serve that fundamental human desire to be connected with something larger than ourselves. We need to be connected with others and, ultimately, a God in whose image we are formed. The essence of God is a communion of divine Persons in whose image we are created. If modeling this communion is our goal, then we need to escape from Planet-i, at least for one day of the week. Maybe happiness does not come from my screen and me after all, no matter how many commands it responds to instantly. Maybe, like that other apple in the Garden of Eden, it will not really make me like God!

The Sabbath has traditionally been the one day that is different from all others, where we are not bound to a rigid schedule or a set of demands we have made for ourselves. A day on which we do not “have” to “do” anything, but can just BE, like God himself, and live for God, celebrating with one another. This may be foreign to the denizens of Planet-i, but in all of us there is certain inkling, “wouldn’t it be nice if this could be true.”

Well it can. And here is where real choice and self-determination come in. Yes, it must be a decision that “I” make. Like all decisions involving love, it cannot be forced. It must be free. I can choose to escape from Planet-i by silencing my cell phone or taking the earplugs out, at least for a few hours on Sunday. I can choose to invite my family to join me for breakfast, Mass and maybe even dinner and some form of shared leisure.

Parishes could lead the way, teaming up with other parishes, offering options for Sunday Mass that do not create parking lot jams, deprive people of the chance to spend some time with their priests, offer families and friends the time and space to socialize, without neglecting those with special needs because of age, motility and other personal challenges. This cannot be done overnight and will take consultation and planning. But one way to escape from Planet-i is to start taking back the Sabbath. 

In a world where people feel increasingly isolated, neglected and forgotten — this Planet-i on which we are logged into on our devices, but less so with God and each other — we as families of families have an opportunity, a mission, to become oases of freedom from serfdom to non-stop technology, places for people just to be, and harbors for souls longing to touch the face of God, his transcendental presence. This is the promise the Gospel we preach holds. It is what the sacramental life of the Church offers, why we even exist, and why we must be about our mission to log off of Planet-i and in with God and one another! 

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