Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Discovering the Richness of the Source and Summit: "The Mass Explained" App Reviewed

Dan Gonzalez is a man who loves the Mass. In fact, he loves it so much that he has spent a great deal of time and effort creating a new way for others to deepen their appreciation of it.  The Mass Explained app, available now from the iTunes store, is a fascinating kaleidoscopic tour of important elements of ancient culture, history and Church tradition that have influenced or been incorporated into the development of the Mass and some of the cultural effects and connections that have resulted from it... and this is only Part I (Liturgy of the Word).  Currently, this app is only available for iPad, but a version for Android devices will be developed soon.

Gonzalez, a cradle Catholic who admits to starting out not knowing very much about his faith, says he was awakened to a desire to learn as much as he could about Catholicism after an experience in 1989 with a non-denominational Bible-study group. He began to read everything he could get his hands on about the biblical basis for Catholic faith and moved from an initial focus on apologetics to a deeper love and appreciation for "the beauty and majesty of the Mass." Gonzalez says "Amen, Kyrie Eleison and Agnus Dei—the Mass is a virtual tour of tongues and time-frames. The Hebrews, Greeks and Romans have all pressed their thumbprints into the liturgy." It is these "thumbprints" that he wanted to communicate in his app, along with ways for those who participate in the Mass to understand not only how the Mass got to be the way it is, but what it means to each of us as participants - how we live the Mass through understanding its meaning. The promo video outlines the underlying philosophy:

This new app focuses on the Ordinary Form of the Mass - the Mass in English as most American Catholics experience it, but references the Latin Mass appropriately throughout. Gonzales manages to steer clear of any particular "agenda" by being inclusive of the variety of worship that is embraced by the whole Church.

The Mass Explained answers such basic questions as

  • Why do we do what we do at Mass? 
  • What is the historical or cultural root or connection of each prayer, musical element or gesture?
  • What does this mean for the worshiper participating today? 
Designed as a learning experience in the form of a textbook divided into chapters, The Mass Explained app is more than a typical e-book. It is a full multimedia learning experience that takes advantage of visual and aural technology. The pages are filled with pop-up definitions and explanations, podcasts, 3-D tours, slide-shows, maps and more. You can read excerpts from Church documents, hear Jewish prayers that are the precursors of Mass prayers read in the original Hebrew, learn about how what the ancient Romans did in civil ceremonies influenced what we do at Mass, how our church buildings, processions and Catholic customs reflect ancient culture and both its religious and political practices. One of my favorite features as a church musician, is the samples of musical settings of the Gloria - from Gregorian chant, to Medieval, Baroque and Romantic classical composers.

The placement of the Liturgical Year in the discussion of the Gospel reading cycle may seem odd, but is deliberate - a decision, Gonzalez says, based on how the readings lead us through the life of Christ during the Church Year.

If I had anything to quibble about with this app, it would be that sometimes there seems like almost too much information. While reviewing the app, I tended to go down a few "rabbit holes" of fascinating history or custom and when I emerged I had to go back to the chapter title to remind myself why I had been there in the first place! Still, that just means this is a deep-level learning experience that will bear repeated use. It is perhaps not for the casual adult user, but for those who are seriously fascinated by history, culture, factual connections and more. It is, in fact, a short-course on the liturgy. As an information addict myself, I was hooked.

How could this app be useful? Gonzalez has suggested this could be used in high schools and in RCIA as well as in seminaries. I would expand that to general adult and parent formation for those who are willing to go deeper. Discussion questions at the end of each chapter could serve as a focus for group use. The promotional video above does a good job of suggesting reasons for use and could be used in a parish to promote participation in a group study.

At $24.99 each, this app may seem expensive, but a group discount for institutions through the Apple volume discount program means that ordering 20 or more takes the price down by 50% per copy. The app, Gonzalez notes, was created out-of-pocket with no outside funding and pricing reflects his costs, along with fees he will pay to Apple and to ICEL for use of copyrighted texts.

NOTE: I did not know Dan before I was given access to a pre-publication draft of this app and did not receive anything in return for my review process (other than a small spot in the Acknowledgements for some suggested tweaks.)

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