St. Peter's app a vehicle of evangelization, comfort
At last summer’s convocation of priests, members of the local clergy were reminded of a “catch 22” situation they encounter all too often: Lay people have a great desire for a myriad of parish-based activities, yet when those activities are offered, attendance is scant due to the competing demands of work and family.
This “broken-record” scenario prompted one exasperated priest to throw up his hands and proclaim: “What we need to do is teach our people how to pray!”
The priest’s back-to-basics suggestion struck a chord with Father Peter Finney, parochial vicar of St. Peter Church in Covington, then in the midst of a parish initiative to find fresh ways to use technology as an evangelization tool.
Why not, pondered Father Finney, give Catholics of all levels of catechesis the ability to use their phones and tablets to tap into the faith in their “down time,” whether it was during their second cup of coffee, in the school carpool line or while commuting across the Causeway?
Why not use the convenience afforded by hand-held technology to give the faithful ways to build on the interior conversion they might have experienced at last Sunday’s Mass?
Why not teach people how to pray?
“You ask a Catholic to pray (extemporaneously), and you might as well ask them to walk 10 miles – there’s a real fear of that,” said Father Finney, recalling the motivation behind St. Peter’s prayer-rich and easy-to-navigate parish app.
Although divided into five main categories – including more standard ones linking users to “School,” “Parish Life” and social media, the app devotes its most prominent cluster of content to “Prayer,” providing instant access to audio recordings of the daily Mass readings and St. Peter’s homilies. Since the app’s December debut, more than 1,400 people have downloaded it onto their phones and tablets.
“We kind of get into the habit of checking boxes – ‘I’ve said enough rosaries; I’ve gone to Mass’ – but how do you make that move to heartfelt prayer?” said Father Finney, pointing to app features such as “Guided Meditations,” in which a spoken recording takes users through a short series of Ignatian spiritual exercises designed to help them identify their response to God during three different times of the day: Morning, midday and evening.
Similarly, the app’s “Prayer 101” offers a five-minute, music-backed voice-over from Father Finney defining prayer as a conversation with God and offering fledgling devotees of prayer to always “begin with gratitude.”
“It gives a general structure to help them enter into prayer,” Father Finney said. “It’s like training wheels. Ideally, at some point you won’t need them anymore.”
Parishioners help to record
In addition to handy links to the New American Bible the Liturgy of the Hours and a form through which parishioners can forward their personal prayer requests to St. Peter’s priests, the app’s Prayer section includes a large depository of the prayers of the church – written, spoken and sung – in its “Prayer Library” section. The library’s 35 sub-categories lead the faithful to both individual prayers and to whole areas of prayer, such as those “For a Dying Person,” “To Begin Work” and “Thanksgiving After Mass.”
“We’ve gotten parishioners to record the prayers – they can’t be just in my voice, or Father Otis (Young’s) voice or our secretaries’ voices,” said Father Finney, adding that any parishioner who has a prayer close to his or her heart is encouraged to record that prayer for inclusion in the app’s ever-growing collection.
“The audio component (enables app users) to take prayer to a different level,” he said. “You could plug in your headphones and be at a coffee shop and listen to the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. You can’t do that with (a typical) website.”
The Year of Mercy has its own subheading on the app. In addition to linking users to local pilgrimage sites and the Vatican’s “Year of Mercy” website, a feature called “Minute of Mercy” expands on a feature that appears in St. Peter’s weekly parish bulletin.
“We say, ‘This is what we would like you to consider as a mercy practice this week,’” Father Finney explained. For example, a recent “Minute” offered a brief spoken explanation of the tie-in between mercy and purgatory, followed by a few related actions the listener might consider doing that week: praying for a deceased loved one; spending five minutes in St. Peter’s adoration chapel; praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy; or encouraging someone to avail themselves of the sacrament of reconciliation.
Masses on tap
Homebound Catholics – or Massgoers who simply want to revisit a particular liturgy – also are in luck, thanks to the app. A computer located in the sacristy of St. Peter Church is equipped with software that automatically records audio from 6:35 to 6:45 a.m. and 8:35 to 8:45 a.m. – the windows of time in which the homilies for the two daily Masses are delivered.
“(The software) records it and sends it to a Dropbox folder,” said Father Finney, noting that he usually has the daily homily posted by 9 a.m., after doing some minor editing of the audio file.
The same software also records the entirety of the Sunday Mass, enabling St. Peter’s two priests to not only post the spoken word portions of their liturgies, but to slowly capture the parish’s full catalog of hymns on tape – so app users can “pray with music” at the touch of a button. The app’s “Media” section offers hymns individually, by liturgical season and by musical categories related to weddings, funerals, the Blessed Mother and St. Peter’s three choirs. Kitty Cleveland, a St. Peter parishioner, also permitted audio files of some of her own sacred recordings to be featured on the app.
“To be able to plug in (a hymn) and press play is, again, a way to lift the spirit, insert the faith into normal life,” Father Finney said. Common modes of listening to the recordings include headphones, Bluetooth and auxiliary jacks that feed the sound through car speakers.
“On the northshore we’re very much a commuter area,” Father Finney said. “And there’s construction everywhere! Sometime I’ll be sitting there for 20 minutes for the pleasure of getting on Highway 21. I’m rushing; I’ve got three other things that I need to do. So I’ll say, ‘All right, let me listen to the teen choir for a little bit.’ It flips the script and I’m (in prayer) again.”
The recordings have the added benefit of allowing St. Peter’s priests, as well as ministers of music and the word to “hear” themselves in action.
“We can feel good about the good stuff and do self-critiques” of those areas in need of improvement, Father Finney said.
Did their homework first
The app’s genesis goes back to January 2015, when the parish’s newly created New Media Outreach Commission of 10 parishioners began brainstorming ways social media could be used to evangelize, including revamping the parish website. For inspiration, members read “Transforming Parish Communications” by Scot Landry. Commission member Gary St. Cyr led the charge to create the app for the parish of about 3,000 families.
“I use my iPad every day and I download a lot of (Catholic) apps – the rosary, the Bible, the three-minute retreat by Loyola Press,” said St. Cyr, who identified the best parish apps in the country, personally contacted the dozen or so related churches and investigated various app providers. St. Peter’s app, which garnered the full support of Father Young and pastoral associate Ruth Prats, entailed a one-time set-up fee of $1,000 and subsequent monthly payments of $140.
“Everybody loves it!” said St. Cyr, listing his favorite app stops as Readings of the Day, Homily of the Day and Saint of the Day.
“The (app’s) confession aid is also a big plus,” he said. “It goes into reconciliation, the examination of conscience, the Act of Contrition.”
Became a first responder
In February, the app proved its value during the flooding that impacted parts of Covington. Using the app and its related website, parishioners and other community members were able to click onto a “Storm Update” button and more than 200 people were able to fill out online forms indicating that they either needed help or could be volunteers themselves.
“Our digital infrastructure allowed us to react quickly. To date we have accompanied about 40 families during the flooding,” said Father Finney, adding that another online form resulted in the delivery of nearly 90 meals to a dozen families that requested this type of assistance.
Adding immediacy to the app platform was a feature called a “push notification,” which allowed the priests to send out alerts as text messages to recipients’ phones, rather than emails that might not be seen as quickly. Some of those push notifications invited the flood-weary “to take a minute and pray.”
“There’s so much that’s outside of our control. How can I feel like I’m doing something? How can I collect myself?” Father Finney said.
The Sunday after the flood, a parishioner ran up to Father Finney before Mass to compare the app to the calming and reassuring “voice of an angel.”
“We couldn’t do that otherwise – the website’s not gonna do that; the bulletin’s not gonna do that. (An app) has that unique niche,” Father Finney said.
“(The app) really enabled us to be present quickly and in ways that we would not have been (otherwise),” he added. “Since the flood, people have come up and said, ‘I’ve never been prouder to be a Catholic; I’ve never been prouder to be at St. Peter Parish.’”
The free app is available at www.stpeterparish.com/app. Once downloaded, it can be shared via email or text message.