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Taking Pictures at Sacramental Celebrations: Photographing the Invisible

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Considerations for Picture Taking Policies at Liturgy:

The photography policy at a sacramental celebration can be a source of tension within a parish. However, asking a single question can turn it into a catechetical opportunity.

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By James Penrice
Catholic Online (
5/4/2010 (1 decade ago)

Published in U.S.

GRAND RAPIDS, MI (Catholic Online) - How do you take a picture of something invisible?
It may seem a ludicrous question, but it needs to be asked when establishing photography policies for sacramental celebrations.
Baptisms, Confirmations, first Communions, weddings and ordinations are always golden photo opportunities. They are transformative events to be rightfully treasured in memory. There are many moments throughout the course of these special days that offer families and friends the chance to take pictures. The crucial question is whether it is appropriate to do so during the actual reception of a sacrament.
Policies vary among parishes and dioceses, from complete prohibition to welcoming everyone with a camera to capture the moment. (Some parishes hire a professional photographer to take pictures of each child as they receive first Holy Communion or are confirmed.) Whichever way the policy leans, there is often controversy; tension exists between the need to protect the integrity of the liturgy and the desire of families to have a picture of the sacred moment. Establishing a policy is more than a logistical consideration - it is a rich opportunity for sacramental catechesis.
The primary consideration for establishing a policy must be, of course, respect and reverence for the liturgy, avoiding anything that would disrupt its flow and distract the attention of the faithful from full and active participation in worship. In our culture the peripheral trappings of such celebrations-parties, gifts, clothes, flowers, decorations, and yes, pictures-already tend to distract from the sacred nature of the sacraments.

How photography is handled at the moment of reception can either add further distraction or lead to a deeper experience of the divine. As stated in the Diocese of Winona's First Communion Liturgy Guidelines: "There is a lot at stake every time we gather because each experience of the liturgy forms every person in the faith."
This is where the question of photographing the invisible must be asked.
By definition, a sacrament is an outward sign of an invisible reality. The outward sign is very important, for as physical-spiritual beings we need to be united with God in the physical-spiritual manner the sacraments alone provide.
But the invisible reality is the more important of the two, for without it the outward sign is inefficacious. Further, the outward sign exists to point us towards the invisible, supernatural reality-the mystery-that is the heart of every sacrament.
The supernatural union with Jesus Christ in his mystical Body and the infusion with his grace is the essence of sacrament, and needs to be the focus of attention during sacramental celebrations. Since this is an invisible reality, it is impossible to photograph. So the invisible union with the Body of Christ cannot be the focus of any picture taken during the reception of a sacrament.
The focus instead becomes the outward sign, and incidentally includes outward trappings such as clothes and flowers. The person receiving the sacrament also becomes a focus, sometimes obscuring the celebration of sacrament as a community event and appearing instead to be an individual accomplishment.
In places where diocesan directives allow room for discretion at the parish level, leaders can draw the faithful to a deeper understanding and experience of sacrament by encouraging them to "photograph" the moment in their hearts rather than with a camera. The heart is the only place where the invisible reality of divine grace can be stored, enhanced, retrieved and shared. Photographs can capture the joyful expressions of the day, but only the heart can process the actual event. There is an old joke that has Jesus saying at the Last Supper, "Everyone who wants their picture taken, sit on this side of the table." If that comment seems inappropriate for that sacred occasion, consider whether it belongs in our sacramental celebrations today.


James Penrice is the author of eight books, a correspondent for Catholic Athletes for Christ, and a contributor to Catholic Online.


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