Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Catholic Apps

With so much talk about the new "Confession"app, it would be easy to overlook some other fine Catholic apps. Jesuit Jack McLain, a self-confessed technophile gives us the lowdown on the best ones.

During a recent discussion with a brother Jesuit about the inherent goodness or badness (I believe the terms ‘Luddite’ and ‘Borg’ were trotted out during the conversation) of smart phones, I asserted that there were plenty of Catholic-centric uses for such devices. In the great Jesuit fashion, my confrere asked me to prove it. So I began combing through Apple’s App Store in order to find the best Catholic apps I could.

From the beginning, I left a few things off of my list, most notably digital rosaries. I am not opposed to rosary apps; I have one actually, but trying to separate the sheep from the goats in this particular instance proved to be a little too bandwidth intensive. Most rosary apps had free versions so you could try them before you invest your 99 cents. My other criterion was one I alluded to above, namely, I wanted to find apps that were applicable to the non-techno person who was looking to use their device to add to their faith life. I focused exclusively on iPhone apps because of its userbase and because I don’t have access to an Android-based phone.

Here are some of the better apps:
iBreviaryPro (Free): This app, which I’ve been using for over a year, can be a life saver. Last year my campus minister, seated next to me at a student Mass, whipped her head around and turned white as a sheet. “I forgot to put the Gospel in the binder!” She whispered during the Psalm. I calmly fished under my alb, pulled out my iPhone, fired up the app and had the Gospel ready by the time I made it to the lectern. It includes the Office readings for the day and, as a bonus, all the parts of the Mass for a presider. Plus, all the readings update automatically when you turn the app on—in five different languages, no less! The only downside is that it requires a data connection. If our chapel had been a signal dead spot, I would have been sunk.

Universalis ($24.99): This is from the super-useful Universalis software house, whose goal is to “harness computer technology to help enrich the spiritual lives of Christians.” The app contains all the readings within the app itself, so it doesn’t matter if you are on top of Mount Everest (although I read recently they have 3G coverage there now), you can get your daily readings and pray the Office with out a wireless connection. Exceptionally well organized and easy to navigate, this is best of the daily reading and Office apps I reviewed. Two caveats about the app: First, the price. In a world of 99 cent apps, $25 will give some people pause, but this is clearly a case of getting what you pay for. The app replaces both a lectionary and a breviary (not to mention being much easier to carry) so the price tag shouldn’t be a sticking point, in my opinion. My second quibble is a priest-centric one: I wish the app also provided the parts of the Mass.

Divine Office ($14.99): This app has all the functions of the apps above, automatically figuring out the date and bringing up the readings for the time of day. The feature that sets it apart is that it will also download audio files of the prayers of the hours so that you can listen to a group of people praying, and pray with them. Ideal for quiet time on a train or bus or even over your car audio system during your commute. Another neat feature: by tapping on a globe icon you see a map showing where other people are using the app around the world. This gives you a real sense of praying with universal church.

iCatholicRadio & Radio Vaticana (Free & $3.99 cents respectively): These apps stream audio from Catholic radio stations. iCatholicRadio streams from Holy Family Communications, which features shows ranging from Catholic call-ins to the recordings of Bishop Fulton Sheen. The user interface needs work—it doesn’t have the buttery smoothness usually associated with Apple—but it works fine. It can also stream the audio in the background so you can listen while you navigate to another app. Radio Vaticana does the same thing, only it offers a direct line to the broadcasts of the Vatican Radio in several different languages. Good for a change of pace.

3-Three Minute Retreat (99 cents): The Irish Jesuits started a Web site several years ago that leads you through a quick reflection for your day. Loyola Press has taken this idea and applied it to the portable world. Each day it supplies you with a brief reflection set to placid music in either English or Spanish. It follows the Ignatian arc of settling down to pray, reading Scripture, reflecting and deciding act. It is a simple, straightforward app that does exactly what it says.

Mass Times (Free): For sheer useful simplicity, this app was probably the best one I reviewed. It uses your location to find the nearest parish and gives you the Mass times at those locations. You can also search for a particular church and bookmark your favorites. A sponsored banner pops up every once in a while, but that’s how they make the app free. This is a must-have for Catholics on the move who like to find a Mass wherever they go.

CatholicTV (Free): This app allows you to watch the Mass of the day along with much of the other programming of CatholicTV from Boston on your iPhone. The catch is that you need to have a WiFi signal. An excellent app for someone in an isolated place who wants to enjoy tons of quality Catholic content.