If you’re an Arabic-speaking Catholic living in a Muslim country and you want to say your prayers, Father Paolo Padrini is your man.
A parish priest based in Piedmont, Italy, who cut his technological chops as the admin of a papal photo-sharing website, Padrini is the mind behind iBreviary: an app that allows priests and believers to read their set of daily prayers right on the screens of their smartphones. (Apparently, every good Catholic should say four prayers every day, and the fact that I had to google it speaks volumes about my supposedly Catholic upbringing.)
The devotional app has been available in various languages for some time already. Now Padrini wants to take on the thorny issue of freedom of religion in Islamic states, and has launched an Arabic version. In Padrini’s view, his app will help Christians get around laws that forbid the sale of non-Muslim religious texts in some parts of the Islamic world, such as Saudi Arabia.
I managed to get hold of Father Padrini on Skype, and asked him about his projects. I found myself talking to a new breed of 2.0 priest, a textbook incarnation of the digital-savvy idea of the Church that Pope Francis is trying to mold.
Motherboard: First of all, how did you come up with the idea of creating an app for praying?
Paolo Padrini: It happened when I bought my first iPhone, in 2008. I realised that it would change the way in which we communicated, because it was more than a device; it was an environment full of life. Then I heard Apple’s slogan, “There’s an app for that,” and I thought, “There should be an app also for praying.” If everything I need is in my smartphone, then prayers should be there too. That’s how iBreviary was born.
And now you’ve decided to launch the Arabic version of it. Why?
There are many reasons for that. First of all, I want to cater to Arabic-speaking Catholics, who can’t read their religious texts because, in some Arab countries, the sale of Christian books is forbidden. That means that you can’t find an Arabic version of a Catholic breviary in places such as Saudi Arabia.
So, if I stepped into Saudi Arabia with an Arabic breviary, what would happen to me?
As far as I’ve understood, there are laws punishing the owners of non-Muslim religious items, but they aren’t always enforced strictly. In general, there is a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in place in these countries: Christians should keep a low profile to stay safe.
That’s what prompted me to offer Arab Catholics—which are many more than we westerners would think—the possibility to pray on their smartphones. I want to allow them to pray in their own language, to rid them of the idea that their very language and their culture are hostile to their faith. When I can’t pray in my own language, it’s like if my religion was raped by my culture. I also hope that my app might open a door for religious freedom and be a first step on the path to peace and coexistence.
But do people living in the most problematic areas have access to smartphones at all? I’m thinking for example about African countries like Sudan, or Somalia.
I think so. Internet connectivity is actually booming in some African and Asian countries and, what’s more important, these areas are teeming with mobile devices much more than with desktops or laptops.
Is there a risk that your app could backfire? What if hostile governments decided to use internet surveillance to track down the app’s users?
On the Saudi version of the App Store it has been possible to buy a Bible app for years, so I don’t think that they are actually going to pursue all the people who download iBreviary. I mean, it’s technically possible that a surveillance state finds out who is using my app, but right now it doesn’t look like they are willing to do so.
Have you thought about releasing a Chinese version of your app too?
It’ll be our next step, but I’m quite worried about it. China is quite well-versed in censorship, so we’re likely bound for many more troubles with that.
On a different note, I am perplexed by the very concept of praying app. Isn’t it disruptive of the very idea of the Church as a community?
I don’t think so. First of all, the app is often used by communities: more and more, priests download the app to celebrate the Mass, reading from their iPads. Then, when I pray, I am never alone. I mean, even if I’m physically alone, I am connecting spiritually with the rest of the Catholic community. It’s like if my smartphone contained the whole Church, all the people praying like me.
Your praying app has about 3,000 downloads per week. Do you think that the relationship between the Catholic Church and the internet is improving?
I think that the Church has started to use the internet and social media quite recently, but, when it started, it managed to make a unique use of them. Just think about Pope Francis: He doesn’t just tweet, he’s a tweet himself; he knows how to reach people’s hearts with few words. But yes, in general, today it’s quite easy to meet a smart-priest.