Smartphone app guides Vancouver catholics to church

New technology helps reach people where they live

A new smartphone app is connecting Roman Catholics in the Vancouver area with nearby masses and confessionals - an idea the local archdiocese says developed partly out of some biblical inspiration.

"We've always had bishops here who have recognized the need to be out where people are," says Paul Schratz, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Vancouver.

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"Just as Jesus went and talked to people where they were - he went into their homes - now the people are on Facebook, they're on YouTube, they're on their tablets, and we have to be there, too."

The archdiocese recently launched an iPhone app that allows users to search for nearby Catholic churches, check mass and confession times, and see directions on a map. They can filter their searches based on their location and limit the results to churches with mass in the next few hours.

Schratz says he believes it's the first app released by a Canadian archdiocese, though several in the U.S. and abroad have developed their own.

It replicates the most popular feature on the archdiocese web-site: its mass finder.

Schratz says the app could prove especially useful during the Christmas season, both for parishioners looking for a church while travelling and the flood of lapsed Catholics who use the holidays as an opportunity to return to mass.

"Everybody knows that Christmas and Easter are the jam-packed masses of the year, so we want to help people," he says.

Schratz says technology is also making its way into the church services themselves. He recalls a workshop he attended a few weeks ago with local priests.

"It was interesting to see how many of them have their daily prayers and Bibles on their tablets now, so they're actually reading from there rather than the paper version," he says.

The app is the latest example of churches using technology to con-nect followers or reach out to potential recruits.

A handful of churches across Canada have smartphone apps with information about their services and podcasts featuring recordings of sermons. Countless apps display religious texts such as the Bible or the Qur'an.

There are also several apps designed specifically for Muslims living in areas, such as Canada, where mosques don't broadcast the call to prayer over loudspeakers for nearby worshippers to hear.

Omar Mahfoudhi of Ottawa's Islamic Care Centre says it's rare for Canadian mosques to broad-cast the call to prayer - a recitation that precedes each of the religion's five daily prayers. The few that do limit the volume so it can only be heard in the immediate vicinity, such as the mosque's parking lot.

Mahfoudhi says some Muslims simply set alarms to remind them of their prayer times, but he prefers using an app for his Android phone that plays the call to prayer five times a day. The app also features a compass that shows the direction to Mecca.

He says he appreciates the symbolism of actually hearing the call to prayer.

"I could have an alarm, but the call to prayer is an Islamic institution - it's something that reflects our active worship," he says.

Mahfoudhi says combining the call to prayer with technology isn't a new phenomenon.

He notes that in some Muslim countries, the call to prayer is broadcast on local radio stations.

"You could be out in the middle of nowhere, yet you could still hear it over the radio," he says.

"The app is new, but that idea of using technology to call people to prayer isn't."

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