Priest’s ‘sermonettes’ offer daily dose of spirituality through the iPhone

It’s a slender thread, admittedly, that runs from a 16th-century pope to the Olsen twins to a converted car dealership in San Bernardino.

It’s there, though, hidden in the unlikely form of a new iPhone application that is dedicated to support of the Vatican Observatory, one of the quirkier institutions in Christendom.

Confused? Pause for a moment and step into St. Bernardine’s Catholic Church in downtown San Bernardino, where muted light filters through stained-glass windows and Father Mike Manning is at the pulpit, just finishing an impassioned sermon on “the power of accepting God’s love.” He is answering the question of whether it’s hypocritical for a sinner to go to church.

“The church is a place of sinners,” says Manning, a distinctly cinematic sort of priest with milky blue eyes and a glistening smile. “May we sinners never give the impression that we’re better than anyone else, and may we never hinder anyone from coming into our experience of the Lord in our church. Thank you … and may Jesus’ love for you always make you smile.”

The sermon done, Manning’s expression relaxes, then shifts into mock triumph.

“We only went two minutes over!” he says, turning his eyes from the camera to his production team of three, including a nun and another priest.

“4:45,” says Sister Pat Phillips, the executive director of Manning’s production company.

“I knew that, I just wanted to do it anyway,” says Manning.

After another take, they head from the church — which is empty this weekday afternoon — to their studio in the offices of a former car dealership a few blocks away. There, the “sermonette” will be turned into a short video, part of a daily series that Manning has been creating for iPhones and iPads — the newest element of his longstanding television ministry.

There are now hundreds of religious-themed iPhone apps. There’s the Azan Alarm Clock, with Islamic prayer times. There’s the Buddha Buddy, allowing you “to access the wisdom of the Buddha conveniently on your iPhone.” There’s the Daily Tao, the Daily Jesus, the Daily Krishna, the Daily Kabbalah and the Daily Joan of Arc. There’s even the Mobile Atheist, with an inspirational “freethought” of the day.

What sets apart the Daily Sermonettes on Catholic Faith and Scripture with Fr. Mike Manning, besides its epic-length title, is the fact that it offers a daily video, not just text, with relatively high production values, and is being produced for the Vatican Observatory, which receives the major cut of its $5.99 fee.

The Vatican has had a long interest in astronomy, dating to the 16th century and the reign of Pope Gregory XIII, who formed a scientific committee to study reform of the calendar based on the latest astronomical knowledge. This led to the Gregorian calendar of 1582, still in use today.

Subsequent popes continued to support scientific inquiry, ultimately building an observatory in the Vatican, staffed largely by Jesuit scientists. There were missteps, to be sure, most notably the declaration of Galileo as a heretic for insisting that the earth revolved around the sun and not vice versa.

By the 1930s, the observatory had been moved to the pope’s summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, just outside Rome. And in 1981, the Vatican established a relationship with the University of Arizona at Tucson, where it now does its primary research at the Steward Observatory.

The observatory receives support from the Vatican Observatory Foundation, a Tucson-based nonprofit that approached a Beverly Hills entertainment management firm, the Robert Thorne Co., for help in licensing Vatican Observatory products.

Robert Thorne, the principal of the firm, is better known for representing celebrity clients such as the Olsen twins and Hilary Duff, and is currently setting up a “canine lifestyle brand” for rapper Snoop Dogg. He said he proposed a multitiered campaign for the Vatican Observatory built around global touring exhibits, global television and new media.

Hence, the iPhone app.

“That whole nexus of faith and knowledge, which is at the charter and core of the Vatican Observatory, is sort of what we’re doing here,” said Thorne. He said the company has two goals: “The first and topmost priority is using the new media to convey a message to people of faith that’s important to their daily lives. … Secondly, to use these funds to support the Vatican Observatory.”

Manning, an author and television personality who has a show on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, said that his early sermonettes were built around a daily reading from Scripture but that future ones will talk about the sometimes uneasy intersection of religion and science.

He is aware, he said, that his iPhone sermons are reaching people at a time when the image of the Catholic Church is suffering from its handling of sexual abuse cases. “Very, very much so,” he said. “The pain of what’s going on is very, very, very deep in my own soul and heart. And I’m filled with sadness and I’m filled with deep apologies for what people have done, for what people I know have done.”

That said, he added: “I guess I’m just too much of an optimist, and I really believe in the church and I believe in the goodness of what Jesus’ message is. And so I just want to say, let’s give a different message, let’s give one of hope.”