While not without parallel, the scope, reach, and speed of the current health crisis has hit home and school and work in unprecedented ways. Now it also impacts the church.
At present, in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and throughout Pennsylvania, the bishops have dispensed the faithful from the obligation to attend Mass. Elsewhere, some dioceses have suspended the public celebration of Mass altogether. And in some parts of the world, churches have been closed and shuttered completely.
These are drastic measures taken with the good intention of loving one’s neighbor by collaborating in the social effort to halt the spread of a pandemic. This way of living as church is not the norm, nor do these efforts suggest it should or will be.
Still, many people think that we need more church activity, not less. Rightly do they champion the power of prayer and call for more of it. Nevertheless, the notion that “true believers” will brave the dangers and double down on the effort needed to go to Mass contradicts the very notion of the liturgical action. The Mass is not our sacrifice; it is Christ’s. What we do is worship, adoring God the Father, through Christ, the Son, in the Holy Spirit. The grace conferred in and by this worship is efficacious by virtue of the divine, not as a result of human effort.
In this respect, the choice not to go to Mass because of disease can rightly be considered an act of charity toward others. On the one hand, people who are or may be sick should not risk infecting others. On the other hand, those not sick may not want to take the risk, if it is legitimate, of becoming infected, especially if they are responsible for others (e.g., their family).
Experts in healthcare are tasked with determining the level of risk. How we respond is the conscientious choice we must make. What the bishops have done in deciding to dispense with the obligation or even suspend the liturgical celebrations, they have done out of an abundance of caution and concern for all. What the faithful will do as a result should likewise be governed by that same charity.
One possible response proposed during this time of crisis is to “participate” in Mass online. In this mode, the priest would be celebrating Mass that is simultaneously broadcast to anyone able to see and hear it via some sort of screen (television, computers, etc.). In what respect is this digital worship legitimate?
As a medium of communication, the digital can never replace in-person worship in church. Given the actual reality of sacraments, an “incarnational” dimension is essential to them; they involve real, tactile matter. For this reason, sacraments cannot “happen” virtually.
Still, the digital medium does allow people to participate in worship to the extent possible, given the reality of some situations. If, on the one hand, someone is sick or otherwise unable physically to go to church, this is one way of bringing church to them. If, on the other hand, circumstances make the physical reality of a church impossible or imprudent to go to (e.g., due to natural disasters, terrorism or a pandemic), this medium makes some form of worship still possible.
Admittedly, there are flaws in this way of worshipping. Participants would not be in the presence of each other, thereby lessening the sense of community. Worship would not happen in dialogue with one another. And worshipping “at home” risks becoming banal, with comfort and convenience replacing the reverence that should be the hallmark of a sacred celebration.
In this respect, digital worship can restrict the “full, conscious, and active participation” called for in the celebration of Mass. A screen feels quite small compared to a church and thus is not a very “full” experience. With a screen in between, it’s easy to be distracted rather than be consciously attentive to what’s going on. And watching worship on a screen is clearly more passive than active.
Then again, none of these qualities of liturgical participation are guaranteed simply by being in a building; churchgoers can also be unfocused, distracted, and passive even while being physically present “at” Mass.
Celebrating the Mass by way of digital devices calls forth a more deliberate type of participation on the part of the faithful. In this mode, attending does not suffice; attentiveness is required. In this mode, fulfilling a moral obligation is not the point; carrying out a spiritual intention is at stake.
In this respect, digital worship can offer some benefits, at least potentially. It may offer the opportunity to experience the Mass in a “smaller” way, as for example in the gathering of a family, while still recognizing the universal dignity and importance of the Mass. It may engender an appreciation for others who, through various circumstances, lack the opportunity to participate regularly in Mass. And it may serve as a reminder that the Mass and sacraments are a gift that we should not take for granted.
At the very least, participating in Mass in a digital way, when this is necessitated by circumstances beyond one’s control, is better than no worship at all. Through the digital medium, the Word of God is still proclaimed, the people’s responses can still be spoken, prayer is still made, and thanks still given.
Receiving Holy Communion is not possible, unless some other sort of provision is made (as is done, for example, in large-scale liturgies such as those celebrated by the pope). But this does not invalidate the Mass. In fact, the practice of “spiritual communion” – what St. Thomas Aquinas describes as “an ardent desire to receive Jesus in the most holy sacrament and lovingly embrace him” – remains praiseworthy.
Will virtual worship become the wave of the future? No, at least not as long as we value community along with Communion. In the future, circumstances such as the diminishing number of priests and the geographic distances among people may challenge our experience of worshipping together in one place. But the convenience of “stay-at-home” church can never substitute for the full experience of worship rightly owed to the divine. And the isolation that it can facilitate runs counter to the reality of church as a community of disciples. The church – the ekklesia, or people set apart for God – will always be those “called together” in worship.
And there lies the essential that we must always keep in mind, even when we can only worship online. The celebration may be virtual, when necessary, but the People of God are always real.
Father Thomas Dailey, O.S.F.S. is the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood, and a research fellow for the Catholic Leadership Institute in Wayne.
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