Beware: Sacramental Presence is always person-to-person

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 16, 2020

In recent weeks, a number of writers have expressed concern about the long-lasting impact of substituting live-stream and recorded Masses for the actual attendance of real people at real Masses. These concerns have been raised, among many other places, on CatholicCulture.org. But nobody here is suggesting that it is a bad thing to watch a Mass on TV or the Internet when one is not able to attend Mass, and nobody is suggesting it is a bad thing for bishops and pastors to enable those who are shut in to recall the wonder of the Mass in this way. Rather, the concern is that neither our shepherds nor ourselves should blur the line between recalling or thinking about the Mass (or about any sacrament) and actually participating in or partaking in the sacrament itself.

This is not a distinction without a difference. It is a distinction which recognizes an infinite difference—a difference that is greater by far than anything else in the world.

Sacramental encounters

While the word “encounter” began to be shamelessly overused in religious discussions during the last third of the twentieth century, it remains true that every sacrament is a true and real personal encounter between one or more persons and Jesus Christ. This encounter—this personal exchange—takes place according to the manner and purpose of each sacrament, but it always remains personal. When we do not participate in the sacrament “in person”, therefore, we do not participate in it at all. To put it more starkly, we do not receive Christ sacramentally at all.

Take the Sacrament of Penance as an example. In that sacrament, the penitent “encounters” (personally connects with) Christ as he or she confesses sins and receives the Lord’s pardon and grace. I believe it was about fifty years ago that people first began to wonder whether this could not be done more conveniently over the telephone. But the sacraments require a fully personal exchange, directly through our personal faculties, without intermediary. If we reflect on this at all, we see at once many reasons why this is spiritually most fitting. What we must also understand is that it is absolutely essential to sacramental reality.

Apart from a quintessentially personal interaction, the sacraments do not happen. We can discuss our sins in a conversation with a priest over the telephone, and he may well offer good advice, but we cannot confess them by phone to the priest in persona Christi, that is, we cannot confess them sacramentally to Christ Himself, nor can the priest in persona Christi absolve us of our sins. He cannot absolve us by his own power in ways of his own devising—for it is Christ who absolves and rejoices with us in the forgiveness of our sins. Thus we cannot “go to confession” by telegraph, by videolink, by satellite, or even through a messenger service.

(“I’m tied up at work, Fred. Go tell Father my sins and bring me back an absolution. Don’t bother with the penance, though; no way I’m accepting that from you!”)

What is true of the Sacrament of Penance is true of all the other sacraments. Some examples: We cannot baptize another person by proxy, nor can he or she be baptized by touching the screen while a camera captures the image of someone saying the words and pouring water into a basin. There is no virtual Anointing of the Sick. Confirmation cannot be performed en masse without individual sacramental anointing with chrism—let alone over the air waves. A couple cannot confer the sacrament of matrimony on each other through an online chat session, no matter how many witnesses there may be.

And the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist cannot be discerned in a video or a high resolution color photograph any more than in a finger painting. Whether you look at a picture in a book or pixels on a screen, you are not seeing Christ. You are seeing a reconstructed facsimile, made of completely different materials. The personal character of sacramentality is simply not operative.

Interior devotion versus a sacrament

I am not enough of a theologian to explain all of this perfectly, but the distinction is vital on the most basic and practical of levels. In raising his own concerns about inappropriate (including customary) use of live-streamed Masses, Fr. Jerry Pokorsky put it this way:

A live-streamed Mass does not anticipate the reception of Holy Communion; it substitutes for our communal participation…. Participation is decidedly passive—or completely interior/spiritual—which can be Protestant at best, gnostic at worst. The trajectory of these appearances may further erode the Catholic sense of need and desire for the Real Presence. [See The dangers of live-streaming Masses.]

Fr. Pokorsky alludes here to the broader sacramental dimensions of the liturgy, which encompasses more than the transubstantiation of the bread and wine. But he was not criticizing those who seek to be mindful of the Sacrifice of the Mass in this way when they cannot participate in it. He was warning against a further erosion of the already atrophied understanding of sacramentality in the modern world. For as soon as we discern the sacred character of the sacraments in terms of an interior devotion actuated by symbols—exactly then do we eliminate sacramentality and frustrate the most potent, complete, real, personal and decisive actions of Christ in the world.

My point is that all of the interior devotion throughout history is a thimble full of sentiment compared with the cataract of transforming power which defines our participation in or reception of a sacrament. It is true that, even at our best, we are insufficiently aware of sacramental action as the real and present action of Christ, but what is essential in this discussion is that we not become so shamefully unaware of it as to forget the fundamental difference sacramentality makes in the Christian life. To oversimplify human language, and without intending to deny the efficacy of grace in any form, let me dramatize the difference with poetic license: Compared to a sacrament, every other form of spirituality is a just an idea.

Reality

The story is frequently told of Japanese Catholics who, devoid of priests for over a hundred years, would still go through the prayers of the Mass and then weep for sheer spiritual dejection when they came to the Eucharistic prayer and the confecting of the Eucharist, which they could not accomplish. It is unlikely that they would have found much consolation in live-streaming. (Nor is consolation the point of the spiritual life, but perhaps that is a discussion for another day.)

Or take another example: We may view on television anything from a successful medical operation to the announcement by the Commander in Chief of the end of a war, but we will never confuse that with the experience of those—especially the patient—who were in the operating theater or on the stage with the Commander in Chief. Or, again, it is one thing to watch the reruns of a plane plowing into one of the Twin Towers. It is quite another to have been in the tower or on the street below when the plane struck.

In the same way, when we watch a recorded Mass (which is a better visual reproduction, but only deceptively a better sacramental representation, than a picture book), we must not at all imagine that we have somehow found a substitute for the real thing. It is important to call the Mass to mind when we are deprived of it; but we must never forget that, in these visual aids, there is no “there” there. There is no “thisness” in this.

Rather, we are simply looking (hopefully with intense longing and appropriate spiritual benefit) at what somebody else is participating in but we are not. Such a “Mass” is, for us who observe electronically, a reminder that should increase our yearning for the reality, not satisfy it. When it ceases to increase our yearning, we should forswear watching it at all.

Now of course the Mass is not quite like the other sacraments. The Mass enshrines the sacrament of the Eucharist (and so the Real Presence of Jesus Christ, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity) in the framework of the Church’s public worship. The Sacred Liturgy is “what the Church does”, through Word and Sacrament, to re-present the Sacrifice of the Son to the Father over time, and to form the Church continually into the one Body of Christ. Because the Mass is first and foremost a work of the Church, each Mass benefits each member of the Church in some specifically sacramental way.

I should note as well that it is precisely this that lends great value to spiritual Communion, even at a distance. Our direct active participation in particular Masses is of far greater value, but it would be wrong to dismiss private Masses as if they had no specifically sacramental value even to those who cannot be present. In what I have said so far, I do not mean to minimize the overarching sacramental character of the Church, through which we are all incorporated into the one Body of Christ. Insofar as they are open to it, this surely and specifically benefits each of her members.

But it remains a tremendous spiritual loss to be unable to participate in the Mass, and it is obviously a serious abuse to prevent the faithful from participating without the gravest of reasons. Perhaps we can grasp the argument presented here more easily through a reflection on another type of abuse.

I refer to the Medieval abuse of running from altar to altar in the great cathedrals so as to be present at the moment of each consecration of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ—a successive and almost frenzied witnessing of The Miracle as it occurred through the hands and words of many priests at many altars. The reason for recalling this abuse is simple: Those who abused the Sacred Liturgy in this way had a better understanding of the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist than many of us do. In particular, they had a better understanding than any of us do if we are satisfied even for a moment with a televised Mass.

There is, of course, the matter of reception of Communion, which may even be ordinarily more common than is salutary today. I can certainly see the positive aspects of yearning more and receiving less, though I recommend no particular practice to anyone. But we know, at least, that we cannot receive the Eucharist digitally. I might wonder if this makes little difference to those who automatically receive Communion, regardless of their spiritual state, whenever the congregation receives, and who just as automatically pass over it when nobody in the room can receive—I might wonder, I say, except that I very much doubt that those who take the trouble to watch the Mass remotely are among those who care too little for the nature and potency of the sacraments.

Read that last sentence again. I want to emphasize that I do not, in any of this discussion, forget this important point. As a general rule, those who bother to watch the Mass electronically are among those who care the most and understand the most.

Conclusion

Here I am simply joining the important discussion of the nature of sacramental reality. My purpose is to ward off any inadvertent slippage in our sacred awareness, a slippage all too likely to be occasioned by a habitual “participation” in the Mass by remote means—which it is all too easy to find easy, and all too satisfying to find satisfying. Nor is this only for the Catholic faithful to keep firmly in mind. It should be a signal concern for bishops to meditate on and pray about constantly, lest they fall into, or at least inadvertently foster in others, the lazy habit of regarding televised Masses as somehow “good enough”, or of thinking that, if our technology is flawless, there is perhaps no pressing need for anything more.

We should all know how easy it is for even very bad habits to become normal in the spiritual life. This takes little time at all, unless we are constantly vigilant. I know I have slipped into the same bad habits more than once—even though I am already aware of their folly. It is in the nature of the human person to drift into unreflective bad habits, whereas good habits require constant recollection and practice to develop and maintain. Just now we are being habituated to “accessing” the Mass in unusual ways. Moreover, it is in the very nature of the deficiencies of any human culture that they habituate us in ways of which we are not fully aware. Only a vigilant and self-examining holiness can protect anyone from that.

My point is that the Catholic sacraments are never normal to mankind. What is normal and natural to us as human persons is life without the sacraments, that is, life under the intolerable weight of sin. Presumably the Church knows the sacraments are, in fact, essential to raising us above our natural state into the love and radical transformation of Our Lord and Savior. But at a certain point (I cannot say definitively when in each case), human prudence becomes the enemy of Divine grace. At that point, the failure to bring the faithful together at real Masses, in the active sacramental Presence of the real Sacrifice of the real Christ, will become not just an unfortunate habit but a grave scandal and an even graver sin.

Coming to such a point may well reveal a self-satisfied presumption. I mean the presumption that, in our worldly wisdom, we understand all this better than did those who accepted martyrdom rather than to minimize to the slightest degree the sacramental importance of Jesus Christ in their lives.

In the meantime, I ask only this: Let us remember what sacraments are and how they work. Again, I do not say that we receive no benefit from distant celebrations of Mass in rectories and closed churches, because we do, in common with the whole Church and even the whole world, whether we watch the videos or not. But these Masses do not encompass our own active participation in the liturgy, nor our own personal engagement with the sacrament of the Eucharist.

There may come a moment when we begin to think that this distinction is not really so very important after all. I do not claim any specific person has reached that point now, still less those who settle for live-streamed Masses precisely because they understand how important the Mass really is. But we must all take care: For if and when that moment comes, we will have ceased to hold the Catholic Faith.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Apr. 19, 2020 9:19 AM ET USA

    Cory: One would watch a Mass for the same reason one would read the readings, to treasure in the heart the liturgical action of the Church, and to pray personally for the Church. Also, it is not wrong to feel consolation in spiritual activities, as long as emotional satisfaction is not our goal. The faithful actually have a right to the spiritual consolations offered by the Church.

  • Posted by: Northern Digger - Apr. 18, 2020 1:37 AM ET USA

    Thank you for unveiling the Irrefutable TRUTH about the nature of SACRAMENT. You have actually delivered us from the dreaded posture of being LUKEWARM; all that we need to do is follow your lead!

  • Posted by: Cory - Apr. 17, 2020 3:08 AM ET USA

    My question is : if we can't be at Mass why should we console ourselves with live streaming? Is not the truthful living of our circumstances precisely to not console ourselves but to live with this depravation (wisely or unwisely imposed). One can still read the readings but there really is no point in watching a Mass because it is not a performance.