The dangers of live-streaming Masses

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 09, 2020

During the COVID-19 pandemic, bishops have canceled the public celebration of the Mass in obedience to government authorities. Live-streamed Mass on the internet has become the “new normal” of worship for the duration. But this quasi-liturgical innovation may have problematic long-term ramifications.

The Mass is forever the “source and summit” of the Christian life and thus spiritually essential. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:53) At the Last Supper, surrounded by his first priests, He commanded them “Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19)

The components of the Mass are communal and personal. They are rooted in Jewish worship. The Liturgy of the Word fulfills and replaces worship in the synagogues, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist fulfills and replaces the Temple sacrifices with the One Sacrifice of Jesus. The reception of Jesus during Communion—his body, blood, soul, and divinity—prepares us to return to the world and to love others as Jesus loves us.

The Real Presence is Something we touch and experience:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we saw it… (1 John 1-2)

Jesus is present during the Eucharistic celebration in various ways: in the person of the priest, in the proclamation of the Word, and in the assembled people: For “where two or three are gathered together in my name there am I in the midst of them.” (Mt 18:20) Above all, Jesus is present under the appearance of bread and wine after the Consecration: “…Christ becomes present whole and entire, God and man” (Mysterium Fidei, no. 39).

The crisis in Catholic belief in the Real Presence is beyond dispute. The extended cessation of the public celebration of Masses throughout the country threatens to further undermine our faith. So it’s understandable for pastors and diocesan bureaucracies to propose stopgap practices such as encouraging acts of “spiritual Communion” within the context of live-streamed Masses.

The Church has always advocated the practice of “making a spiritual Communion” outside of Mass. St. Alphonsus Liguori’s prayer anticipates a future reception of Communion; he does not propose it as a substitute:

My Jesus, I believe that you are present in the most Blessed Sacrament. I love You above all things and I desire to receive You into my soul. Since I cannot now receive You sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace You as if You were already there, and unite myself wholly to You. Never permit me to be separated from You. Amen.

Homebound Catholics feel some connection to the Church when they watch Mass on TV. So the growing recourse to live-streaming Masses may, at first, appear as a reasonable interim means to keep parishioners connected to their pastor and the daily celebration of the Mass. But there are distinct dangers to habitually “attending” Mass in the virtual reality of television and the internet and this may explain why some Catholics avoid streamed Masses. It’s not real.

Some of the faithful—among them very pious folks—report that they “attend” Mass by watching the televised version. As a result—as many priests know—some seniors very gradually lose the desire to receive Holy Communion outside of Mass invoking their TV Mass “attendance.” The lack of interest facilitates a priest’s occasional neglect of his homebound visitation duties.

Hence even before the pandemic, television and internet broadcasts of the Mass tended to replace the Real Presence of Jesus in Holy Communion with his Virtual Presence (to coin a phrase). The great beauty of our sacred art, music, and architecture testifies to our need to receive the Sacraments within the context of transcendence. Mediation through a digital screen distances us from this reality.

One hopes those who view streamed Masses during these challenging weeks will return to the Real Presence celebrations when government and religious authorities once again permit church attendance. But appearances affect the cultural-religious zeitgeist for better or for worse. Culture flows from the cult, the form of worship. We have already reaped unintended consequences of liturgical practices (such as Communion in the hand) we’ve thoughtlessly implemented.

Appearances accentuate or imply certain realities. A live-streamed Mass does not anticipate the reception of Holy Communion; it substitutes for our communal participation. The images focus on the prayers of the priest (feeding his narcissism?). 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.

In 1979, Pope John Paul II encouraged priests in their sacred ministry. His words were remarkably prescient:

…think of the places where people anxiously await a Priest, and where for many years, feeling the lack of such a Priest, they do not cease to hope for his presence. And sometimes it happens that they meet in an abandoned shrine, and place on the altar a stole which they still keep, and recite all the prayers of the Eucharistic liturgy; and then, at the moment that corresponds to the transubstantiation a deep silence comes down upon them, a silence sometimes broken by a sob… so ardently do they desire to hear the words that only the lips of a Priest can efficaciously utter. So much do they desire Eucharistic Communion, in which they can share only through the ministry of a priest....

During these unfortunate times, it seems better to emphasize the Real Presence of Jesus in traditional ways: in the gathering of two or three (but not more than ten so as not to violate governmental decrees!), reading of the Word, and a spiritual Communion—yearning for the Real Presence in better times.

In the meantime, active clerical and lay resistance to governmental claims that church attendance is “non-essential” would affirm authentically Catholic worship: We must not allow the virtual reality of electronic images to replace our desire for the Real Presence.

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines.
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  • Posted by: nix898049 - Apr. 11, 2020 7:48 PM ET USA

    We are still allowed to go into 2 local churches with coded entry systems. I have been making holy hour visits with Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament since Mass attendance was banned. It does help just to be in His Presence. I agree virtual presence at Mass may dull the desire for Communion just as it seems people who dwell in virtual reality online lose desire for real human contact. A terrible loss.

  • Posted by: FredC - Apr. 10, 2020 9:08 AM ET USA

    The ten-people limit should be fought. Spiritual life is more important than physical life, so the bishops should also fight to have churches be considered as essential as grocery stores. Why did the bishops roll over and play dead, complying to a governmental decree? Mass can be held while social distancing is practiced, so reasonable solutions are available.

  • Posted by: 1ornative2826 - Apr. 10, 2020 12:49 AM ET USA

    Thank you, Father, for so succinctly summarizing how many must be feeling now and what we're facing. I've tried viewing Mass broadcast on YouTube, but it feels like seeing an empty shell. When I stopped by my parish last week to pick up some blessed palms, recording of the Mass was, to my surprise, still going on. We were offered by Father to take Communion. I prefer to receive on the tongue, but was denied. If I wanted Communion, I had to take the Host in hand. I'm still shaken by that denial.

  • Posted by: filioque - Apr. 09, 2020 4:15 PM ET USA

    In many places the bishops canceled public Masses BEFORE any such requirement by civil authorities. And some of them have forbidden even Masses and Confession that would comply with distancing requirements. And even if there were civil requirements that public Masses be canceled, why wouldn't the bishops fight for us, when grocery and liquor stores are open? Why did they jump to shut down the churches and then act as if that was the end of their responsibilities? Wolves in shepherd's clothing?