Readers of my blog will notice that it has been many months since I last blogged. Much has happened in the last few months including two lockdowns. One might of assume that the lockdown provided ample opportunity and reason to blog. The problem is, however, that despite keeping oneself busy with all kinds of activities I must admit to suffering from writers’ block. Only now, please God, do I sense that I am moving out of this rather peculiar period.
The last the last nine months or so have been challenging times for all of us in many ways. The reality of the worldwide pandemic and the subsequent restrictions placed upon our day to day life has been extraordinarily difficult for all of us. As a Catholic and as a priest I would like to take the opportunity to reflect, albeit briefly, on a phenomenon that has become in recent months very much the norm: Live Streamed Masses. I do this as someone who live-streamed Masses 7 days a week in the last lockdown and continues to stream 5 times a week now. There are many fruits and blessings that have come out of live streaming. Broadcasting the Mass over the internet has helped to keep our Catholic Communities together and connected during this most challenging period in recent history. Furthermore, the live streams have reached people who ordinarily would not come through the door of the Church. To be clear, live streaming has its place and has been a necessary lifeline for many people’s faith. There is, however, another side to the live streaming which if goes unchecked could be problematic in the future for the faith and life of the Church.
Talking to my brother priests, it is noticeable how live streaming can give rise to several phenomena that may not be conducive to faith development. I would like to reflect on these in turn: Clericalism of the Eucharist, Commodification/consumerism of the Eucharist, Spiritual Idleness concerning the Eucharist
Clericalism and the Eucharist
The pandemic has given rise to peculiar way of celebrating the Eucharist, which is at odds with the Church’s understanding of the Eucharist. Put bluntly, the Mass has become all-priest focused. The priest presides, reads the readings, sets up and cleans up before and after Mass, performs any servers’ duties, and is the sole communicant (when in lockdown).
The Mass is the action of Christ and as such must always be the action of his whole mystical body: the Church. The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was clear on this, encouraging full, active, conscious participation. It is worth quoting here at length:
Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism. In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit; and therefore pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it, by means of the necessary instruction, in all their pastoral work. (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 14)
Whilst it would be wrong and far too simplistic to read this paragraph as meaning: everyone should have a role at Mass, indeed, all people should actively and consciously participate with the source and summit of the Christian life and faith – the Eucharist. The admittedly necessary situation of curtailing lay liturgical ministries, as well as removing singing, has placed all the emphasis back onto the priest. The Mass becomes, therefore, a clerical thing – something the priest does, and the priest does alone. What is more, the level at which one ‘consciously’ participates in a virtual celebration on a phone, tablet, or computer is debatable. It potentially takes more effort and is open to distractions. One can easily watch the Mass, rather than participate in it. Admittedly this risk always exists - even if one is in church but viewing Mass on a screen, if not careful, can simply become that: viewing Mass on a screen.
Commodification/consumerism of the Eucharist
This brings me to my next area for reflection: live streaming can easily turn the Eucharist and specifically, Holy Communion, into a commodity that one simply consumes. The live streaming of a Mass where people are unable to receive Holy Communion risks separating the act of Holy Communion from the rest of Mass. Communion: Communion with Christ and communion with one another, is the fruit of the Eucharistic celebration. In every Eucharist, the whole Church is present, the Church on Earth, the Church in purgatory, and the Church in Heaven. In every Eucharist, the one eternal sacrifice that Christ made is re-presented and we are reconciled to God and to one another. Holy Communion exists because of the Mass to separate Holy Communion from the Mass risks turning the Holy Communion into something that we “go and get”, it risks turning the fruit of the Mass into a commodity that we can give out at will. To be clear, we need Holy Communion and I am not advocating that people do not come to Communion, however, due prudence needs to be observed. Communion is not a “magical product” and it certainly is not a right…Holy Communion is a gift that flows from the source and summit of the Christian faith – the Eucharist. When at all possible the celebration of the Eucharist and the reception of Holy Communion should go hand in hand.
As I have hinted previously, the way in which we now ‘consume’ the Mass on our digital devices is also something to be aware of. It’s possible to pause and watch a recorded Mass at our own convenience, it’s also possible to shop around until we find a Mass we like – vigilance is needed, if we are not careful following Mass online can become little more than watching a spiritual video that we watch on our own terms and consume in our own way.
Spiritual Idleness concerning the Eucharist
Clericalism and commodification of the Eucharist can potentially lead to a lazy attitude towards the Mass. If we can just log on anytime and access the Mass on our terms then there is a danger of taking the Eucharist for granted. It doesn’t mean we will, but the danger exists in a way that it didn’t exist before. One of the more worrying features of Masses after the first lockdown is the people who haven’t returned to Mass. Whilst it is understandable that a number have to still isolate, there sadly exists a smaller, but no less significant, amount of people who simply don’t. Or at least, are not consistent with their isolation, i.e. they have returned to the shops, the garden centers even pubs and restaurants but still haven’t returned physically to Mass, preferring it would seem to watch from their own homes. If Church has become something to watch on TV, which can be consumed at one’s own leisure then why bother coming to Mass? One would hope that Holy communion would be the draw to get people back to Church, but sadly this has not always been the case. With the resurgence of the practice of spiritual communion (which is a good and holy thing) some people, it seems, believe that a spiritual communion is virtually the same (or at least nearly as good) as a Holy Communion. To be clear, it is not! If people are going out and mixing then Mass should be the first thing that people return to, not the last.
To conclude, the pandemic is throwing all kinds of challenges at us but with these challenges have also come great opportunities. I believe in live streaming. Live streaming Masses has its place and it is an important way to keep the people of God together and to reach one another with the Eucharist in these uncertain times. Nevertheless, live streaming also poses some very real challenges, and great care and prudence will need to be exercised to ensure the Eucharist remains in reality the source and summit of the whole Christian life.