Growing up in Bugnini’s liturgical reign of terror, for me, the only semblance of non–spiritually benumbed sanity at Mass came from watching EWTN’s daily Mass. I rejoiced at hearing hymns older than 1966, as well as encountering homilies void of social justice empowerment and the canonization of parish members. Most salient, though EWTN did not broadcast a traditional Latin Mass, their reverence and attention to beauty shouted: “We actually believe that Jesus is present here.”
I am tempted to say EWTN’s Mass was vital in my spiritual upbringing. In fact, though I savored the daily broadcast of the Mass, the real item of interest was seeing if my favorite parishioner — I nicknamed him “Billy” — was at Mass in the front pew every day. He usually was. There was weird comfort in that. Thankfully, I don’t think it is a sin to be distracted while watching a televised Mass, sitting on the couch wearing hockey-themed pajamas.
As fate, or rather divine wrath, would have it, most of us are now left with only live-streamed Masses. Catholics, being literally barred from their churches by their bishops during the coronavirus pandemic, are forced to seek the comfort of the Mass through reliance on technology. Only this time there isn’t even the consolation of seeing if a certain parishioner is present — it is mainly just a priest and his iPhone — all to inhibit us from getting sick. Already I am getting sick of it.
Taking the sage advice of my father to never assume, we must begin with what a live-streamed Mass is and is not, lest someone assume what is false. It is not attending actual Mass. Watching a Mass online fulfills no Sunday Mass obligation. Rather, it is a medium for being presented with the Mass. Watching a live Mass online places the ideas and images of the actual Mass inside our minds. We hopefully delight in the truth and beauty being expressed to us. We perhaps even ask God to let us participate spiritually in what is unfolding — surely, I am not the only one who “sends” my guardian angel to such Masses. We pray and reflect on the readings and Mass propers, and we make a spiritual act of Communion. But we are not at Mass. Technology, the helpful tool that it is, cannot bestow graces ex opere operato. The circumstance is simply this: we are at our homes, and the Mass is at the church — a most regrettable physical distancing.
To be fair, I am not sick of all live-streamed Masses. I have particularly enjoyed the Masses from Limerick, Ireland, said by members of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest (including a dear friend of mine). And I cannot imagine entering into the Easter Triduum without, at the very least, watching the sacred ceremonies via the internet. So there is gratitude for these well done live-streams. Yet even these liturgies cannot relieve the unfulfilled longing for one’s physical presence at Christ’s Holy Sacrifice.
The efficacious limits of live-streamed Masses aside, what I am sick of comes from a combination of personal fault, the inevitable disarray produced from live-streamed Masses of Bugnini’s Novus Ordo (promulgated by Paul VI), and the overall addiction fed by praying persistently in front of a screen.
For my own personal fault, seeing an agglomeration of posted Masses, daily, at times feels as though salt is being poured on an open wound. And not having true access to the Mass is an open wound. It hurts, deeply, and so it should. Yet erroneously I sometimes feel derided: “Here’s what you’re missing out on! Doesn’t it look wonderful?” To believe this is inexcusable, however. Every Mass is of inestimable benefit. God forgive me.
As to the live-streamed Novus Ordo Masses that seem to be taking on a bizarre life of their own, I cannot help but think of the following:
I think of the priests who, apparently not being technologically savvy, have been recording Masses with filters on. Random gimmicks thus appear throughout, such as the priest in wizard or clown gear. Come to think of it, given the post-conciliar record of liturgical abuses, these gimmicks might not actually be caused by filters. Either way, we have abnormal Mass entertainment broadcasted to the world.
I think of the priests at so many parishes rushing to live-stream their Masses, even daily, on Facebook or YouTube. Since most parishioners are not interested in attending their weekly Mass on a normal basis, now they can ignore the Mass online as well. It does raise the issue, caused by a versus populum paradigm, of priests’ need for an audience — that saying Mass alone is somehow unfulfilling or even weird. Thus, a camera is set up, often right on the altar mere inches away from the priest’s face, and his well practiced liturgical voice and gestures are given their desired audience.
Along those lines, I think of an earlier story to come out of the COVID-19 crisis in Italy. It was of a lonely priest, forbidden from saying public Mass, who decided to post printed selfies of all his parishioners on the pews of the church. The action, which other priests soon imitated, was perhaps heartfelt, but nevertheless a sentimental absence of real liturgical understanding. This is not a live-stream issue per se, but it coalesces with the need priests have for saying Mass with an audience.
As to the incessant need to stare and “be connected” for prayer, I think of live-streamed perpetual adoration. You now get to Skype with Jesus. Before my wife and I were married, we had a distance-relationship. Skype is nice, but can one actually think it adequately assuages not being in the presence of the beloved? It does not. Does Jesus say much as one stares at the screen? Does one kneel in front of it? Is it so difficult to imagine, on one’s own, a monstrance in a nearby city with adoration? Or is the image of a monstrance on the screen necessary for inculcating intimate union?
I think of the recent push for praying together online, such as with live vespers. Where two or three are gathered on a Facebook live-stream, there am I in their midst. It’s fine to do so, I know that, but at what point does the medium of technology overpower the presence of God? How far do we need to push this possibility? Canadian Marshall McLuhan famously stated that “the medium is the message.” Perhaps our push for the live-streamed praying of everything will cause more harm than good.
I think all these complex occurrences and wonder, can we not simply revere the words of Psalm 46, “Be still and know that I am God”? Can we not pray with an open Gospel, in a quiet room? Stare silently at a crucifix? Chant compline together as a family, or even alone? Close our eyes and be still? At what point is live-streamed Catholicism simply too much?
I conclude by reiterating, despite all the benefits provided by technology during this pandemic, and there are many, that it is necessary to beware the incrementalism of technology penetrating all aspects of our spiritual life. Personal faults, audience-seeking Masses, and overall technological excess can all harm an already stressed spiritual life. The truth is, most of us are already too addicted to our phones as it is. Perhaps this is a time to be mostly in the desert, alone with God. I guarantee He will still speak to us, even if our phone is turned off.
Perhaps especially when it is turned off.
Dan Millette is a husband and father of four. He teaches in Saskatchewan, Canada. Millette is a graduate from Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College in Ontario and has a Master of Arts degree in theology from Holy Apostles College in Connecticut. His personal blog is www.bravestthing.com.