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Anthony R. Lusvardi, S.J.November 25, 2020
photo by Anuja Mary Tilij on unsplash 

Over the past four summers I have gotten a break from doctoral studies in sacramental theology at the Atheneum of Sant’Anselmo in Rome by ministering at St. Isaac Jogues Parish in Rapid City, S.D. A world away from the Eternal City’s snarled traffic and the equally snarled theological texts of my day job, St. Isaac Jogues is Rapid City’s unofficial Native American parish. It is a little church in a rough part of town with an almost mystical view of the Black Hills.

Masses at St. Isaac’s regularly include the Lakota “smudging” ritual as part of the penitential rite. In Lakota culture, smudging, which involves burning aromatic sage or sweetgrass and waving this incense over the congregation with an eagle feather, is associated with purification. Accompanied by the “Four Directions Song,” a Lakota chant exhorting listeners to turn to the Creator in prayer, the ritual is simple yet powerful.

When asked why he wouldn't allow them to photograph the smudging rite, he simply said: “It’s sacred. It’s not a show.”

This summer, at the end of a Mass that included a particularly impressive smudging, I overheard visitors asking the Lakota elder who had performed the rite if they could take pictures. The former sun dancer cut an imposing figure in his crimson ribbon shirt, but I knew he would categorically refuse to take pictures with his eagle feather and incense bowl. Lakota rituals are not allowed to be photographed or filmed. When asked why, he simply said: “It’s sacred. It’s not a show.”

This same summer—Covid summer—I had my first experience with televised liturgy. Masses I’ve presided at have been filmed before, to be played simultaneously in the parish hall, without much ado. And televised liturgies—from St. Peter’s to EWTN—have been a regular part of Catholic life since well before Covid. During the pandemic, friends and relatives reported that seeing these liturgies on TV helped them spiritually, especially around Easter. Such broadcasts seemed to meet a need. Liturgical history is rich and varied, and using technology to adjust to present circumstances seemed warranted.

I began to have misgivings about these Masses, however, as soon as I received a detailed set of instructions for fitting the Mass at which I was to preside at St. Isaac Jogues within the parameters of the broadcast. Timing—hitting the 28-minute length requirement—was everything. The broadcast window—not the message of the readings or the meaning of the prayers—became the principal determining factor for each of the small decisions a priest has to make when celebrating Mass: everything from which eucharistic prayer to use to when to pause for silent reflection.

The broadcast window—not the message of the readings or the meaning of the prayers—became the principal determining factor for celebrating the Eucharist.

Still, I was determined to go through with it. Circumstances in a pandemic are less than ideal, I told myself; maybe I was just being fussy. Only on the day of the production did I realize that we were not filming a daily parish Mass. The Mass was being staged without a congregation, and I would be celebrating the Sunday liturgy on a Wednesday afternoon. The crew assured me if something didn’t fit the broadcast requirements, we could back up and do it again. We could even film parts of the Mass afterward, they told me, so that a smoother version could be stitched together in post-production. I did what I was told, but afterward I felt like I’d done something wrong—wrong in a way that fell somewhere between using someone else’s toothbrush and simony.

The folks organizing the filming were lovely, well-intentioned people, and in a crisis a bit of trial and error is inevitable. But there is something decidedly un-sacramental, even anti-sacramental in e-Eucharist. The Lakota are right to resist filming their sacred rites, and surely the Eucharist is no less sacred. Attempting to squeeze Mass into the space between “Hannity,” “The Bachelor” and all the weird stuff that shows up on my Facebook feed inevitably reduces it to something less than what it truly is. The more I reflected on the experience, the less I could escape the conclusion that the Liturgy of the Eucharist should not be filmed.

As Italy eased its coronavirus restrictions last spring, Pope Francis began to express unease with the long-term effects of so many televised liturgies, unease I would now second in spades. If e-Mass can substitute for the real thing, then the parish community is dispensable.

The Lakota are right to resist filming their sacred rites, and surely the Eucharist is no less sacred.

Moreover, physical participation is what separates a sacrament from a pious wish. At best, TV Masses are a bit like an IV-drip, able to keep one hydrated in an emergency but not really capable of providing the long-term nourishment necessary to build up the body of Christ.

And there is an even deeper problem with televised Masses that I only came to appreciate through experience. The camera is not an inert observer. It changes what we do during the liturgy, altering our perception of what Mass is. Vatican II’s constitution on the sacred liturgy, “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” makes clear that our task in the liturgy is not simply to watch but to participate. When he was still a cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger, in The Spirit of the Liturgy, identified the tendency of contemporary worship to become priestly performance as one of the most damaging distortions of our liturgy.

Even liturgists who do not share all of Ratzinger’s theological sensibilities, such as John Baldovin (Reforming the Liturgy: A Response to the Critics), second his fundamental point that the Mass must be prayed and not performed. On the day of my TV Mass, one of the crew said to me, “You’ll be famous!” She was joking, of course, but the circumstances made the joke inevitable.

The e-Eucharist I was doing did not quite correspond to reality.

And even if the circumstances had not been so artificial as that particular way of staging Mass—if there had been a real congregation, for example—the camera would have had its effect in the little things like where one directs one’s attention or moves one’s eyes. That particular staging had the added fault of introducing an element of falsehood into the celebration: The fact that I was pretending it was Sunday on a Wednesday meant that what I was doing did not quite correspond to reality.

While I’m not dogmatic on the specifics, I have more and more come to believe that a key to celebrating the liturgy as “Sacrosanctum Concilium” and the fathers of the liturgical movement intended, is that it be real. I’d rather have real flowers than plastic, wax candles than oil-filled tubes; when I say the words of the Mass I try to speak directly to the intended party—looking at the people when I say “The Lord be with you” but not letting my eyes wander through the congregation when addressing God the Father.

We are inundated with entertainment—Netflix, no doubt, is one of the pandemic’s winners—so I think if we are to keep the liturgy sacred, now is the time to exercise a bit of what St. Ignatius called agere contra: to act against those tendencies that may come naturally but lead away from the truth. Perhaps this means reconsidering certain practices, including TV Masses, that seemed normal even before the pandemic. Generic exhortations like “be more reverent” are too squishy to be of much help; we need a concrete action to reassert the sacredness, the irreducibility of the Eucharist.

Mass must be prayed and not performed.

Many have found some good in broadcast liturgies—the homebound and the hospitalized, for example—and the liturgy itself suggests where we might make the right distinction to preserve what is worthwhile in such practices. We should continue to allow the transmission of the Liturgy of the Word, but filming the Liturgy of the Eucharist should be prohibited.

Drawing such a line actually has a strong historic precedent. In the early church, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist were sometimes celebrated in different rooms. This was done to facilitate a broader hearing of the Scriptures among those interested in but not yet fully committed to Christianity, while reserving participation in the Eucharist to those fully initiated.

This distinction exists today (if somewhat obscurely) in the dismissal of the catechumens in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. In the Byzantine rite, it is marked by the exclamation “The doors! The doors!” before the creed and then the anaphora (the Eucharistic prayer).

In the early church, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist were sometimes celebrated in different rooms.

Making such a distinction respects the particular nature of each of the two principal parts of the Mass. The Liturgy of the Word is a time of teaching and instruction, something that can be done, if imperfectly, via TV (or Wi-Fi). You can tell someone what you learned in the homily (in some cases, even improve upon it), but that simply doesn’t work when it comes to holy Communion. Sacraments are not principles to be learned but tangible realities that cannot be reduced to the sum of their parts; they are concrete because they are given.

The theorist of television and communication Marshall McLuhan was right to observe that “the medium is the message.” When the medium is bread and wine, it can’t go digital without becoming something less than bread and wine. Pictures of food and drink do not nourish. And love means remaining unsatiated with anything less than the Beloved—even when he is absent.

Rather than manufacturing a substitute for what is not there, perhaps it is better simply to acknowledge the absence of what is desired. God’s love for us brought him into this world of absences and faults and limitations. The specificity of the sacraments means there are limits on when and how they can be celebrated. But existing within those limits is part of what we mean when we profess the Son of God became incarnate. The desire that we feel when we cannot receive Communion might be painful, but it is honest. There can be something salvific in that longing. On Calvary Jesus said, “I thirst.” Thirsting for him is also a kind of communion with him who longs for us.

The desire that we feel when we cannot receive Communion might be painful, but it is honest.

While the Eucharist demands to be the absolute center of the celebrant’s attention without competition from the camera, the proclamation of the Word and preaching are naturally directed to a listening “audience.” A Liturgy of the Word intended principally for broadcast would not necessarily have to imitate Mass—with readings proclaimed from lecterns, for example—but could engage the daily readings at greater length and in a more conversational style.

Televising an actual Mass without the Eucharist could be handled in different ways. A commentator could bring the broadcast to a close after the Prayers of the Faithful with a brief prayer—perhaps similar to the prayers for “spiritual communion” already in use. (This probably shouldn’t be done by the priest himself, since he should be concerned with celebrating the Eucharist for the congregation present and not the camera.)​​​​​And a variation of such a prayer could bring the broadcast to a close after the Prayers of the Faithful. A longer broadcast would allow for further instruction—as happens when the catechumens are dismissed in R.C.I.A.—cutting away from the Mass andgiving others a chance to comment on some aspect of the readings, the liturgical season or the saints of the week.

We forget we have other liturgical options (the Liturgy of the Hours, our plethora of blessings) outside of mass. 

One of the weaknesses of our contemporary liturgical life is that it too often reduces everything to Mass, so that we forget we have other liturgical options (the Liturgy of the Hours, our plethora of blessings) and all the many ways of praying with Scripture to serve our pastoral needs. Some of these may work more naturally in e-versions.

The wisdom of the R.C.I.A. process is that it recognizes that participating in Mass is something that we must learn how to do. I suspect our evangelical and pastoral efforts would be more effective if we employed a more textured array of liturgical practices.

Video or photography during the Eucharist is not a sin, nor do those who have worked creatively and hard to televise liturgies have bad motives. What I am suggesting is something like a dress code; the camera does not alter the validity of the celebration, but it does hurt our sense of decorum and the quality of our prayer. It obscures the sacred. If it were up to me such a prohibition would apply even for Masses at St. Peter’s Basilica, though a policy like this could be adopted at any level, by bishops or conferences of bishops or any parish that has a televised liturgy.

The pandemic and shutdowns have diluted the church’s sacramental life. But crisis brings opportunity, sometimes by prompting us to a renewed appreciation of things once taken for granted. Even before Covid’s ripples, the negative effects of a predominantly electronic social life were becoming increasingly clear.

Perhaps now is the time to push back against the excesses of life among the screens and to regain a more human equilibrium. Perhaps our way of worshipping needs to testify more clearly to the fact that certain things cannot go virtual. The Real Presence seems a good place to start.

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