Jim McDermottMarch 14, 2021
The author offering Mass in his room on Facebook The author offering Mass in his room on Facebook 

For the past year, I have been saying Mass twice every weekend. Our congregation had ashes on Ash Wednesday, exchanged presents during Christmas and prayed together for the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and so many others over the summer. But none of us have had any physical contact. In fact, most of us probably would not recognize each other if we passed on the street. 

If you had suggested to me the idea of offering Mass on Facebook before the pandemic, I would have rattled off a long list of problems with the concept. Our faith is not meant to be a private “Me and Jesus” activity, but something communal and shared. Also, experiencing sacraments virtually is like viewing a glorious ancient painting that has never been cleaned. Yes, you can get something out of it. But it’s a flat, muted taste of what is truly meant for us. 

We begin each Mass like the disciples, locked in our rooms, isolated and maybe afraid. Then out of nowhere Jesus appears in our midst and brings us together.

But after a year with a virtual congregation, I have to say most of those presumptions were entirely wrong. Rather, I think our church has much to gain from considering the lessons of our online liturgical experiences. 

For two and half years I ran the Facebook page for the Jesuit community at Loyola Marymount University. When the pandemic shut down activity on campus, I thought I would try to offer a way for the community’s Facebook friends (and my own) to safely participate in the sacraments and also feel connected for the few scary weeks we would be unable to go to church. (Do you remember when we thought of the pandemic as something that was going to “blow over?”) Initially, though, I feared something like this would be nearly impossible. How do you “do” Mass on Facebook? 

It turns out that it is a matter of pushing two buttons, and after a five-second countdown suddenly there you are, live, with sound and image quality that is fine (most of the time). The posts and my page were open to the public, so people could come and participate with me in real time from anywhere in the world or watch later. In fact, while our lives have never been more complicated than in this last year, going to Mass has actually never been easier. There is no fighting with the kids to get in the car, no parking lot traffic, no quest for the best pew. 

While our lives have never been more complicated than in this last year, going to Mass has actually never been easier.

As much as possible, I wanted things to feel “normal.” When addressing the virtual congregation I tried looking right into the camera, as though we were all able to see each other. Whenever it was a time for the congregation to offer prayers or responses, I tried to leave extra time for them to do so. The same went for the sign of peace: Just because we weren’t all in the same room didn’t mean people did not want to reach out to each other virtually or hug the people with whom they were sitting. 

I didn’t say these Masses from a chapel, either, but from my room. I sit in the La-Z-Boy chair that is standard issue for Jesuits. (It’s a little known fact that the final vow every Jesuit takes is “to always La-Z-Boy.”) There is a little table with the elements needed for Mass to my right, and beyond that a small bookshelf with family photos and trinkets, just like everybody has in their home. 

To be honest, this choice came more from concerns about safety than anything else. The idea of using objects and a space also available to the 35 other Jesuits of my community seemed a recipe for constant anxiety rather than prayer. 

I love the idea that Mass exists in a space somehow outside the normal passage of time. On Facebook, that concept finds flesh.

But matching the setting of the liturgy to that of the congregation ended up making it instead feel like we were all part of a communal home Mass. People emailed me pictures and stories of themselves watching with their kids on the TV in the kitchen or the living room, or sitting on the porch on vacation. They came any time they wanted, too. I am surprised sometimes to go back to a liturgy from the prior week and discover more prayers and comments have been posted long after the liturgy ended. 

In my Jesuit studies I loved the idea posed by some sacramental theologians that Mass exists in a space somehow outside the normal passage of time. On Facebook, that concept finds flesh.

The Normal Becomes New

Unlike Zoom, Facebook is not a shared feed. I am the only one you see and hear. That seemed like a lot to have to endure week after week. Even in a parish where there is only one priest, you have lectors and musicians to offer different voices and ways into the prayer. 

I tried to offer music for the responsorial psalm or at communion. Almost immediately, Facebook warned me that playing three verses of “Be Not Afraid” was copyright infringement whether we were all in a worldwide crisis or not. So I took to posting songs on my Facebook feed after Mass instead. 

Intriguingly, over time people started to offer their own suggestions, songs and videos they had found that spoke to their own experience of the readings or homily. At the prayers of the faithful, everyone was also able to offer their own petitions, a practice that only happens in parishes during weekday Masses, if at all. We may not know what the others with whom we are praying look like, but we can tell you who went in for surgery this week and who passed her sommelier exam; whose son has some special physical needs and who just got vaccinated; who is grieving the loss of husbands or wives. 

Each time I have gone in anxious that no one will have anything to say. And each time the congregation has responded with an enormous wellspring of ideas and experiences. 

Some weekends we have had shared homilies as well, where I would pose a question to consider ahead of time (“How are you thinking about Lent this year?”) and then allow people time to post reflections. Each time I have gone in anxious that no one will have anything to say. And each time the congregation has responded with an enormous wellspring of ideas and experiences. 

For me it has been a constant reminder that even though many Catholics might not feel comfortable getting up to speak at Mass, might even think they don’t have anything of merit to say, in truth each of us has insights about God and life to share. When we are given that opportunity, our idea of a “community of faith” becomes more literally a reality, each of us fed by the prayers and faith lives of the others. One of the best parts of the whole experience of having Mass online, in fact, has been the sense of community that is present there. Each Sunday I sit in my room by myself, and yet I never feel alone.  

How is that possible? I don’t know. But praying together on Facebook, it is as though we have had a year of Easters rather than Good Fridays: We begin each Mass like the disciples, locked in our rooms, isolated and maybe afraid. Then out of nowhere Jesus appears in our midst and brings us together. 

Going Forward

In one version of the future, everything eventually opens up again and we all go back to doing things the way we did before. It is an attractive idea in many ways; I certainly want to be able to sit and pray and eat donuts with people in person again. But there are also lessons to learn from the last year for the way we “do church” going forward.

We are all partners in prayer, rather than presiders and recipients. In ordinary times, our church gives people few opportunities to actually share their own experiences of God and life. The very structure of our worship puts people into the position of minister (a few) or recipient (most of us). Saying Mass on Facebook has demonstrated to me how much more the “people in the pews” have to offer to the overall communal experience. Tapping into that wellspring of faith and experience in a parish setting could be as easy as allowing people to offer their own petitions during weekday Masses. Or we can ask people to make suggestions for songs, or try a town hall format for the occasional homily so that a number of people can share. 

Why is the idea of giving parishioners a moment to speak a time-management issue, but us delivering homilies of 15 to 20 minutes is not? 

And what is to stop us from having five minutes at the end of Sunday Mass where a few people can come up and share something they took from the readings or something going on in their lives?  

I can hear some of my brother priests and liturgists complaining that adding a five-minute window for congregational sharing would extend the length of Mass. To them I would ask: Why is the idea of giving parishioners a moment to speak a time-management issue, but us delivering homilies of 15 to 20 minutes is not? 

Let your theory be informed by practice and experiment. These ideas speak to a broader point. To what extent are our policies and theories around liturgy and church getting in the way of what our worship and community could be, rather than enabling them? Why is it exactly that Catholics can’t get married outside, for example? Or in their backyards? Or occasionally use a pop song that fits the theme of the liturgy? (Everyone who has ever listened to Sufjan Stevens, I see you nodding your heads.) How much more might be possible if we were to adopt a spirit of curiosity and experimentation?

So rather than say Mass is at these times and if you are not there, you have committed a sin, why not keep posting online Masses from our parishes indefinitely?

Not everything would be a smashing success, as anyone who lived through the 1970s can attest.  But some things might. It is important to remember: The third member of the Trinity is not rock but spirit, something that moves freely and encourages us to more freely move. Put another way, as a retreat director once said to me, the Holy Spirit is just crazy enough to be acting where we are not looking, rather than only where we are. 

Go out to all the people (a.k.a. keep online Masses going). The whole idea of church as an “obligation” that must be experienced but only at very select times seems completely contrary to the example of Jesus, who said “come to me” to indicate welcome, not prerequisites. Catholics can have other important things to do on weekends. That does not necessarily mean they don’t want to experience liturgy, too. Indeed, when what is keeping them away is illness or a crisis, their desire may very well be greater. 

So rather than say Mass is at these times and if you are not there, you have committed a sin—an idea that drives some Catholics away and others crazy with worry—why not keep posting online Masses from our parishes indefinitely? Perhaps even occasionally we can offer a Mass or communion service that is just for people in the parish that are homebound or could not make it in person. Before the pandemic the broader church looked to EWTN or Catholic TV for that, but it is just far more meaningful to be able to pray with your own community. And if our experience of the last year has taught us anything, it is that the sacramental nourishment and encouragement of the Eucharist persists even when experienced in a lesser form.  

Though the advent of Covid-19 vaccines means things are opening up (and thank God for that), the pandemic is not going away anytime soon. But even once it has, there are other things that will keep us from church, and other forms of pandemic, too, like the flu, which kills hundreds of thousands of people around the world every year.

What a shame it would be if our image of what church must be were to continue to get in the way of what it could become. 

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