Liturgy Online means Assembly Off-line

WelCom June 2020: Palmerston North Diocese priest and theologian, Joe Grayland, offers an opinion about the place of ‘Electronic Eucharist’ within the liturgy. Virtual Mass and post-Vatican II liturgical reform…

WelCom June 2020:

Palmerston North Diocese priest and theologian, Joe Grayland, offers an opinion about the place of ‘Electronic Eucharist’ within the liturgy.

Joe Grayland, priest and theologian of the Diocese of Palmerston North.
Photo: Supplied

Virtual Mass and post-Vatican II liturgical reform

A vast amount of material was produced during the liturgical lockdown. Many of the ‘liturgical responses’ have been creative, some enlightened and some abuse of the liturgy. 

Online Masses have shown priests celebrating Mass on their own in empty churches, some in groups in their homes, with believers kneeling in front of their television sets. These images raise essential questions concerning liturgical presence and liturgical participation. 

Online Masses have two key problems: 

1) the exclusion of the baptised assembly; and 
2) the commodification of Mass.

Active Participation and the Exclusion of the Laity

Sacrosanctum Concilium [the Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy] is the key conciliar document of the Vatican Council because it shapes our vision of worship and Church. It defines the difference between the 1962 and the 1969 Roman Missals’ understanding of worship, church and ministry. 

Active Participation (actuosa, plena et conscia participatio) is the central principle that defines Pauline liturgy. Active participation has an inner expression through presence and silence and an external expression through listening, singing and reciting together, bringing gifts to the Table and, ultimately, through sharing the Body and Blood of the Lord. It is more than doing something; it is about being saved. 

Active participation expresses the reality of the liturgical assembly as the subject of the liturgy. In doing so, it put an end to the pastoral and ritual clericalism that, since the Middle Ages, had marked the Mass and popular eucharistic devotion.

The Pauline reform intentionally united the liturgical prayer of the priest and assembly in one, interwoven prayer. In the Pauline Liturgy believers do not go to ‘hear father say his Mass’ while praying their prayers in parallel – the Church prays together – clergy and laity in one hierarchical body.

Active participation is the powerful organisational idea that frames the Church at worship because it articulates the interrelationships of space, place, movement, ritual, presence, assembly and ministers.

In virtual worship, active participation cannot mediate between the immanent and the transcendent elements of liturgy as it usually does, through the liturgical arts of movement, symbol, music, posture and gesture, all of which belong to liturgical participation.

“Active participation is the powerful organisational idea that frames the Church at worship because it articulates the interrelationships of space, place, movement, ritual, presence, assembly and ministers.”

The Decree ‘In time of Covid-19’ issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in March 2020 for the celebration of Easter is surprising: ‘The faithful should be informed of the times of the celebration so that they can prayerfully unite themselves in their homes. In this occasion, the means of live (not recorded) televisual or internet broadcasts are helpful.’

On the face of it very consoling, but where is Sacrosanctum Concilium’s requirement for a ‘more perfect form of participation in the Mass by which the faithful after the priest’s communion, receive the Lord’s Body from the same Sacrifice’ (GIRM13, SC55), and the Council of Trent’s admonition: ‘at each Mass the faithful should communicate not only by spiritual desire but also by sacramental reception of the Eucharist’ (Doctrina de ss. Missae sacrificio, C6, D.S.,1747.)?

If Pauline concepts of encounter, mysterion, communion, participation, meal and physical presence are no longer needed, online Masses facilitate a return to priest-centric ritualism without communion and to the end of lay participation. If sacramental mediation can go online, then the priest shortage is solved. 

With one priest in each time zone for each language group, we can all go to Mass from the comfort of the couch. If we opt for one language – say Latin – then we only need one priest in each time zone saying Mass. If online Masses are our ‘new normal’, we can ‘do sacraments’ online. Communion could be once a year at Easter, or when the weather is nice, as a memorial to active participation.

Jokes tell the Truth

The new jokes for Sunday worship tell a story: ‘Where’s the remote? I need to fast-forward’, and ‘freezeframe while I get a coffee’. Jokes reflect a deeper truth; the real state of our worship. Moving the Mass online so easily speaks volumes about our ritualistic approach to worship.

You may think I am too hard. Many clergy did online Masses for the best of intentions, and their presbytery bubbles could not be shared. But why did I hear ‘off-screen’ participants and not see them receive communion? Why did I see a mother and daughter music duo singing while concelebrants did all the lay-ministry roles? 

In some instances, televised Mass is required, for example for those in rest homes or hospital. These Masses need to be few, televised and celebrated with a community of people who take part fully and liturgically. In this case, one televised Mass per Sunday from one church for the whole country, with a skilled presider, is better than hundreds of priests ‘doing their thing’ in front of a camera, often showing poor liturgical style and presiding without grace. 

The Amazon and McDonald’s models

I suspect the driving force behind online Masses was to keep the ‘shop open and the lights on’ in a non-essential Church with risky religious gatherings, so we reached for the – new to us – virtual communication tools. 

We kept pace with everyone else and adopted the ‘Amazon Model’, turning ‘liturgy’ into an online product. Valuable sure, but not the Mass.

In the United States, the ‘drive-through’ confession started along with ‘drive-in-Mass’ and ‘drive-up’ communion, raising the McDonaldisation of the Church to a new level. 

In New Zealand too, ‘walk-up communion’ was proposed by one Auckland priest. The deceit began by asking parishioners to park their cars on the surrounding streets so that authorities wouldn’t know there was a ‘mass-communion’. People could listen to the Mass in the cars, spiritually prepare themselves, answer questions as to their catholicity, and then receive communion. This approach reduces the Sacred Liturgy to one element – communion – and turns it into a commodity; this is a liturgical abuse!

Loss of Liturgy?

If virtual eucharistic participation satisfies the need of most Catholics, potentially, we have no need of parishes or liturgy as we have known them. 

If the virtual church is good enough for most, then virtual liturgy will be too. In that case our liturgical theology and ecclesiology are inadequate.

If, the outcome of this Covid-19 liturgical lockdown is a move to ‘technologised worship’ and a move away from physical non-virtual presence, we will need to rethink the purpose of liturgy, the purpose of parishes and form of priestly ministry. We are only at the beginning of the debate – there is much more to come. 

JP Grayland has been a priest of the Diocese of Palmerston North for nearly 30 years. His latest book is titled: Catholics. Prayer, Belief and Diversity in a Secular Context (Te Hepara Pai, 2020).

This article was first published in La Croix International and has been condensed for WelCom by the author.