Mass ad Digitalem


Among the livelier discussions in which our seminary community engaged this year was one initiated by the seminarians themselves and focused on the practice and pastoral concerns associated with celebrating Mass ad orientem. Literally meaning “toward the East,” the expression refers to liturgical posturing in which the celebrant faces in the same direction as the assembled congregation. (Whether everyone actually faces eastward would depend on a church’s physical configuration.) In this way, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI described it in The Spirit of the Liturgy, the entire assembly shares a common direction in prayer, a common movement “of setting off towards the One who is to come.”

The opposite, and much more prevalent, orientation in parish celebrations is versus populum, in which the celebrant faces “toward the people” gathered in worship. This posturing envisions the assembly as a community gathered around the altar of worship (at least symbolically) and fosters the dialogic character of the liturgical action.

Impassioned reasons can be marshalled for making the case for the ad orientem orientation.1 So, too, can valid arguments be made for standing versus populum, especially since this corresponds to lived experience for the vast majority of parishioners. Hence, a liturgical debate lives on!

Nowadays, the question of visual orientation must take into account the emergency provisions associated with a public health crisis, namely, the restrictions for assembling in church (or not) imposed as a matter of “social distancing” to combat the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the public celebration of Mass in parishes having been suspended, liturgies are now being celebrated “privately” (i.e., with one or two ministers but no congregation) and streamed digitally. Given the distinctive features of a digital devotion, what role does orientation play in the celebration of Mass online? How does this new means of social communication impact the liturgical experience, for celebrant and congregation alike?

Most parishes probably do not have the capacity for a professional video production of the Mass. The church environment may not be well-suited for broadcast, and the technology can be costly to install or upgrade. Moreover, typical parish personnel — clergy or lay staff — may not be sufficiently media-savvy to create and/or distribute livestream productions.

Nevertheless, the faithful still yearn for the sacred, and pastors rightly desire to make the graces of the liturgy available to their flock. To celebrate well, all will need to account for the changed perspective that digital media bring to the experience.

The change for the priest is evident in an empty church. Celebrating Mass with only a minister or two and no congregation creates a real sense of emptiness — not in the liturgy, where Jesus’s presence remains as real as ever, but in the absence of the community of disciples, of which the priest is both a member and the leader. Put simply, the ekklesia or gathering of those “called away from” the world to give glory to God is hard to realize when no one is permitted to show up!

The change for the congregation is that they are now compelled to “attend” Mass by way of a digital device, with a screen standing in-between them and the familiar celebration. The liturgy being a series of signs that mediate the divine Mystery, the experience of those signs is now further mediated by digital technology. This second-order mediation allows for some measure of liturgical celebration, but the experience is now limited to sight and sound. Given people’s similar experiences when viewing movies or television, it becomes easy for them to sense they are just “watching” Mass instead of actually participating in it.

Amid the ongoing public health crisis, the “church of the present”2 still needs to communicate, as best it can, a liturgical experience akin to any other. Even online, this experience should lead the faithful “to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy.”3

Celebrating Mass via the digital medium has its challenges in meeting that standard!4 A screen reduces one’s perspective greatly compared to being in a church and, thus, does not make for a very “full” experience. With a screen in-between, viewers can easily be distracted and, as a result, they may not be consciously attentive to the proceedings. And watching worship, no matter the size or quality of the screen, is clearly a more passive than active experience.

Then again, none of these qualities of liturgical participation is guaranteed simply by being in a building. Regular churchgoers can also be unfocused, distracted, and passive even while being physically present at Mass.

Given the new medium, orientation becomes an important consideration for Mass celebrated ad digitalem. In some ways, the visual mediation can be a double-edged sword, either limiting or facilitating participation.

In a Mass ad digitalem, were the celebrant to face in the same direction as the people, the view would be quite disconcerting for those participating online. Unless specially mounted cameras were used, viewers would see only the back of the priest. With a typical set-up using a single stationary camera, this positioning of the celebrant would also block any view of the altar, thus visually distancing people from the bread and wine that in this sacred action becomes the Body and Blood of Christ.

Instead, celebrating Mass ad digitalem must take into account the realities of videography. Lighting matters, as does sound. So, too, does what appears in the “shot” captured by the digital device(s), because the field of view is necessarily limited and cannot take the entire liturgical space into account.5

In this regard, camera angles are critical, for that is the lens (literally and figuratively) through which the viewer is directed toward participation. Important, too, is the focus of the camera, which should be centered on actions more than actors, thereby highlighting the “signs” that distinguish the liturgical celebration, whether in-person or online.

Liturgy discloses the sacred through ritual actions and spoken words. Both types of signs work together, the words often functioning to aid in the understanding and assimilation of what is happening. Thus, camera(s) should concentrate on the movement — the actions — while allowing the words spoken or acclamations sung to inform the visual appreciation of the signs. Seeing the rising clouds of smoking incense, for example, creates a real regard for the action (prayers rising to God); done well, one can almost sense the familiar smell! Similarly, hearing the Word read or hymns sung while visualizing elements of the church’s art and architecture would have a greater impact than merely zooming in on the lector or cantor. (To facilitate this, it also helps to make texts available, such as the Lectionary readings and the music for the Mass being celebrated.)

From the perspective of the congregation at Mass ad digitalem, the celebrant also has to adjust his own focus, that is, the direction in which he orients his view. Theological debates aside, facing versus populum does not work well when there are no populum in the pews!

Granted, the celebrant could act as if there were a congregation. By “imagining” people before him in the church gives, his orientation toward even empty pews can give a natural, rather than cinematic, feel to the sight the viewer sees. After all, during in-person celebrations of Mass, the faithful do not usually see the celebrant or any of the ministers head-on and with an unobstructed view.

But for the celebration to “connect” with his congregation, he needs, at least occasionally, to look directly into the camera. After all, that is where the people actually are, so to speak, and eye contact fosters greater engagement, especially when a screen stands in-between. Particularly when preaching, the priest needs to speak to his people, not to an imaginary audience. He cannot see their reactions to his words (an unsettling experience for any speaker), but he can foster the dialogic aspect of the homily by at least connecting with people visually.

To posit the necessity of gearing liturgical celebration to the realities of videography does not imply that the celebrants or ministers in a Mass ad digitalem should be engaging in some new kind of “performance.” The primary and proper focus at Mass must still remain on the action of God in the sacred mystery.

But appreciating that mystery does require being cognizant of the performative language and action distinctive to the liturgy. As is true when people are in a church, this means that they must be able to hear and see what is going on. Since that action is now regulated by the audio and video feed of a camera, attending to orientation matters in a new way.

The online medium is meant to be temporary. Liturgies celebrated in church with a congregation physically present and participating fully, consciously, and actively will always be the norm. But, at least for now, the Mass ad digitalem is the way we can still worship together as the community of believers. Keeping the medium in mind, clergy and laity alike should orient themselves to make the most of it.

  1. Cf. Fr. Brandon O’Brien, “The Case for Ad Orientem Worship,” Crisis Magazine (August 10, 2016), online at crisismagazine.com/2016/case-ad-orientem-worship; Nicholas LaBanca, “The Case for Ad Orientem,” Ascension Presents (October 4, 2019), online at media.ascensionpress.com/2019/10/04/the-case-for-ad-orientem/.
  2. Thomas F. Dailey, “As devotion goes digital, church of the present emerges,” CatholicPhilly.com (March 26, 2020), online at catholicphilly.com/2020/03/commentaries/as-devotion-goes-digital-church-of-the-present-emerges/.
  3. Vatican Council II, Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy), no. 14. English translation at vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19631204_sacrosanctum-concilium_en.html.
  4. Thomas F. Dailey, “Coronavirus church may be online, but people of God remain real,” CatholicPhilly.com (March 13, 2020), online at catholicphilly.com/2020/03/commentaries/coronavirus-church-may-be-online-but-people-of-god-remain-real/.
  5. On a more technical note, a professional videographer (Sean Boyd, of Ascension Press) advises that the camera be placed relatively close to the altar. While the front pew may normally provide a good view, the “wide angle” nature of the video source is designed for viewing from just two feet away. Moreover, the proximity aids the video compression employed by most streaming services (e.g., Facebook, YouTube, etc.), so that viewers can see what is happening at near real-time speed without the image being disjointed (“pixelated”).
Fr. Patrick J. Welsh About Fr. Patrick J. Welsh

Ordained in 2000, Fr. Welsh is a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. He holds a licentiate degree in sacred liturgy from the Pontifical Atheneum of San Anselmo (Rome). Formerly the vice-rector and director of liturgy at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary, he now serves as Pastor of St. Matthew’s parish in Philadelphia.

Fr. Thomas F. Dailey About Fr. Thomas F. Dailey

Ordained in 1987, Fr. Dailey is a priest in the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales. He holds a doctoral degree in biblical theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University (Rome) and currently serves as the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Comments

  1. Avatar Patrick Connell says:

    Thanks Fr. Tom for sharing the information.
    I have watched video mass on television and I do feel the benefit from listening to the priests and the words of the mass.. I am fortunate that my wife and I can shut out the world during the mass. At times we actually discuss the homily after mass

    I feel video mass is a good substitute and in the future it may become a regular happening for Chris and me.

    Bottom line is it helps.

    As to how the priests face does not have a bearing in my k
    Life. What is said is most important

    Thanks

    Pat. C

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