Weaning Off the Livestream Mass

“Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:6–11)

Biblical commentators believe this is one of the earliest New Testament texts concerning the divinity of Jesus Christ. It is often called a Christological hymn, and it’s believed that the early Christians would chant these words in the liturgy as a type of creed.

The part that grabs my attention these days is about “every knee bending and confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord.” I envision a great choir kneeling, proclaiming and confessing the Lordship of Jesus.

I’m actually privileged to experience this every morning in our seminary chapel, as a hundred seminarians kneel together at the Mass. There really is something powerful about worshipping our Lord on bended knee. Fr. George Rutler recently wrote about a Desert Father around 300 A.D., Abba Apollo, who had a vision of Satan: “The devil has no knees. He cannot kneel; he cannot adore; he can only look down his nose in contempt. Being unwilling to bend the knee at the name of Jesus is the essence of evil.” (cf. Is. 45:23, Rm. 14:11). As creatures, we’re made to adore the Lord. As creatures of body and soul, we’re made to adore with bended knee. As social creatures, we’re made to do this together, communally.

The thought recently came to me that, with the pandemic and livestream masses, there may be many a Catholic who has not bent the knee for six months! And I have to wonder if, at some point, we become complicit in that.

The Mass is sometimes referred to as “Catholic calisthenics”: we stand, we sit, we stand, we kneel, and so on. At each point our posture corresponds to and reinforces what is occurring in the liturgy. Now I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that when someone is watching the livestream Mass from their living room, these Catholic calisthenics are not taking place.

I admit that, in fact, it might feel a bit odd. Why? Because we’re not there, we are not in the presence during the words of consecration of the Holy Eucharist. There’s a real difference! (Though our faculty and staff, who attend Mass together via livestream, assure me that they stand, sit, and kneel when they are together in their livestreaming room, and it’s perfectly natural.)

But I would still encourage people who are attending by livestream to involve their bodies in the Mass. Shower and dress as you would if you were attending in person. Follow the physical actions of the Mass — sit, stand, and kneel at the appropriate time. Try it out, and see how it affects your prayer. I believe it makes a difference when we involve our bodies in our worship. (Our Academic Dean, who attended the daily seminary livestream Mass all through the March to May shutdown, assures me that it made a difference to his prayer, even when he was alone in his office.)

Now, it needs to be said: this kneeling applies to only those who are physically able. After I ruptured my Achilles this summer, it was a good three months before I could genuflect! And, you know, I can honestly say I missed it. But that’s my point: we have to help people to know what they’re missing. Just as we provided livestream masses so that we could fill a spiritual need for our people, so we may also need to provide some encouragement about “bending the knee” which will also help to meet a spiritual need.

There’s one more point, though. And, while it’s sensitive, I think it needs to be said. Just as we need to adore, and we need to adore with bended knee, so we also need to be together. And, at some point, that means coming back to live Masses.

Now, let’s be clear: coming back to the Mass in person only applies to those who are physically healthy or who are not at risk or in a vulnerable category. It’s irresponsible to tell a person with a walker that they have to kneel. It’s irresponsible to tell a person in a vulnerable category that they have to attend Mass in person.

That said, though, we have to help people to take an honest look in the mirror. Are my kids back in school, and am I delighted that they have that opportunity? Are they involved in sports, and have I been very creative to ensure that they have that outlet? Have we exhibited the same delight and creativity when it comes to attending the Mass in person?

I understand: kids might complain about attending the Mass, so it’s different. But what, then, are we teaching them about priorities? Do we venture out to restaurants? Are we taking trips on a plane? Where, then, does attending Mass in person fit into my priorities? Are we teaching them — not by words, but by actions — that faith comes last?

The Catechism clearly teaches that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of our faith — that it comes first. So: do our lives express that faith?

The longer healthy people stay away from coming back to the Mass in person, the more it will seem the norm that the livestream is just as good — but it is not.

Some might say, “But I just do not feel comfortable coming back to Mass, yet.” OK. But if they say that while performing a whole host of other activities that involve just as much possible exposure, it’s a double standard. As spiritual fathers, we need to be creative in helping them to see that and name it for themselves.

Of course, there’s an important caveat: it’s essential to have a handle on the local data. If you are living in a declared “hot spot,” yes, much more caution is warranted. But it’s also important to consider the data involving individuals that are in your category — older adults, younger adults, children, etc. The 24/7 news coverage of the virus can come to define every aspect of my life, producing a fear of returning to the Mass.

“But,” someone might say, “the bishop has not lifted the dispensation, so I can still livestream the Mass with his permission.” That’s true. It’s the local bishop’s task to consider the data and make the best determination for his diocese. I come from a diocese in which the bishop, following the local medical data, has already lifted the dispensation — and the faithful are not coming back in droves. It’s more of a trickle than a torrent. He knew this would most likely be the reaction. But, in caring for souls and understanding the centrality of the Mass and his call as shepherd, he prayerfully decided it was to come to start the real work of calling his flock back home to the Mass.

So my question is this: when the time comes, how will we call them back? Are we ready to be just as creative and determined in reaching out to fill this spiritual need as we were in switching to livestream to fill that spiritual need? That becomes one of the central questions for a pastor.

A priest recently expressed this sentiment: “I do not want them back. Someone might get sick.” Now, it needs to be said: he did that out of genuine concern for his people. And I understand that. But I want to push back, too. If our standard is “the possibility of someone getting sick by attending the Mass,” our churches will never open. We drive our cars knowing there is a possibility that we could be in a serious accident, yet we still do this freely.

Do we believe, and are we helping our people to believe, that the Eucharist is the key to eternal life? Or are we slowly and inevitably — even with the best of intentions — creating another generation of C & E Catholics (those who usually only attend at Christmas and Easter)?

I think Christmas will be the next time there will be a demand for more Masses (so that we can welcome the people who want to attend Mass, while still meeting the safety requirements). I know the priests are more than willing to get creative and offer more Masses in order to have people physically present. But I wonder if there will be a temptation to just view the Christmas Mass at home, skip communion, and avoid the hassle — and I wonder if we’re feeding that, and I wonder if we need to do more to wean people from that. As G.K. Chesterton once said, “Men in a state of decadence employ professionals to fight for them, professionals to dance for them, and a professional to rule them.” Have we become satisfied now to have professionals worship for us as we remain in our living rooms?

Chesterton also said this: “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.” As I think about that, and our current circumstances, I’m tempted to paraphrase it this way: “A dead thing can go with the livestream, but only a living thing can go against it.”

Swimming upstream takes effort. Calling people back to Mass will take an effort. And the results will surely be mixed at first. But sooner or later we’re going to have to cross this bridge, and call people back to the fullness of what practicing the faith means. This might start with a discussion around the dinner table (or, if your house is more like mine growing up, with a dictate from my parents!).

Whatever the approach, let’s get the ball rolling. We were creative in getting livestreams started, so people could continue to follow the Mass, and rightly so. Let’s get ready to be just as get creative in calling people back to attending Mass in person, and making that a priority in their lives.

Fr. James Mason About Fr. James Mason

Fr. James Mason is the President-Rector of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary and a priest of the Diocese of Sioux Falls, SD. Fr. Mason attended the North American College and received his S.T.B. from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas – Angelicum, Rome; he also holds the J.D. from the University of Minnesota Law School. After his ordination in 2001, Fr. Mason served as pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Garretson, SD, was the Director of Vocations, Vice-Chancellor, and Medical Moral Advisor for the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls, and then directed the Broom Tree Retreat Center from 2004-2014 and was Pastor of St. Lambert Parish in Sioux Falls from 2008-2014. He joined the Kenrick-Glennon Seminary community in 2014 as Director of Spiritual Formation and Dean of Students. In 2015, Archbishop Robert J. Carlson appointed him President-Rector.

Comments

  1. Avatar Sandy Leners says:

    so GOOD!

  2. Father, I totally agree with everything you said .It is not the same from your living room. My receiving the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ is everything to me and mass sets the tone for my day

  3. This is well thought-out and comes from a deep care for those who worship in our parishes. It deserves wide distribution among both clergy and people.

  4. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    I agree that the return to participation in Eucharist will take time. I like the Christological Hymn you started the article with. I have never understood why the echo of this hymn in every Eucharist is a secret prayer.
    ANAMNESIS

    “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

    My sense is we will participate fully in Eucharist when we become aware and convinced that we share in the divinity of Christ.

  5. Thanks Fr. Jim. I couldn’t agree more. This COVID “plague” certainly is more than a physical virus, as Satan and his earthly helpers try to keep us away from Christ, using constant FEAR and government dictates. Choose to Live and Be NOT afraid!

  6. I understand the need for mass, but to push people back into mass when Sioux Falls and South Dakota are continuing to increase in COVID cases does not seem wise nor prudent. Someone once asked me, “are the priests requiring their parishioners to come back to mass for money?” I had thought, “no, absolutely not.” Now, I am not so sure. If you could elaborate on this push for physical mass and the money the church needs, that would be helpful. It seems highly probable that the church may be suffering in terms of monetary donations, but maybe they are not. Maybe the churches are making just as much money as before and the only reason priests are pushing for in-person masses is for the sake of our souls. However, if the churches are hurting for money right now and the priests are pushing for in-person masses during this pandemic when we are in a state of crisis, that definitely begs the question, “are the priests doing this for money or the salvation of souls?” Since the pandemic, I had always thought that in-person was the best choice, but knowing the detriment that group settings could bring to our people (even as healthy people, we can carry the virus around to others until it spreads to those who are weak), I completely understood the reason to call for a dispensation from the mass. Additionally, I had thought (and was likely told) that spiritual communion was JUST AS STRONG as physical communion. If I whole-heartedly believe that Jesus is present in the sacrament, that he is omnipotent, and desires to be in my heart, then I also believe that no physical place can separate me from his love and that his presence in my spiritual communion can be just as strong and powerful as receiving the actual host. Of course, not attending mass is not ideal, but only a necessary step until we are able to receive him again through the physical presence of the host when we as a nation are in a state to do so. It is mentioned that several people may be attending other events and thus must consider where mass is as a priority in their lives. While that may be true, I also do not agree that individuals should be traveling, going to gyms, coffee shops, restaurants, etc. And, as representatives of the church, I would think that the priests would agree. It is not safe to go to restaurants or masses right now, but maybe I am mistaken and it is safe to do both, although the experts have stated otherwise. Please let me know your thoughts as I am very open to hearing them. And may the peace of Christ be with you.

  7. Additionally, when God calls us to be not afraid, I do not believe he is calling us to be not afraid of tempting him (such as going to mass when it is not safe and believing God will protect me as I endeavor to complete a task that is dangerous). That would be like never wearing a seatbelt and believing that God would protect me if I am in a car accident. While he might at some time call us to do something dangerous and ask us to trust, I imagine that is only when we have NO OTHER OPTION. Such as, drive this car to the emergency room to get your friend there ASAP even though the seatbelt is NOT working. Trust me, he might say. In this instant, there is nothing else you can do, and I will protect you. However, taking the option that is less prudent (never wearing a seatbelt) and stating that God would protect me would be a test to God, would it not?

    Rather, it seems much more appropriate that God is calling us to be not afraid of being different, ridiculed, and wise. Do not be afraid to follow me and the wisdom I put on this earth from the scientists to the doctors to the teachers to the priests (but that would be wisdom that leads to order rather than chaos and sickness). Maybe I have a poor interpretation, but it does not seem that God would call us to be prudent while also calling us to step out in front of moving traffic to see if we will survive. Just as Jesus was tempted in the desert, so might we now be tempted in our own deserts. Do not give up. Do not lose hope. Be not afraid. God is with us even when we don’t go to a particular building for mass and stay home in order to protect our fellow brothers and sisters. God is with us. Emmanuel.

    Again, if you believe that I am mistaken or have missed a perspective, please let me know. I am here to learn, not push my own agenda.

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