The Working Catholic: Mediated Eucharist by Bill Droel
Concern for public health in early 2020 forced most churches to curtail worship. The fallback became services by way of the internet. While there has long been a Catholic Mass on TV for shut-ins, the widespread broadcast of Mass by local parishes is new. As Covid-19 tapers off, some parishes discontinue their worship broadcast. Others, however, continue. After all, they installed the equipment and learned the rituals of TV. The mediated style of worship has become so ingrained that in-person worshipers now bring some at-home habits to church. The use of mobile devices inside church is tolerated. At least one church allows individuals to drink their coffee during Mass.
Does continued use of a broadcast Mass hurt attendance? Does it hurt or help the collection? (Surprisingly, some churches do better in the collection basket by having a remote audience.) More importantly, is a broadcast Mass an acceptable substitute for in-person Eucharist?
A recent poll from the Pew Research Center quantifies the preference of U.S. adults regarding in-person vs. mediated Sunday services. Keep in mind that Covid-19 or no Covid-19 nearly 60% of the entire population doesn’t go to church. Also keep in mind that, as Pew Research reminds us, the phrase “attend church” nowadays means more or less 18 times per year—more frequently during holy seasons, quite less in the summer.
With that in mind, about 37% of those who worship in some form do so only in person. About 23% only participate online or on TV. The remaining 40% alternate; they sometimes tune-in, other times park the car and walk into the church.
Those who watch from home, either all the time or sometimes, like to change the channel. That is, they don’t necessarily watch the broadcast from their home parish. They also channel surf; jumping from one broadcast to another within the morning hour. Why? Over 30% say they are shopping for better preaching.
Among those who prefer in-person religious services, the most common reason (52%) given is a sense of connection and community with fellow participants. Among the in-person group only 8% name the quality of the worship itself as their reason for attending. The “quality of worship” category for this Pew survey includes congregational singing and reception of the Eucharist.
Pew did not delve into theology. However, Catholicism says that a broadcast Mass is an accommodation to shut-ins. In itself TV/computer worship is not a full Eucharistic Mass. (There are some nursing homes where after the TV broadcast the residents can receive the Eucharist. And, thanks to lay ministers of care, some shut-ins in a parish receive the Eucharist at home on Sunday morning.)
A Mass, according to Catholicism, is collective. Contrary to a practice of old, there is no such thing as a private Mass. Though it might be enriching and sometimes necessary to watch a service on TV/internet, it is not the Mass.
Pope Francis, speaking at World Communications Day, emphasizes that “in communications, nothing can ever completely replace seeing things in person.” Some things, he insists, “can only be learned through first-hand experience.” The real presence of Jesus is inseparable from a personal encounter.
Pope Francis makes the same point in a 2020 encyclical, On Social Friendship. “True wisdom demands an encounter.” Digital relationships do not cultivate friendships. They “have the appearance of reality. Yet they do not really build community.” Instead by the nature of technology “they tend to disguise and expand the very individualism” that plagues our culture. “Digital connectivity is not enough to build bridges. It is not capable of uniting humanity.”
Parishes are reluctant to abandon their broadcast Mass for fear they will completely lose attachment to the viewers. It is worth reflecting on what a parish loses by continuing its broadcast Mass.
Monday Eucharist by Bill Droel is available from National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $8)