by Fr. Neil Xavier O’Donoghue

There is an interestingly post on the Rorate Caeli blog, suggesting that people might like to attend the Holy Week liturgies by logging in their computers and participating in the liturgies on-line, rather than actually going to their local parishes:

There is a huge number of Catholics who do not have access or are not able to go to a close by celebration of the Sacred Triduum according to the Traditional Roman Rite (Vetus Ordo, Extraordinary Form, etc).

For these Catholics, one option is to watch the Sacred Triduum online and join spiritually those faithful who are present – for instance, by way of LiveMass. Their schedule is the following.

Reading this I wonder how it relates to the famous 21st canon of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), where full sacramental participation at Easter Mass seems to be the definition of what being a Catholic means.

All the faithful of either sex, after they have reached the age of discernment, should individually confess their sins in a faithful manner to their own priest at least once a year, and let them take care to do what they can to perform the penance imposed on them. Let them reverently receive the sacrament of the eucharist at least at Easter unless they think, for a good reason and on the advice of their own priest, that they should abstain from receiving it for a time. Otherwise let them be barred from entering a church during their lifetime and they shall be denied a Christian burial at death.

- Norman P. Tanner, ed. and trans., Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils (Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1990), 1:245.

While you can receive Holy Communion at any time during the Easter season (or maybe to see with your pastor that it might be spiritually better for you not to receive Communion at all) it seems a little strange that you would recommend that people look at their computer screen rather than going to a parish to attend the liturgy on the holiest days of the year.

Also, while I admit that I am not a moral theologian, I do not think that an able-bodied person with the possibility of attending a parish can fulfill their Sunday Obligation by “attending Mass” over the internet. This is how one of the traditional manuals of moral theology defines the Sunday Obligation:

In order to satisfy the precept, Mass must be heard in the proper place. By a decree S.R.C. (January 23, 1899) the faithful may satisfy the precept by hearing Mass in any public church or public or semi-public oratory … One would not hear Mass so as to satisfy the precept if he were stationed apart at a considerable distance from the place where it was being celebrated, even though he might be able to see and hear what was being done. He must be morally present so as to form one of those who are together hearing and offering up the Holy Sacrifice.

- Thomas Slater, A Manual of Moral Theology, London: Burns Oates & Washbourne Ltd., 1925), 170-171.

For a more up-to-date teaching, we can also consult the Catechism of the Catholic Church says on the Sunday Obligation:

2180 ” The precept of the Church specifies the law of the Lord more precisely: “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass.” “The precept of participating in the Mass is satisfied by assistance at a Mass which is celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the holy day or on the evening of the preceding day.”

2181 The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.

2182 Participation in the communal celebration of the Sunday Eucharist is a testimony of belonging and of being faithful to Christ and to his Church. The faithful give witness by this to their communion in faith and charity. Together they testify to God’s holiness and their hope of salvation. They strengthen one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

2183 “If because of lack of a sacred minister or for other grave cause participation in the celebration of the Eucharist is impossible, it is specially recommended that the faithful take part in the Liturgy of the Word if it is celebrated in the parish church or in another sacred place according to the prescriptions of the diocesan bishop, or engage in prayer for an appropriate amount of time personally or in a family or, as occasion offers, in groups of families.”

I suppose that 2180’s declaration that “the precept of participating in the Mass is satisfied by assistance at a Mass which is celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite,” could be read to mean that the obligation is fulfilled by logging onto to a Mass on your iPhone. However, Canon 1248 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law says that the faithful must “assist” at Mass. Again this seems to imply being physically present in the church building.

The famous Fr. Z has this to say of television Masses, on the WDTPRS blog:

You don’t, can’t, fulfill your Sunday obligation, by watching Mass on TV. If you can go, you go. If you can’t you can’t. God doesn’t ask the impossible … Of course, if a person really can go to Mass, and doesn’t… well… don’t get hit by a truck.

Personally I would have a slightly more benign view of God. And while I do believe in hell as a real possibility for all of us, I don’t know if some able-bodied Catholic who didn’t go to Mass on Easter Sunday, deciding to watch the Mexican Extraordinary Form that Rorate Caeli recommends, was to die before they could go to Confession, they would definitely go to hell.

I readily admit that I am not an aficionado of the Extraordinary Form. But if I weren’t able to go to a regular liturgy, and a Tridentine Mass were available, I think it would be much better to go to that, rather than logging on to my computer to find a liturgy that suited my aesthetics. Maybe my ecclesiology is wrong, but I would prefer to attend Mass with a community of Catholics who are really present in the flesh, rather than spiritually joining a more appealing liturgy on the internet.

On the other hand, maybe I am simply too old-fashioned. Definitely the virtual aspect of human reality is getting more significant by the day. Maybe this is the future and Rorate Caeli is ahead of the curve and soon all of us will be going to Mass on-line. But for 2014, I think that this proposal seems to be more suitable to this year’s crop of April Fool’s joke’s on Pope Francis’ various reforms to the Mass than to the current reality.

Fr. Neil Xavier O’Donoghue is a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, NJ. He currently serves as Prefect of Studies of Redemptoris Mater House of Formation in Dundalk, Co. Louth, Ireland and as a curate in Holy Redeemer parish.