This week’s discussion question – on broadcasting liturgies

How can televised (or internet-broadcast) liturgies best promote liturgical participation? This question came up in my Ritual Studies class at Notre Dame this summer. We thought about some of the dimensions of broadcast liturgies, and I’ll share those reflections here.

On the one hand, there are some pretty obvious drawbacks to broadcast liturgies: they are usually timed segments, which means that someone needs to be watching the clock to make sure they don’t end too late or too soon. This takes away from some of the timeless potential of celebration. “Participants” via broadcast may feel like mere spectators, especially if there is voice-over annotation of the liturgy or if viewers are watching while doing some other activity (eating popcorn in boxer shorts, for example). Even more obviously, if there is an embodied component of the liturgy such as communion (or the sharing of the peace), broadcast participants will be unable to engage in these parts of the liturgy. The restriction of liturgical space needed for effective video, too, may make it more difficult for people in the liturgical space to participate. More subtly, liturgical “beauty” may be reduced to film “aesthetics” — I would argue that they are distinct in some ways, although that might be a separate topic.

On the other hand, broadcast liturgies evidently reach a broader audience than is possible with in-person liturgical participants. This includes some who because of illness, distance, alienation, or work schedules, might not be able to attend the liturgy normally. Voice-over annotation might be a very helpful accessibility structure for some who find liturgy confusing or difficult, and might give an additional way of understanding and entering into the liturgy even for the very experienced. People who have experienced broadcast liturgies might then find it easier to fully participate in-person at other occasions. And of course there are some liturgies (such as papal masses) that comparatively few of us would experience without some kind of broadcast.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of broadcast liturgies, in your experience? How can they best be done?

32 comments

  1. My great preference is to let the liturgy speak for itself and to minimize the voice-overs.

    For example, just last night I decided to re-watch the installation liturgy from a few years ago of our local bishop, and noticed that any occasion featuring congregational singing (e.g., the entire distribution of communion) was an opportunity for the commentator to share personal tidbits about the new bishop, or even worse, read long passages from the Catechism about the role of bishops. This destroys any opportunity for the viewer to join in the prayer of the moment or even to hear the texts of the hymns.

    As someone who cares a lot about music, I resent the implication that music is not an integral part of the liturgy, but rather is just something to fill moments when “nothing important” is happening. I have seen that degeneration happening in my own parish lately, when we sing only enough verses of a hymn to get the priest up and down the aisle. The hymn texts have their own integrity, and in many cases, they don’t even make sense when only one or two verses are sung.

    Even worse was watching the funeral of Mother Teresa, when the TV commentators decided to prattle during the entire Eucharistic Prayer. I think any Catholic’s sensibilities would be offended at this.

    So lay off the commentary during Mass—95% of the time, what happens there is more interesting and stimulating than anything a commentator says.

    1. @Ralph Bremigan – comment #1:
      If the commentator has to explain the meaning of the rites to the television audience then the rites themselves need to be changed. The symbolism should be self-explanatory, or why have them? I’d rather know the text of what is being said or sung accompanying the rite than receive explanations of rites, ir to describe to us what’s obvious, “now the bishop is sitting in his chair’, etc. Soon to be followed by a brief history of the chair while a prayer is being sung in Latin or or some other language.

      1. @Dunstan Harding – comment #8:

        In some ways, broadcasting the liturgy exposes the potential “ritual infelicities” of the particular rite being celebrated.

        In the worship space itself, when worship leaders are face to face with the assembled people of God, we have ways of handling these problems. When a preacher can see on the faces of the assembly that a particular word or phrase has elicited confusion rather than excitement, the preacher can back up and try again with another word or phrase. When prayers are offered for particular people, often there is a note in a bulletin that says “we are praying for Alice as she faces surgery this week”. The worship folder may also contain any manner of notes, explanations, and comments, to keep things moving smoothly. “This is the feast day of . . . ” for example, to explain the context for a given day. Ushers see who the visitors sitting in the back pew are, and can offer quiet directions or help if they notice them feeling lost.

        Communication during the liturgy is a two-way street between leaders and the assembly for those present in the worship space, and this two-way communication often masks or quickly repairs the ritual glitches that may arise. Indeed, it often does so in such an efficient manner that many don’t realize the glitch has even happened.

        This is not the case for those not present in person. Because those participating via a screen do NOT have resources like worship folders, announcement sheets, and ushers at hand, and are NOT able to communicate back to the leader(s) that something is amiss, ritual infelicities go uncorrected and unaddressed.

        But this need not be the case, if those in charge of the broadcast are able to do more than point a camera and watch a clock. Text can be put at the bottom of the screen to explain or identify what is happening, for example, to gently direct those who are adrift, without being as disruptive as the verbal commentary and explanations can be.

  2. I completely agree with the keeping of commentary to an absolute bare minimum. Commentary is generally noxious, no matter how well-intentioned. Commentators need to strain to resist the temptation to be seen as adding value.

    Otherwise, I consider broadcast liturgies to pretty much have educative and devotional values. In the context of a liturgical culture that emphasizes internal participation with a very high discount on external participation – which is not the intended context of the reformed Roman rite – then one might conceivably argue there is some liturgical value.

    One reason I am not a fan of mega-Masses is that they are effectively a combination of a real liturgy surrounded by a broadcast thereof. At least for the reformed ritual, I prefer that Masses be celebrated in locations where the congregation cannot only participate interiorally, but also exteriorally without excessive effort.

  3. As a “cool” medium, television promotes passivity, a minimal involvment of a person. The arrangement of altar & congregation makes it appear on screen to be like a stage & performers & audience, no sense of celebrating the liturgy together, no sense of community. Some Catholics confess missing Mass on TV because one was ill and could not go to church. One parishioner challenged me as to why ‘bodily presence’ was required for reconciliation/confession and not for Mass.
    Televised Masses have some merit– as a catechetical/evangelical device, a ‘comfort’ of sorts for those unable to personally attend. They would seem entirely appropriate for occasional very special liturgies. But as a regular thing, televised Masses run the real danger of perpetuating attitudes/values the Church has long been trying to dispel– passivity, distraction, disrespectful informality, emphasis of ‘individual’ over communal. Even the way some Masses are introduced and ended have more of a ring of ‘Hollywood’ rather than Holy Land. I have never heard any presider of a televised Mass encourage the importance of personally attending Mass when one is able.
    On the whole, I feel televised Masses are like showing a movie of a sumptuous banquet to a group (or individual) who are hungry/starving. Almost unkind to show them what they could be partaking of… and, indeed, COULD BE partaking of.

  4. This is a great question for discussion, thank you for posing it. I will share this link with the Office of Prayer and Worship in our diocese; they oversee the weekly broadcast Sunday mass.

    It is a tricky balance to achieve, for so many of the reasons you enumerated for us. Space and time are challenges in ways that they might not be during live liturgy. (Although I have been part of live liturgies that have had temporal and spatial challenges of their own!)

    In the past few years I have participated in three broadcast liturgy tapings. Christmas and Easter aside, the masses are taped a few weeks in advance of air date, at a local television station. The studio is indeed small, but the diocesan staff that are present, a deacon and a liturgical coordinator, always do their best to make things work. They do a fantastic job and that is a major plus to the whole situation.

    The music is always a challenge, due to time and space as well. Most of the time it is done well in our diocese, in spite of constraints.

    The televised mass is important to those who cannot get to mass and for that reason, I think it is necessary. I also wonder about people who might happen upon it, people who have not been to church in a long time. Is it a stretch to say that this might be a doorway for them?

    However, I look back to when my step-daughter, of her own volition, wanted to become Catholic at the age of 9. That is a whole other story for another day, but I will say this about the broadcast mass… Given my experience and the circumstances, I was her catechist, using materials from the parish. However, unlike my own childhood experience (pre-conciliar at that!) of attending mass and “knowing” the mass at a young age, she had no such frame of reference. I could hardly stop at every point and start explaining things; books that we looked at were helpful, but not dynamic. However, the weekly mass could be paused and I would use it as a catechetical tool. It was a real blessing back in those days.

    That is enough from me!

  5. Several years back I was the liturgical musician for our local “TV Mass”. I found there were many drawbacks to celebrating in this way, but many cherished the ministry.

    We were missing the mark especially in consideration of the USCCB guidelines. Some of the drawbacks were:

    1. Mass had to be celebrated in 28:20. A half hour time slot was all that was afforded to the diocese. The celebrating priest was very good at pacing. I can’t remember if we omitted any parts. I do remember occasionally racing through the EP if the homily or readings went long.
    2. We celebrated the liturgies in a local TV studio with a small assembly of priest, musician, lector(s) and camera operators, who were Catholic.
    3. We recorded the liturgies months ahead of time so that they could be edited and distributed according to timelines set up by the broadcasters. We recorded Advent and Christmas in August and late Easter and Pentecost in January. It was strange. We would record 6 liturgies over a 2-day span.

    Thankfully, since those days they have moved the recording site to a local shrine. I believe they are still under the same time constraints. I don’t know if they have much more of an assembly. I know they are still recording months in advance, as they had to cull together what had been released of the RM3 ahead of time in order to record the Advent and Christmas liturgies.

    After serving the Mass for a couple of years, my idealist self thought it would be better to simply record a Liturgy of the Word and then coordinate this ministry with that of Holy Communion to the homebound. The eucharistic experience through the camera was very visual, of course. Lot’s of close-ups, etc. Can you be in communion through the screen? (Discuss)

    My idealism was tempered, however, by the letters I read from viewers. The TV Mass was highly valued by them. To have not recorded a full Eucharist probably would have been a pastoral mistake.

  6. Pat, I relate to this experience of finding that my intuitions were out of sync with the experience of those I serve. For example, like Ralph, I also very much dislike voiceover commentaries, but one student pointed out that they are deeply valued by (especially inexperienced) viewers. Fran’s solution of offering some for occasional services but none for weekly masses is a good one. Perhaps internet broadcast liturgies could be offered with and without a commentary track, or even with several different commentary tracks – one of catechetical aids for children, and one for adults, for example.

  7. Apart from an Easter broadcast that was taped weeks in advance, every broadcast I have been part of has been live and also set within a regular worshiping community (either a parish or a convention/conference setting). I have some serious concerns about broadcasting an ordinary Sunday mass that has been pre-recorded weeks in advance in a studio with few in-person participants.

    For instance, how does one account for the news that happens between the time of the taping and the broadcast date? Imagine a broadcast in Milwaukee that was taped 6 weeks ago and set to run next week. In between those two dates, a local sikh temple was the target of a gunman who killed a number of those who had gathered at worship. If I were watching this service and saw no reference to such a painful local event in the homily nor any prayers offered for the victims, their families, and their faith community, I’d be terribly offended at the omission (if I thought the broadcast was live) or disappointed at the failure of the leaders to re-tape something (if I knew it was tape-delayed) to take this into account.

    I don’t like my Olympic broadcasts tape delayed either. But that’s a subject for a different blog . . .

    It would be better, in my humble opinion, for a diocese to identify a number of local parishes that do liturgy well, and broadcast their ordinary masses. You can record the 8AM mass for broadcast at 11AM, if that’s necessary for the broadcast schedule, but there’s no need to record weeks ahead of time. In addition to a livelier mass, with audible congregational participation, such an arrangement would give greater visibility to actual parishes that people might visit. “You know, that mass from St Anthony’s that was broadcast last Sunday really moved me. We should go there next week and see what it’s like in person.”

    1. @Peter Rehwaldt – comment #10:
      I live in Mikwaukee and am the musician for our television Mass. No one called or wrote to say they were offended. And they always let you know when they are upset. Thank you for your concern.

  8. I wonder about the reverse possibility: playing video on projection screens, perhaps live via satellite or recorded, as part of a liturgical gathering.

    Given the uneven quality of preaching in parishes, perhaps a parish would benefit from watching a video of Fr. Robert Barron’s homily for the day. It’s not ideal, but is it perhaps better than a tired priest reading something he photocopied out of Homily Service ten minutes before Mass? Or telling a few lame jokes and rehashing one of the three homilies he’s been giving his parish for years on end? This is not uncommon in some places. Of course it would be better to have a trained preacher in every church every Sunday, but that’s not necessarily practical.

    The medical community is responding to a lack of doctors in rural areas by experimenting with doctors seeing patients in rural clinics via tele-video. Perhaps a practical solution?

    1. @Scott Pluff – comment #11:
      Scott – there have been a number of occasions when I’d have loved to show a clip from a film or a television show, or perhaps an image of a Time magazine cover, to illustrate a point or make a connection to current events in a homily. It would be a lot more effective to just show a clip than to try to verbally make the connection. E.g. the Harry Potter books are among the most-read of all time, and the films have been seen by millions of people, but I’d be wary of making a verbal-only Harry Potter reference in a homily because I’m pretty sure that it wouldn’t strike a chord of familiarity for at least half the assembly. But it would be pretty easy to find a scene from one of the films on YouTube and show 1-2 minutes of it. With the appropriate technology set-up in the worship space, and, probably, an audio-video wiz to man the machines, it wouldn’t be that hard to do. But we’re not there yet in my parish.

  9. We record one Mass each weekend. It gets transferred to dvd, by Monday afternoon at the latest, and dropped off at city hall. The community cable channel broadcasts it daily at 7am, 3pm, and 11pm. Seven days a week.

    We get 58:20, so if the pastor isn’t preaching, I usually edit the announcements, the preparation of the gifts, and if needed, some of the Communion procession. The only “comments” are title overlays with our church address, web site, Mass schedule, and phone number. We display these for about 20-30 seconds each during the entrance and concluding music.

    Is it an optimal way for the sick and homebound to celebrate Sunday? The purist in me says no, we have a rite for these folks that does not include watching tv. That said, I presume and hope this is fruitful for some of our city residents. And who knows? Maybe it will bring someone into the Church from viewing late some lonely weeknight.

    When I’m sick I prefer when my wife brings me the Eucharist and we share the Sunday readings. She likes that too, for her part, but will also watch the liturgy on tv to catch the homily.

  10. Today’s elderly people are going to more easily substitute a TV Mass for going to church. My aunt has done that for more than a decade; crowds, colds and the flue cause her a lot of problems.

    Every since I began to use my walking stick I don’t go to church when it rains, snows, or there is any ice on the ground.

    The Notre Dame 10:00am Mass which is broadcast live on Catholic TV year around, and the live Notre Dame 11:45 am Folk Mass during the school year are both an hour long, great but different music.

    I usually watch both; during the Notre Dame 11:45 I have my noon meal. I have found that eating (at least alone) during Mass can be a very religious experience (like eating during spiritual reading at a Monastery”), kind of restoring the original meal and very festive character!

    I think a live Mass over the internet is real participation; perhaps not full participation, like being at low Mass versus a high Mass. I don’t think recorded Masses are real participation. I would not watch a live 30 minute Mass anymore than I would go to any of the weekday 30 minute Masses at the local parish.

    The issue of communion has not arisen yet since the weather (especially lake effect) is very unpredictable. But someday I will decide just to not go to Mass during winter (like the Palestinian monks used to leave and go out into the desert after Epiphany and return for Palm Sunday).

    Communion would have to fit into my liturgical life at home. It will be interesting for example if the home bound ministers are willing to bring the Eucharist to my home, celebrate the TV Mass with me (e.g. share the parish homily during the TV homily)?

    Also it will be interesting to see if the priest is willing to consecrate a large host and the communion ministers (there have to be more than one) are willing to break and share it with me?

    No I do not plan to serve them a meal during the Mass. I know people’s limits.

  11. I note that the original post, and the comments so far, have focused on televised masses, using the television broadcast paradigm. I’d like to add to the discussion that we use closed-circuit technology to ‘broadcast’ (narrowcast?) a couple of our Christmas and Easter masses to people on the parish grounds who have come to the mass but simply won’t fit into the worship space. They’re seated in a handful of “remote seating” areas, such as the parish hall, with television screens. They do have worship aids, and, crucially, they do receive communion. Yet the assembly is physically divided, and the technology is still a barrier between minister and (some of) the people.

    1. @Jim Pauwels – comment #14:
      Jim, this approach was also used for the Syro-Malabar Rite Cathedral Dedication of Mar Thoma in Bellwood, IL: they had videographers in the balcony and a live feed on projectors in the basement for the overflow crowd (many of whom had flown from India for the occasion). I was quite intrigued by it, and actually wrote about it in an article I presented at a conference and hope to publish soon.

      It seems in a case like this, the assembly space is full, so there is an inevitable physical division which is partially overcome by the media and communion. I would be interested in the participation in the overflow space. (I was unable to observe it at Mar Thoma, since I can’t bilocate!)

  12. Karl Rahner compared a televised Mass to “peeping through a keyhole” in one of his articles in Theological Investigations. I don’t think we have, as yet, the wisdom or the experience to balance virtually present and physically present experiences of community.

    In fact we are speaking of the process of inculturation – here completely organic and emerging through trial and error.

    Personally I try and avoid any filming during the Eucharistic Prayer, that the mystery of faith remain something in the experience of those physically present. But that is a quirk arising from Rahner’s image more than anything truly reasoned.

  13. Martin, Rahner’s image does provide a reasoned argument for your position. (Though it may take Rahner 3 pages to say “peeping through a keyhole”….) Sacraments are personal, concrete, tangible, if you will, experiences. A sacrament’s signs can be seen, felt, heard, all of which points to a deeply incarnational, physical presence of the sacramental Jesus to the person. As an earlier comment suggests, closed circuit broadcasts to an overflow crowd is the best available though least desireable solution to the problem, but folks may still together share Communion. Our digital age/technology is making for a less personal, more anonymous ‘interaction’ among screen names. Something as deeply personal (as opposed to anonymous, not communal) as sacraments would be near-impossible to translate/experience electronically.

    1. @John Swencki – comment #18:

      There is also a difference in how a televised mass is experienced by the viewer, based on their prior experiences of in-person worship. If we are talking about someone who is an active parish member but for some reason is unable to attend in person on a given Sunday, they will experience the televised broadcast of their local parish’s worship differently than someone who has no connection to the parish, and much differently than someone who has little connection to any community of faith. “That’s my priest, those are the windows of my home, those are the friends who greet me with peace, those are the musicians who bring me such joy, . . .” A visitor does not have that same experience, whether in person or via television.

      To take it another step further . . .

      I know that when I have experienced a big service on television (Easter at St. Peter’s; Lessons and Carols from England at Christmas, etc.), these services shape how I experience worship in my home parish. Our choir may not be as impressive as those in these televised services, but in my head, it’s as if I hear both choirs at the same time, as the experiences blend together.

      Worship is not a serial set of discrete experiences, where each is distinct and separate from the ones before and the ones that follow. Each one is fully worship, in and of itself, but how I experience *this one* has as a starting point all the worship I have been part of in the past. When I hear *this* hymn, I think of my grandmother’s funeral; when I hear that lesson read, I think of my wedding; etc. Thus, when a longtime worshiper views a broadcast, the experience will be much different than an irregular attender or a complete stranger.

      1. @Peter Rehwaldt – comment #19:

        Two excellent points Peter:

        There is also a difference in how a televised mass is experienced by the viewer, based on their prior experiences of in-person worship In my comment (#13), Notre Dame Masses are so real because I spent summers there in that church, at those various Masses, that I can be transported to the here and how that is taking place there very easily by TV.

        Worship is not a serial set of discrete experiences, where each is distinct and separate from the ones before and the ones that follow . Yes. The brain template against which every Mass is experienced and interpreted is each person’s personalized and organized history of Mass experiences, not some largely irrelevant and dimly perceived “catechesis” attempting to present some theological ideal. Andrew Greeley maintains that religion works likes poetry not prose.

        Pastors, liturgists, and musicians always need to make judgments about what they are doing in terms of the past history of the people in the congregation, and future possibilities. They are not just creating a liturgical experience that lasts for only a hour, they are building permanent liturgical experiences for better or worse.

        These internal templates are great arguments for the use of audio and visual recordings as a part of personal and group spiritual development.

        To get my favorite seat at the Easter Vigil I have to arrive 45 minutes early. I bring my Bose headphones and CD with 9 versions of the “Exultet” so that at the end of it I experience the “real” one in this total context.

        I often go to Saturday Vespers and Vigils at the local Orthodox Church and also play Orthodox service music and pray their Divine Office at home (each experience enriching the other).

        We are not just a local community at prayer. We are always ourselves (an ecclesiola) at prayer, a household church, a local church, and the churches throughout time and space at prayer. Broadcasts and recordings help us experience who we are.

  14. I am a little dubious about the practice of pre-recording Masses. It just seems wrong to record a Christmas Mass during Advent.

    A related situation is the use of closed circuit television to handle overflow crowds at Christmas and Easter, and to give a closer view of the altar to folks up in a remote choir loft. I find this to be very disconcerting.

    1. @Brigid Rauch – comment #21:
      We have considered this at my home parish – the use of closed circuit, that is. It is still being investigated.

      As to taping a Christmas mass during Advent; it is problematic, but given that a live broadcast cannot happen, for a multitude of reasons, it is what we do. The same goes for Easter.

      In our diocese, these are the two masses that are recorded in a church, rather than at the studios. Each year the location varies.

  15. Brigid

    I am aware of closed circuit screens being used for overflow in separate spaces – that is, from the upper to the lower church, or from the church to the courtyard, et cet – that lack not only visual but acoustic connection. While I am not a fan of simultaneous Masses for the sake of such, I would say that it would be better for two Masses rather than one in such situations (with the Mass for the overflow crowd likely being on a lag).

    As for a choir loft: those screen might arguable be the visual equivalent of hearing aids – merely strengthening what is naturally accessible to someone with better vision or hearing.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #22:
      Before our parish started using the closed circuit approach, we did have simultaneous masses on Christmas and Easter. I don’t recall why we switched from that to the closed circuit, but it may have been partly for practical/logistical reasons (difficult to find EMs for two masses on a holiday; no longer enough priests available), partly for aesthetic reasons (the people in the church get the best musicians in full-production mode, whereas the people in the overflow hall get a cantor accompanied by our second-best piano, and the whole thing projected over our second-best sound system), and perhaps even for theological reasons – that it is thought better, or closer to the ideal, to have the community as a single gathered assembly, even when parts of it are separated by walls and electrons.

      1. @Jim Pauwels – comment #24:
        “a single gathered assembly, even when parts of it are separated by walls and electrons.”

        which brings us back to televised Masses, with the assembly separated by time and place. What would the limits be? For example, somewhere out there must be the opening Mass for Vatican II !

  16. Brigid: Agreed.

    Jim: But the problem is that it’s not really a single gathered assembly, but two assemblies.

  17. Interesting points. Of course, in some cases two simultaneous celebrations just won’t fit the bill — for example, the dedication of the cathedral in Bellwood could obviously only take place in the cathedral!

  18. I always find it weird to go to a Mass at St. Patrick’s cathedral, where there is a TV screen right in front of you, even though you can see the sanctuary (albeit as much as a block away.) I get distracted — which do I watch? or does it matter? But it seems to introduce a layer of not-here and not-now , even when it is obviously and verifiably here and now.

    In our large parish-small church situation, we have separate overflow Masses fror Christmas, Easter, Palm Sunday, and we do work hard to avoid the “second-class” situation Jim describes. Actually, the overflow areas tend to be more comfortable, since not as jam-packed. However, when we had Cardinal Dolan here for the school’s anniversary, it made no sense to have other Masses with other priests. That’s not what people came for. So we did the televised Mass thing, with a cantor to help lead the singing at the remote site. I was not happy with how it turned out, but again, I think it was the best of the possible solutions.

  19. “What would the limits be? For example, somewhere out there must be the opening Mass for Vatican II !”

    Brigid – a friend of mine who teaches Spanish tells me that, on a trip one time to one of our southern-hemisphere neighbors (it may have been Argentina), he visited a place where John Paul II had visited once. The Holy Father had given his apostolic blessing, an event that was recorded by the news cameras and later distributed on VHS technology. My friend tells me that the townspeople would rewind it and play it over and over, while kneeling before their TVs. The graces being distributed were alleged to be manifold 🙂 (And for all I know, they’re right).

  20. Sorry, just one other thought: even when our assemblies can physically be shoe-horned into the same worship space – not everyone is there who would like to be there. Hence the ministry of bringing communion to hospitals, rehab centers, homes and the like – and the ministry of televising mass. So we never quite realize the ideal, istm. We’re always working in the realm of the imperfect, and muddling through as best as we can.

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