Re-Reading Sacrosanctum Concilium: Article 20

Vatican Website translation:

20. Transmissions of the sacred rites by radio and television shall be done with discretion and dignity, under the leadership and direction of a suitable person appointed for this office by the bishops. This is especially important when the service to be broadcast is the Mass.

Latin text:

20. Transmissiones actionum sacrarum ope radiophonica et televisifica, praesertim si agatur de Sacro faciendo, discrete ac decore fiant, ductu et sponsione personae idoneae, ad hoc munus ab Episcopis destinatae.

Slavishly literal translation:

20. Let transmission of sacred actions by means of radio and television, especially if it is done concerning the making of the Sacred [Eucharist], be done discretely and with decorum, under the guidance and sponsorship of an appropriate person designated for this office/task/responsibility by the Bishops.

This article simply acknowledges that proper decorum should attend any transmission of a liturgical celebration through various media. Since the Council Fathers probably did not envision the present world of Internet communication, Skype, YouTube videos, iPhone recordings, etc., they could not have recognized how little control they would have over the recording and distribution of liturgical events. Pray Tell readers may want to explore the impact of such media on liturgical celebration: in a world of “virtual community,” what does the liturgical demand for bodily presence and activity in a particular space engender?


  1. @Peter Haydon – comment #1:
    I suggest that the PrayTell editors delete Peter Haydon’s comment, not because of its content, but because it is, as the author says, “off topic.” This is not the first time a contributor has introduced an entirely new topic to a thread. I realize it’s impossible to control the tendency of threads to morph into a particular contributor’s hobbyhorse (e.g., “back in the seventies, when I was in seminary…”). But to essentially ignore the topic of a post seems to me to blow off the contributor of the post.

    Peter Haydon: I imagine there are any number of blogs where your comment on the royal pregnancy would be welcomed. It seems irrelevant here at PrayTell.

      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #2:
        If you like: I would have thought that in considering what to include in a radio or television broadcast of a church service it would be worth considering Inter Mirifica , the Decree on Mass Communication that surely applies to broadcasting. Surely in a broadcast Mass the priest, like “All the sons of the Church should endeavour with one mind and one intent to see that the means of mass communication are used effectively in all the varied works of the apostolate in accordance with the requirements of the time and situation. There must be no delay….” (IF 13)
        I would have thought that all occasions are suitable for promoting the church’s teaching. Sometimes a topical opportunity presents itself to do so. Tomorrow’s Solemnity provides one such opportunity.
        I am sorry if the point was too subtle but hope that the Pro-Life message was not objectionable.
        I indicated that one problem faced was that of scheduling. You have illustrated another: broadcasters may wish to tamper with the message.

      2. @Peter Haydon – comment #8:
        “I would have thought that all occasions are suitable for promoting the church’s teaching” – no, you would have thought wrong. If it’s irrelevant and off-topic, however trut it may be, it’s the wrong occasion.

  2. With regards to de Sacro faciendo: I have never seen that idiom before. I believe this is the first time this idiom is used in SC. Quite interesting, as I would not automatically assume that sacrum implies the Eucharist in this case.

    In this day, it is nearly impossible to moderate media. An unmoderated medium such as YouTube, as Fr. Joncas has mentioned, has given rise to persons with camcorders who videotape Masses which they perceive as containing “abuses”. A layperson with a camcorder does not have the authority to publicly shame or place judgment on a priest regardless of whether or not the priest has committed a grave error. The Internet has elevated the everyperson to an editorialist, a journalist, and video producer all at once.

    Freedom of expression has always implied the possibility of false witness. The Internet age merely offers more avenues for the unqualified to place summary judgment, even if the “abuses” are merely licit liturgical options the video creator does not like.

  3. in a world of “virtual community,” what does the liturgical demand for bodily presence and activity in a particular space engender?

    I’m reminded of a scene from Short Circuit 2 where Johnny-5, in his search for answers to his deep philosophical questions about life, wanders into a church (with something like “Looking for answers?” on its sign outside) and sees a man exit a confessional. Thinking that’s where the answers are being given, he goes in and has a brief conversation with a priest, who upon learning Johnny-5 is a robot, sends him out of the church, yelling, “You cannot confess by remote control!”

  4. ISTM “virtual presence” is an oxymoron if its intended meaning is “a virtual physical presence”. You cannot be physically present by some sort of alternate “presence” which is distant from the scene of the rite. Better to talk of shared spiritual intentions or something like that.

  5. I think the advice of Article 20 is quite sound even in today’s changed circumstances. Many people who can’t attend Mass, in particular the sick and home bound, benefit from dignified telecasts or whatever term is now used for presenting the Mass via radio, TV or internet or other devices.
    I enjoy watching Masses from other places on EWTN or the internet, especially those celebrations in Rome–I am virtually there in other words, even with pre-recorded celebrations. And as Msgr. Harbert quotes an Italian priest concerning another way to translate “participation” when liturgies are attended in person or by the means I am describing through the various medias that there is “‘una partecipazione enorme’, an enormous participation.” He didn’t mean that everybody was singing loudly, or praying attentively, but simply that there were a lot of people there.” And I might add that “a lot of people there” would include those watching by whatever means.
    At the same time, how these are made available and the commentary concerning them indeed should be dignified and reverent in terms of “proper decorum.” We’ve all watched televised Masses where the commentators speak so much and get in the way of the actual celebration and their voice-overs obscure and detract from what is being transmitted. In other words, they should get out of the way and only act as a commentator to explain what is happening when it is not obvious and avoid becoming a distraction to the liturgical actions and sounds. There shouldn’t be profane bantering to fill time amongst the commentators.

  6. Knowing virtually no Latin, may I ask: how did the author of this passage determine the Latinization of the word “television”? Are there Latin equivalents for “YouTube” and “iPhone” and “Twitter”?

  7. For Jim Pauwels at comment #7: the Latin phrase here is “ope radiophonica et televisifica” which I suppose could be even more slavishly translated as “by radiated sound wave and long distance visual means.” I know that there is a group dedicated to offering Latin translations of new vocabulary (and I think Fr. Reginald Foster was one of its members) but I don’t have an immediate connection to them. Perhaps Msgrs. Harbert or Wadsworth or Jordan Zarembo could help us.

    1. @Fr. Jan Michael Joncas – comment #9:
      Whittaker’s wonderful app, LATIN WORDS, offers telehorasis for “television”.

      For other neologisms in Latin I have found all of the following sources interesting and useful. (This may get held up in the moderation queue, because it contains numerous links)

      [From the Vatican, no less. Largely based on Italian but contains many English words.]

      One important word that does not appear in any of these lists is “ketchup”. However thanks to the brilliant translation into Latin of the first volume in the Harry Potter series, we now know that this is condimentum lycopersicorum. And, courtesy of the Vatican site, “Scotch tape” (Sellotape) is taeniola glutinativa (“sticky ribbon”). Just in case you wanted to know.

      1. @Jonathan Day – comment #12:

        Also, in later Latin, such as the Vulgate, St. Jerome often simply does not decline names and words from foreign languages, usually Hebrew. I wonder if non-declined vernacular loanwords should be used in Latin, e.g. Cicero cum Tullia per smartphone collocutus est. “Cicero speaks with Tullia on a smartphone.” Purposefully absurd example, yes, but intended to illustrate that the declension of “smartphone” can be inferred by context. There is the question of adjectival agreement, but German, for example, considers most foreign loanwords to be neuter. There are ways to incorporate new vernacular terms and items in Latin without creating faux-classical terms.

        Back to SC 20. Some years ago the ordinary of the diocese in which EWTN resides ordered that the priests not face ad orientem for the daily televised Mass.
        Mother Angelica obeyed her ordinary. Perhaps this is a good example of the type of discipline the Council bishops envisioned in this section. Then again, the Council bishops could not have foreseen that at some point in the future the Tridentine and reformed missals would obtain a juridical parity. Could a bishop expressly forbid that one of the forms of the Roman rite cannot be televised in his diocese? I interpret SC 20 to permit this option as well.

        This short instruction offers ordinaries and bishops quite a bit of latitude. I understand that this instruction has been superseded to degrees, but I suspect that there are still situations left to be defined.

      2. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #15:

        Could a bishop expressly forbid that one of the forms of the Roman rite cannot be televised in his diocese?

        How about this instead

        “Could a bishop expressly forbid the televised celebration of one of the forms of the Roman rite in his diocese?”

        Much better. With apologies.

    2. @Fr. Jan Michael Joncas – comment #9:

      For example, is there a difference between a “live” broadcast of a liturgical event and (repeated) broadcasts of a pre-recorded liturgical event?

      It is interesting that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese provides eight different internet broadcasts of Sunday liturgies, some occurring at different times and some at the same time.

      The internet broadcasts are only available live. They are not recorded, although the same website does have some archived recordings of major liturgical events.

      It is also part of their online chapel.

      Perhaps they consider live broadcasts as in a different category than taped broadcasts.

  8. I think Ms. Olivier and Mr. McDonald at comments ##5 and 6 have raised profound questions for us: what exactly is the quality of “participation” in a liturgical event offered through an acoustic or acoustic+visual medium without bodily presence? For example, is there a difference between a “live” broadcast of a liturgical event and (repeated) broadcasts of a pre-recorded liturgical event? I have used video tapes to make available to my students various aspects of liturgical rites that they would not be able to attend without a major pilgrimage (e.g., Mozarabic), but does the focus and editing of the recorder offer a (not so) subtle commentary on what is considered significant about the rite? I’d be interested in others’ insights.

  9. Played for a funeral the other day at which the son of the dear departed filmed the casket, with commentary, during the visitation. He also took pictures throughout the Funeral Mass, perhaps for family members who were unable to be present. Suggestions as to how we might deal with this kind of thing, when almost everyone’s cell phone is a camera?

  10. Jordan, Jonathan, et alii – you are aware that this issue/dilemma has been around for centures in other languages e.g. French


    Money section:

    As French culture has come under increasing pressure with the widespread use of English in media and technology, the Académie has tried to prevent the Anglicization of the French language. For example, the Académie has recommended, with mixed success, that some loanwords from English (such as walkman, software and email) be avoided, in favour of words derived from French (baladeur, logiciel, and courriel respectively). Moreover, the Académie has worked to modernize French orthography. The body, however, has sometimes been criticized for behaving in an excessively conservative fashion.

    A recent controversy involved the officialization of feminine equivalents for the names of several professions. For instance, in 1997, Lionel Jospin’s government began using the feminine noun “la ministre” to refer to a female minister, following the official practice of Canada, Belgium and Switzerland and a common, though until then unofficial, practice in France. The Académie, however, insisted on the traditional use of the masculine noun, “le ministre,” for a minister of either gender. Use of either form remains controversial.

    Thus, seems ideal for this group just set up by B16:

    Money quote:
    “Traditionalists” should go back over their Latin because many of them are persistently trying to reintroduce the ancient liturgy but they ignore some fundamental aspects of the Catholic Church’s official language. The President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi certainly did not mince his words when criticising a certain section of the Catholic Church. Ravasi reiterated that the Pontifical Academy for Latin (just established by Benedict XVI) does not represent something obsolete.

  11. My chief worry with broadcast liturgy is the danger of idolatry. Specifically, when the broadcast product becomes valued and enacted at the expense of dignity and decorum of the liturgy itself. This can take many forms – intrusive camera operators, the homily or music directed toward viewers more than physical participants, the undue shortening of a liturgy to fit a television slot, and so forth.
    The most egregious example I have ever experienced was at Notre Dame, where Easter Sunday morning was (and perhaps still is) staged on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of Lent. Ads were placed around campus, encouraging students to attend in their Sunday best; easter lilies were placed in the church, alleluias were sung, etc. etc.
    I still remember an article in the student magazine describing the practice in laudatory terms – because it was a ministry to the homebound. One of the students interviewed noted that at the end of Mass the cameras missed an angle, so they had to stop and “re-do some of the lines.”
    Words fail me on that one. However, although it might be an extreme case, I think it illustrates the slippery slope well. Media is not neutral – it has a distinct tendency to alter the thing it transmits.

  12. This superficially technical clause does open up some larger questions as suggested by Fr Joncas.

    Ideally we are gathered to a particular worshipping community in person, in which we are welcomed and welcoming and we participate in a liturgy that is intelligible to the people of that community so the symbolic action has a chance to be fulfilled in the way that community lives. But what if we can’t?

    For forty years or so in Australia ” Mass for You at Home” has been broadcasting in Australia on commercial and community television.

    I don’t recall much broadcasting of masses that are occurring in real parishes here, which would seem to encourage the attitude of a spectator, but this service would seem to have created a space and a virtual community of people who cannot attend mass in person. It looks cheap and could easily be dismissed as amateurish but I wonder if it transcends the need for bodily presence in its own limited way.

  13. Fr. Michael – some personal reflections and experiences:
    – we had a diocesan mass on TV; each priest in the diocese took turns and you would say a month at a time.
    – at the college seminary, we had a 25+ year tradition of taping the Sunday liturgy for radio that Sunday afternoon. Primarily, it reached elders who were bed ridden at home or at nursing homes (only a very few nursing homes have a weekly liturgy)

    Found that the TV filming was difficult because there was no congregation – just a camera crew. Music was dubbed in later. It was difficult to get used to both leading and preaching with no one present.

    So, it seems you have at least a couple of situations – TV (you can view, follow along, even participate because you hear and see); radio – you can hear but not view. My bias is that a taping/filming works better if an actual congregation, parish, community, etc. are present.

    Guess it depends – many parishes have active EMs and ministry that bring communion to nursing homes; the homebound, the sick….typically, they do a brief service when they visit. (but, it would seem that listening or watching an actual liturgy that day would be an added support?)

    If grace builds on nature and if the more senses we use create better connections, relationships, involvement – then, would always lean to an active ministry in which a part of a community includes, visits, and involves the other person. But, reality tells me that this probably leaves out many folks and thus, a TV or radio taping has its purpose. (disclaimer – it should be clear that any radio/TV taping does not replace presence at a eucharistic community – it is based upon need)

    Thus, have difficulty with things such as EWTN – daily filmed liturgy and that can become your community. Is a virtual community what the church desires? Feels like it only condones an individualistic, isolated, or remote community. (very minimal)

  14. It seems that broadcasting a liturgy for the edification of the sick or otherwise chronically homebound could be beneficial to them — but how does a priest who films at the wrong time (i.e. Easter during Lent) without a congregation feel that it is really prayer? Even if it has the appearances of being dignified, is it really?

    But then what is the purpose of broadcasting the Pope’s Mass from the Vatican? It’s not to replace my going to regular Mass… Is it education? entertainment? a model?

    1. @Ann Olivier – comment #24:


      I think the real change was in light, not sound. Let’s go back to candles only. It certainly would restore some meaning to the Advent wreath!

  15. Ann – geez, what next? and a PhD philospher. Reminds me of the oft quoted – *publish or perish*. This one could have been left on the publishing floor.
    What about the fact that Trent almost authorized the vernacular but for the *little* issue of the Reformation and the need to be a *counter* to that?
    Facing the people – yet, whether ad orientem or facing, most churches use a microphone. So, what’s his point?
    And no account for those speakers who had natural gifts, projection, powerful voices who achieved the same end as microphones – did that make these folks *extra-powerful*? did these folks cause the vernacular and mass facing the people?

  16. Jim McKay and Bill deHaas —

    I didn’t say I agreed with them — the theory is too simplistic. There were undoubtedly many causes for the changes. But McLuhan, even when he sounded far out for the times was sometimes very right about the communications revolution. So I don’t doubt there is some truth there.

    If you were old and hard of hearing you might appreciate having priests with mics somewhat better. And since the population is living longer the problem of deafness is getting to be extremely common. Charity demands, I think, that these people’s needs be considered.

    At any rate, the toothpaste is out of the tube, and as I see it the question now is how to integrate the technology into the essentials.

  17. My critique of technology in general is that it tends to reduce the human to an abstraction rather than accentuate his or her concreteness or incarnational presence.

    With regard to the use of technology and liturgy, Aidan Kavanaugh reminded us in his “Elements of Rite” by using Marshall McCluhan’s categories of “hot” and “cool” media. He [Kavanaugh] states, “Ritual activity is a ‘cool’ medium which seduces people into the celebrative freedom of common activity, By comparison, electronic media are ‘hot’ and tend to shove people into corners of passivity or isolation where they are manipulable by unseen wills.”

    1. @Bryon Gordon – comment #28:
      How so? As to using mics, surely they facilitate communication between the preacher and the deaf people, which I would say is a concrete benefit.

      1. @Ann Olivier – comment #29:
        I believe the usage of multimedia, i.e. recordings, visual projections, etc., are the kind of elements that would detract from full, conscious, and active participation at worship.

        I’d recommend a review of McCluhan’s hot and cold media in his “Understanding Media: the extensions of Man.” He lays out those important distinctions there. That is why Kavanaugh employed these categories when speaking of ritual or rite in an anthropomorphic sense.

      2. @Samuel J. Howard – comment #33:
        Samuel — Very good suggestion, but expensive. I agree with you that subtle differences such as that between a mic and a loop can add up to very, very different experiences.

        I should mention that one thing McLuhan talks about that’s very important for the Mass is how our new means of communication (radio, TV, movies) have given us a different perception of space and time. This new perception produces the global village. Seeing is not so important when you have microphones, etc. I’m sure all this affects our perception of the Mass. And, of course, theologically it is correct to think of every Mass as something going on everywhere and always. But how to retain the immediacy of our perception is, I think, the problem. It seems to also be necessary for us to start from somewhere very, very definite, very immediate as well.

    2. @Bryon Gordon – comment #28:

      Though I think McLuhan had some very important insights, I’m afraid I just don’t buy his hot/cold distinction, or maybe I just don’t understand it. It seems to me that according to it, the old pre-VII ritual would is more isolating, less communal, hence “cool”. But this would put it in the same category as the new “cool” rituals which incorporate contemporary tech. To me they just don’t seem to belong in the same box.

  18. Ann,

    No criticism of you was intended, just of the idea that microphones caused the change.

    The real problem in the article was its identification of liturgy with sound. Our ritual is very visual. The big loss from turning the altars was the bright rising sun beyond the altar, but that was already lost due to electric lights and diminished fasts. A big change at Trent was removal of the rood screen, leaving the consecration out there for all to see even if they could not hear it.

    Microphones are another step toward transparency.

    1. @Jim McKay – comment #31:
      Yes, the liturgy is visual, but also audial, olfactory, spatial, temporal, etc., etc. It’s an artwork with all those elements interacting and vying for our attention.

      And beyond those elements there are some fundamental tensions in our participation in the Mass due to our limited means of attending to things. I mean that we are supposed to focus both on the transcendent God and on His immanence in the world, plus focusing on our communal interaction with Him and while giving our individual attention to Him at the same time. How to do it all at once?

      Even to use the word “focus” to describe all this distorts the meaning of the word — we can focus on only one thing at a time, not many. That, I think, is where the necessity for art arises — artists somehow present many elements and relate them in such fashion that all get due attention. It’s why I keep insisting that not only should the very best musicians and writers participate in forming any new Mass, but the theatrical writer, the playwrights should too — they, after all, are the experts in combining all the rest into a unified whole. Would that Rome appreciated the Shakespeare’s the way it appreciates the Bachs.

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