Mass Online with Full, Conscious, and Active Participation?

I’m in a diocese that did not suspend Masses until Monday. However, my husband and I decided the night before to stay home last Sunday since the both of us were recovering from a cold — we didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. What ensued was a series of events that had me inadvertently participating in three Masses online. Here’s how it all went.

Mass #1 – St. John’s Deaf Center, Detroit, MI

It was about 11 am when we decided to find an online Mass. I knew that the Detroit Deaf Catholic community at St John’s Deaf Center live streams a Mass every week on facebook at 11:30 am with voice interpretation in English for non-signers in the congregation, so we decided to go with that. I was ready to just pop open my laptop on a TV tray by the couch when my husband said, “let’s get the projector!” Great idea, I thought. Why didn’t I think of that?  I associated the projector only with entertainment, but it was perfect for this moment.

We have a cheap $100 projector and screen, so the resolution was not necessarily better than my monitor, but the large screen certainly made a difference. I was wrong about there having voice interpretation. Masses in Detroit had been canceled, so there was no congregation and therefore no voice interpreter. However, Fr. Mike Depcik, a Deaf priest, celebrated Mass at a small chapel anyway so Deaf Catholics could tune in if ASL or interpreted Masses in their area were suspended. Accompanying him was one lay lector who also signed the congregational responses. This was much appreciated since signs for Mass texts can differ from place to place according to local traditions.

Facebook live videos are accompanied by a live chat. As I was setting up  my screen, it was neat for me to see familiar names show up in the chat from all over the country who I get to see once a year at conferences. I loved knowing that we were celebrating Mass together. Since I was using a projector, I made the video full screen and did not partake in the chat. I thought it would have been a distraction for me. Looking at the chat log after Mass, however, I saw that it enhanced participation for some who typed responses such as “it is right and just,” “Amen,” or with emoticons.

The video quality was excellent and the live feed was smooth. The camera was placed up close, facing the sanctuary, with the altar in the center and the lectern by its right. Typically, Masses on TV are at large churches and cameras are distant from the altar. I realized I much preferred being able to see the elements on the altar up close. It certainly helped me pay attention and feel closer to the liturgical actions.

Mass #2 – St Albert’s Dominican Priory, Oakland, CA

Since my husband did not know ASL, we found another Mass in English that he could more fully participate in. He received an email about Mass at St. Albert’s in Oakland that was starting right as the Mass in Detroit was ending, so we decided to go with that.

The camera was placed in such a way that the viewer a side view of the altar and lectern, but also the organists’ face, probably so that the camera would not be in the way of those who are seated in the congregation. The camera zoomed in at the lectern and altar at various points of the Mass which helped, but the side view meant something was always obscured — I found myself wishing I could see more of the altar.

When the entrance hymn began, I immediately felt a desire to sing along but realized I did not have the means to do so. I liked that the hymn tune was familiar; I just wished the text was provided too. The Mass ordinary was a chant setting but one that I was not familiar with. I pulled out my Graduale triplex which happened to be nearby but could not match the settings in time to sing along. Bummer, I thought.

After communion, a Dominican brother invited people watching the simulcast to kneel and pray the Act of Spiritual Communion with him. The request to kneel took me by surprise. I did not kneel since I recently skinned both my knees in a minor accident, but I appreciated the Act of Spiritual Communion and liked that my presence was recognized. It made me feel more like I was part of the celebration.

Mass #3 – Church of the Nativity, Timonium, MD

I then remembered that Nativity Church of Rebuilt renown regularly streams Mass for their “online campus.” I figured this was a good time as any to check it out. Since I was not able to join in the singing at St Albert’s, I was hoping I’d be able to do so with a Mass designed for an online campus. A lady’s gotta get her congregational singing fix!

I had missed the live stream, so I participated in a rebroadcast later in the afternoon. Like facebook, Nativity’s set up had a live chat. I went full screen again so as not to be distracted.

The production of the video was clearly superior at Nativity. The cameras could show different views of the sanctuary depending on what was going on. I liked being able to see the band and cantors at different times.

Texts of the readings and Mass ordinary, some of which were in Latin, were provided with English translations in brackets. As one who has done RCIA, I appreciated that they were thoughtful about including translations. There was also a screen which highlighted certain points that the priest was making in his homily. I noticed how that held my attention in ways that a purely oral delivery did not.

I also noticed that lighting in the sanctuary helped to focus the liturgical actions. During the liturgy of the Eucharist, the spotlight was on the altar and the altar only. Even though the camera was already on the altar, the lighting focused it even more.

Music was of the contemporary/ praise and worship genre, which brought me right back to my days in youth ministry. Lyrics were provided for all the songs the way karaoke tracks are which made them easy to follow. I didn’t know any of the songs; I wished they played traditional hymnody,  but the simple and catchy refrains got the better of me and eventually, I began singing along!

After Mass ended, I looked at the chat log and saw that the administrator had posted the prayer of spiritual communion in the chat. Nice touch, but I wish it was prayed in the liturgy as it was at St. Albert’s.

Final thoughts

My experience made me realize that I had watched Masses many times online before—watched—as a spectator rather than a participant. I often would have other online distractions. Because I had access to Mass in person, TV and online masses felt optional, something “extra,” so I never had the urge to participate fully, consciously, and actively until now. It also made me question why it did not occur to me to seek out a Mass online when I was unable to attend Mass due to illness — I would typically read the readings for the day and leave it at that. Mea maxima culpa!  I am now convinced that “full, conscious, active participation” is certainly possible with an online community and that churches committed to online broadcasting for the long term can invest in some best practices to make it work. Here are some possible starting points:

1. Prioritize the visibility of liturgical space and actions with clear sight lines and with a centered camera close up. Do a test-run and adjust lighting and volumes accordingly.

2. Provide liturgical texts including hymn texts or direct your audience to them. If it is too complicated to include texts as live captions or to insert a powerpoint to the feed, provide a link to the texts so people can pull them up on their screen or print them beforehand.

3. Pick familiar hymns and ones with easy refrains if you’re not providing the hymn texts.  Assuming texts are provided, new texts to old tunes are possible and much easier than ones that are completely brand new. Avoid heavily syncopated hymns. Brian Hehn at congregationalsong.org has an excellent article covering more ways to get people to participate at home.

4. Offer rebroadcasts and simulcasts. Providing flexibility helps in uncertain times. I’d love to see every parish provide at least one live Mass for their congregation even though I know many parishes do not have such resources. There is something about seeing a familiar face and liturgical space that can make one feel like an online celebration is still home.

5. Enable livechat if possible but establish etiquette for using it. I was glad to see that there wasn’t any trolling on the chats, but wondered if some protocol could be drawn up so when a community is gathered, they are not chatting during Mass, but have an avenue to chat after Mass ends. The live chat could also be a place where the priest can interact with his parishoners briefly after Mass the way he does at Church.

How was your experience of celebrating Mass online this past week?

 

5 comments

  1. I was one of seven people present at mine. I didn’t feel “in communion” to receive the sacrament with hundreds of our parishioners absent, so I refrained in solidarity. Not sure why, but I will probably continue that. I didn’t watch the “replay” but to check how my psalmist did after the first reading. Our production team is meeting Thursday morning to assess and make plans for improvement. People have commented they appreciated the effort. We had 300+ views by Monday afternoon. We aren’t as polished as our cathedral or Bishop Barron’s daily Mass, but I hope people will feel connected nonetheless.

  2. Just a general comment about the circumstances: our Masses in the Archdiocese of Atlanta are ‘suspended’ for the next three weeks when the decision will be reevaluated. Of all the changes in my life caused by Covid-19 this is easily the most painful for me personally, especially this time of the Liturgical year. This Sunday will be our first for no Mass, and I am going to give the video Mass a shot, but I know it isn’t going to be the same. 🙁

  3. It doesn’t surprise me that Nativity provided a good online experience. They are very experienced at streaming services and have good production values. In some ways, for them this is “business as usual”—only no distribution of communion to the people. I think what I find off-putting about their liturgy in person (too brisk, too focused on what happens on the screens, too much sense that the assembly is an audience) actually lends itself well to streaming.

  4. Good observations, summary and recommendations! I don’t have projection capacity and would agree that distractions when viewing on a small screen do come up. It takes a certain effort to be patient with slow spots in a video. When in church or other live settings one absorbs a three dimensional environment so it is not hard in the same way. Agree about singing along!

  5. I have been acting as cantor for daily Masses at our parish, one of three people in our small chapel. Rather than singing hymns, which seem especially odd with no congregation present and no organ, and besides are too long for the short processions, I have been singing English chant antiphons. That works well, and I am for my diction to be clear enough that online viewers can unite themselves to the texts. I am less convinced by the success of the chanted Ordinary, or for that matter, any elements that ought to be congregational. People may sing along at home, but the sense of community, being caught up in the united sound rather than one’s individual voice, is impossible. Then there’s the matter of the sacrament of communion that can only be fully appreciated by those present (and like Todd, I have refrained from receiving, because I don’t feel right receiving when others can’t). Are we all getting too caught up in the technological possibility of streaming Masses? Would it be better just to let people know that the priest is offering a private Mass on everybody’s behalf, and instead encourage parishioners to observe the LOH, which is not sacramental and does not have to be led by clergy, and reflect on the Mass readings at home?

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