As you’ve probably seen in various online discussions, some are skeptical of broadcasting Masses without congregation during the pandemic, rightly wanting to avoid a throwback to the “private Mass” of a lone priest who offers Mass for others. But others note that the current Missal has a “Mass with the Participation of a Single Minister,” something which is allowed and even commended in various official documents – however far from the ideal that is, and however much it is liable to distorted understandings of church and eucharist.
I would suggest that broadcast Masses during the coronavirus pandemic, whether celebrated by a priest alone or with one assistant, should be seen as public liturgies in which the online faithful are active participants. Modern technology is offering us possibilities not yet accounted for in our sacramental theology.
I hope it is known by now – but fear it isn’t – that the laity at Mass are not simply present while the celebrant offers Mass, but also offer the sacrifice because of their baptism. I propose that this is the case also for emergency broadcast Masses. Whether this understanding should hold true for any broadcast liturgy at any time, or should only be applied in time of emergency, I’m undecided. I know, I know – what’s the difference? But liturgical history amply shows how exceptions and special provisions become norms which bring in huge distortions. So perhaps it’s best to hold to the norm of physical, in-person presence for the Eucharist, and leave online presence in the emergency category under some sort of ecclesia supplet (or shouldn’t that be Deus supplet?)
I had thoughts such as these in mind as I proposed a little statement of welcoming for our celebrants to use in the opening rites of our daily broadcast Mass at Saint John’s Abbey. A few monks did some online group-editing to improve it, and Abbot John thoughtfully added a line explicitly welcoming the many Sisters of St. Benedict down the road who are watching. Here it is, adapted for wider use as you wish. I didn’t include the abbot’s addition below, and I put it mostly in the first person singular, unlike the “we” in our statement since the monastic community is (still) gathering for daily Mass. I think this statement is stronger than various “spiritual communion” statements now in circulation online.
To to all friends and loved ones who are praying with us online:
I welcome you to join us in this celebration of the Eucharist.
I am grateful for your prayerful participation
and I invite you to be in spiritual Communion with the Risen Lord
who is present in Word and Sacrament,
present among all of us who are the Body of Christ.