Welcoming Online Worshipers as Active Participants

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.



  1. I very much appreciate this reflection, as well as the recent post by Professor Roth. This is hot issue in my parish and diocese, as suspect it is in many places. Or perhaps not. It seems that the majority of priests, bishops (and even the Holy Father) have jumped aboard the live-stream wagon (“dinosaur” that it may be, according to Professor Roth.) While we will be live streaming a very simple celebration of the Sacred Triduum, our clergy and my lay colleagues in our liturgy department continue to be in consensus about using electronic and social media to connect with parishioners in the form of messages, homilies, and interactive posts aimed at “Appreciative Inquiry.” We have so far eschewed live-streaming Sunday Mass, even though I suspect a majority of our active parishioners are seeking out the live-streamed Masses of either our Archbishop or their favorite celebrity priests. While we have posted links to the Archbishop’s Masses and those of Bishop Barron, we have instead provided options for keeping the Lord’s Day in the domestic church in one way or another. The unitive parochial format for prayer (actually devised by our diocesan consultant for worship) is a hybrid form, combining elements of the Divine Office (which we may have preferred a form of the canonical liturgy that could be legitimately prayed at home by the laity) with elements of the Sunday Liturgy of the Word replacing the brief lesson. A summary of our approach can be found here: https://www.stmichaelcp.org/prayer-at-home

    I note that both my friend Fr. Ruff and Bishop Barron seem to allow that there may be degrees of liturgical participation possible with such technologically-mediated experiences such as live-streamed Masses. I suppose that these degrees and the qualitative variables that create them might considered in some scholarly study (and may have been already.) Leaving that question aside, I wonder about some of the other explanations I have heard, especially now – in this emergency situation – is not the time to…

  2. catechize, but to console. Indeed, several commentators have noted that the wide-spread preference for viewing live-streamed liturgies (and participating in them to some degree and in some fashion) is a great consolation to the faithful. I wonder, is the liturgy primarily concerned with consolation? Or does it also have a place in desolation? Not only do we see faithful parishioners foundering because they can’t come to daily Mass or get into the Perpetual Adoration Chapel (or now even visit the neglected Lord in the tabernacle of our Church!), but some seem to be willing to defy the “stay-in-place” order, clamoring for a drive-in Eucharistic adoration in the church parking lot. Robust eucharistic piety? Perhaps. But if our faith is so tied outward sacramental signs that the sacraments are not realized in us to the point of being able to sustain us in desolation, that we have no idea or capacity to offer the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving and interceded in prayer for the life of the world in union with our High Priest in heaven (and in our souls) if the power grid goes down, in what have we put our faith? If the Lord is allowing a period of desolation, or at least an “unexpected and appointed sabbath” to help us reprioritize and reorder our interior lives and our domestic churches from the inside out (I’m re-reading the Rule of St. Benedict to discern how God might be calling me to clean up the mess in my domestic church!), might not the pastoral option be to help the faithful tap into the sacramental Real Presence that is actually present where they are, rather than reinforcing the notion that the sacramental Presence of the Lord is somewhere where they are not. That seems to miss the point of the Christian kerygma! It may also be short-circuiting the very nature of leitourgia and the realization of the Tria munera Christi in mission of the those are baptized. As for catechesis, no, this may not be the time for that. But it may be the time to make decisions the way we experience the…

  3. present situation, so that there is something positive to catechize about. Otherwise, the catechesis is this: “We experience something in a certain way, but it would be better if we had experienced it this way.” That pretty much sums up the catechetical model that relies on information infusion that doesn’t connect with lived experience. A reflexive mystagogical catechesis depends on lived and ritual experience, and while we can’t really manufacture consolation in anyway except as an anaesthetic (either make ourselves feel something or preventing it), we can find that desolation is redemptive (as the mystery of the Cross reveals). Keeping our natural senses intact and integrated is part of what makes us human, and forms our interior senses to access the supernatural. I’m not convinced that virtual reality participates in that economy.

    I’ll close this parsimonious comment by relating a report from a parish family that has enjoyed the consolation of a live-streamed Sunday Mass from a neighboring parish. The children amplified the experience by celebrating Holy Communion with Ritz Crackers. The report came from a parishioner who apparently wanted us to crack down on this abuse. We’ll have to do that, of course, but I hope we can do so in a way that honors the good and holy desire for Real Presence and erecting the totem where God breaks into our lives – which is where we are.

  4. To the specific point of your post, Fr. Anthony, I think you deftly thread the needle with your introductory statement, leading even a skeptic like me to the possibility of authentic participation through technologically-mediated translocation and to awareness that communion in the Risen Christ transcends location. Since we will livestream Mass on Easter Sunday I would like to borrow the words of you and your abbatial confreres.

  5. Here is our solution at St. Michael the Archangel Church in Leawood, Kansas, in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. The text for “Our Sunday Supplication” is compiled by Michael Podrebarac, worship consultant for the Archdiocese.

    VIDEO GUIDE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MzO-6TlqN4U&feature=youtu.be
    Of particular interest is the introduction by Fr. Daniel Weger, parochial vicar.

    E-GUIDE: https://schoolofhope.github.io/sunday/2020/03/29/Fifth-Sunday-of-Lent.html

    PRINT GUIDE: https://d2y1pz2y630308.cloudfront.net/6903/documents/2020/3/Our%20Sunday%20Supplication%20-%20Fifth%20Sunday%20of%20Lent.pdf

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