Livestreamed Eucharist “Without the People” – Step Backward or Forward?

by Cornelius Roth 

A discussion is now underway as to whether livestreamed celebration of Mass with the participation of only one priest (and a few of the faithful) represents a step backward to long obsolete forms – tied to the exclusion of all others and disregard for the communal character of the Eucharist – , or whether in fact in emergency situations, such as the coronavirus pandemic certainly is, the individual celebration of the priest is not only permitted but commendable, meaning a gain for all others because the priest celebrates Mass representatively for them.

Both viewpoints in this discussion are able to adduce good arguments. Now it is certainly correct that the Council saw the local celebrating community as the bearer of the liturgy (and not the priest going up to the altar, as the old missal had it). Thus a celebration of Mass with (almost) no community represents a degeneration from the standpoint of pastoral liturgy and it’s aesthetic. It hardly corresponds to the liturgical and theological meaning of the celebration of Mass. But it is just as true that a Mass without the people does not a priori exclude all others, inasmuch as the priest celebrating Mass alone celebrates it not only for himself, but “for you and for all” (as one sometimes now reads in streamed “private Masses”).

 First of All, Understand Offerings from the Context of an Emergency

First of all, the possibility of celebrating Eucharist via internet streaming services at this time, a time in which public worship services are prohibited, must be understood within the context of an emergency situation. Celebration of Eucharist on Sunday with the congregation physically present always remains the ideal to strive for. And yet, reactions in the parishes making livestream offerings are almost entirely positive and marked by gratitude. Precisely for active community members who are accustomed to participating in Eucharist on Sunday, it is a consolation to be able to continue co-celebrating by livestream from a familiar church with a familiar pastor, rather than following TV Mass on a national station.

Nevertheless, one should attend to some details in the format of such offerings. First, a truly small number of the faithful should participate in these liturgies, ideally entrusted with liturgical ministries (e.g. deacon, lector, server). A larger number immediately raises the question as to why these people are permitted to be present while others aren’t. The “two or three” who are gathered in Jesus’s name (cf. Mt. 18:20) should also be visible on the screen. Voices that speak the response from “off-stage” can indeed give the impression of what Gerhards, Kranemann, and Winter call “ghost Masses[like “ghost games” in soccer, which are played without spectators present as a penalty for their misbehavior – tr.]  But when one sees the laity in attendance, they represent the community in a manner appropriate to this time, so that the representation in fact happens not only by the priest.

But in a time of internet and of the coronavirus pandemic, we certainly must completely rethink community. However strange it seems to the celebrating priest to sing and preach into an empty church in livestreamed liturgies at this time, the more one practices it, the more tangible it becomes that a virtual community arises with the people who are connected to this Mass digitally from various locales. Online communities are also true communities in the theological sense and correspond both with the principle of communio and with the principle of active participation (participatio actuosa) of the Second Vatican Council. One can sing along and pray along at the computer screen, one can really be present in the heart, even as Communion can only be received spiritually. (Thus attention should be paid to the wording of some prayers after communion in the Missal.)

Livestream Liturgies Are Actually a “Dinosaur”

However, two objections should be addressed. First, it is true that livestreamed liturgies do not always need to be a celebration of the Eucharist, but should also include other formats such as Liturgy of the Hours or specially conceived devotions. The present situation is an invitation to bring non-eucharistic liturgies more strongly into consciousness again. Second, we must realize that livestreamed liturgies are pretty much a dinosaur in the development of digital liturgy – above all because they function like  TV Masses, which we’ve already known for decades (and which still have their place now). But modern online liturgies by contrast are marked by interaction – i.e. concrete user participation by means of their own pray petitions and self-formulated prayers, commentaries or chatrooms on the homily, playing of their own music, etc. All this plays a large role and is actively used in the world of internet liturgy (LinguCommunity, Twaudes/Twomplet, SubLan services, Facebook services, etc.).

And so the coronavirus crisis can open us for us liturgically a new view of the significance of liturgical community in internet. It can make clear that even the (analogue) priest celebrating alone can be thoroughly connected to the world, just as was always the case through the naming of other people in the eucharistic prayer (pope, bishop, all who have a ministry in the church, the deceased, etc.). To that extent, current livestream offerings truly are ill suited for fighting out liturgical and theological differences of principles, such as Helmut Hoping sought to do over against critics of individual celebration. But the livestreams are well suited for acknowledging the positive possibilities of liturgy in internet, and also to discover these possibilities anew and develop them further.

Cornelius Roth is professor of liturgical studies and spirituality in Fulda, Germany. This article is reprinted with kind permission of Translation awr. Featured image © KNA/CIRIC/Corinne Simon.



  1. A further discussion is taking place in some quarters as to whether, unbelievably, in fact bread and wine in your home could be consecrated by the priest remotely over video during a streamed Mass.

    This shows a misunderstanding of what Eucharist is. All sacraments are relational acts. They require two people in some kind of proximity. That is why you can’t baptize or anoint over the internet or a video link, nor give sacramental absolution (something else that has been called for).

    Even in the midst of this crisis, we have a lot of educating to do. If we drop the ball, we will be building up future difficulties for ourselves in the time when everything has, please God, returned to normal.

    1. Those criticizing private Masses are implicitly denying that the Mass is an efficacious sacrifice. They are, in other words, Protestants. Or so it seems to this Catholic layman, and to other Catholic laymen with whom I shared the German liturgists’ attack on private Masses.

      1. Dear Tom,

        With all due respect, I think this is a misunderstanding. No one I’m aware of is denying that the Mass is an efficacious sacrifice. But there is serious discussion (with a wide variety of viewpoints which I’ve been happy to translate and share) about what form of the Mass best represents its essence in faithfulness to what Jesus gave us.

        Gentle reminder: “Protestant” does not equal “bad” – at least not in official Catholic teaching as I understand it. The ecumenical discussions brought about by Vatican II and continued under the leadership of Roman officials have led to mutual respect, breaking down of misunderstandings, learning from each other, and achievement of amazing consensus or at least more convergence on many points. There are Protestants, by the way, who do believe that the eucharist is a sacrifice and that it is efficacious- though not in ways identical to some Catholic ways of understanding those terms.

        I hope that we Catholics can live ever more from the liturgy, and be transformed by it (cf. Cardinal Ratzinger, who has beautifully written about eucharistic sacrifice as our self-emptying in Christ and through Christ), so that we can grow in greater respect and understanding and harmony between ourselves and all other Christians, and all other people. Suspicion is not a liturgical virtue!

        Fr. Anthony

    2. Interesting!
      I guess Pope Francis’ offering of Plenary Indulgence online today is null and void then, no?

      1. That’s not how I read it. Paul Inwood is talking about *sacraments*. Indulgences are something else, and they can be bestowed in a variety of ways.

  2. This whole discussion seems out of touch with the present situation of many Catholics. When everything finally blows over, I’m going to remember how many Catholic people and sources offered hope and connection while PrayTell just complained.

    I’m grateful for Pope Francis’ leadership at this time. I’m grateful my local Church took the sanest option by ending Public Masses. I’m grateful for supposedly retrograde groups like St John Cantius for providing beautiful live-streamed liturgy and devotions. I’m worried about my friends, family, and the kids I normally teach and how long this might last. I’m not worried about private Masses.

    1. Hi Jack,

      Well I think we’ve done more than complain at Pray Tell! I invite you to look at the full range of our offerings, including posts such as this one which talks about how to provide the best possible livestreamed liturgies. I’m busy at St. John’s Abbey working to improve our livestream daily Mass and offering a more useful Sunday Mass PDF worship aid for our online viewers. I hope it is a spiritual help to them. I put together a Litany of Our Lady, set a special Good Friday litany petition to chant, and posted a reflection on what livestreamed Mass from her parish meant to one person, and posted all these here. I hope these things are maybe of some help to some people.

      Fr. Anthony

  3. For live-streamed celebration of Mass, it seems mostly or always to be from a large church building which is almost empty. While it can be reassuring for members of the parish to see their familiar surroundings, it seems to me that it would be beneficial to have the celebration from a smaller room, where it would be a more intimate experience.
    Whether from the church building or from a smaller space, there seems to be no reason why some of those joining the celebration on line could not take part actively. For example, those proclaiming the Word or leading the General Intercessions could do so on line from home, via Skype or Facetime or some such utility, with a video of them visible inset on the screen. There could also be a virtual music ministry.
    Not that this replaces physical presence at the celebration, to which we look forward with hope and joy when the members of the body can welcome one another again without danger of infection.

  4. Having ministered at a live-streamed mass for the first time last week, and getting ready to do so again this weekend, I would suggest a small change in the author’s emphasis. The phrase “only one priest (and a few of the faithful)” isn’t a fair description of the small group of people who organized and led the liturgy. It was a few of the faithful, yes, but they weren’t parenthesized. It was a team effort, even more than usual, with not only the ministries of lector and cantor, but also camera-operator and stream-monitor, plus remote feedback before, during and after by various parishioners. It wasn’t ideal — not much is these days — but it was definitely our particular parish community being itself, and the liturgy still felt first and foremost like a dialogue.

    1. Very well put Father In this age where we rely on livestreamed Mass the office of video operator or parish techno geek is more important and at least as blessed as the office of reader or Eucharistic Minister

      1. Mr. Addison, you’ve missed the point of Roger Stratton’s comment. (Roger is a lay man, by the way.) He is saying that the liturgical ministries are supported by the technicians, not that the technicians have supplanted them. Much less has he said anything to suggest that liturgical ministers are less important to the liturgy than video technicians are.

  5. This reminds me of the conversation in 1966 when Paul VI came to the US for his one day tour and people arguing whether (because the majority of people had never seen a live shot of the Pope) the Papal blessing was good for people watching at home. I think it was decided that the live version yes, the video taped one, no.

    I don’t see this forum as complaining but it usually challenges me and informs me as to what I am doing and why. I too participate in live stream Masses and the positive far outweighs the negative in my eyes.

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