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 katholisch.de. Translation awr. Featured image © KNA/CIRIC/Corinne Simon.