On April 28, 2020, the basic reproduction number of the coronavirus in Germany is 1.0, in Austria 0.6. These are very good news, and both countries slowly try to return to their “default modes.”
Public worship in Austria will be permitted again on May 15. Of course the remaining restrictions will have a major impact on liturgies. One of them is the limited number of people for public gatherings: Only one person per 10 m2 (ca. 108 ft2) will be permitted in Austrian church buildings.
On April 24, the German bishops’ conference published recommendations for Catholic liturgies in these extraordinary times. Besides all the different rules for face masks, desinfection of the hands, abandonement of holy water fonts etc., there is also the following clause:
Where possible and necessary, the number of Sunday Masses will be increased or (additional) Liturgies of the Word will be provided.
The rationale is quite clear and decent: Anyone who wants to gather should get the opportunity to do so. And when there are too many people for the room size, we need more consecutive gatherings.
Nevertheless the approach behind that recommendation looks too individualistic—and in a broader sense clericalist—to me. Liturgy should not to be defined by the number of priests (or lay ministers presiding over Liturgies of the Word) or the number of individuals who require a certain celebration. Instead liturgy is meant to build the church in unity with, around, and under the lead of Christ. The Catholic Church is still learning this lesson from the Second Vatican Council. Starting to offer even more Masses than before the pandemic (or Liturgies of the Word as a sort of emergency replacement) could mean a step backwards in the theology of liturgy.
But these are special times that require special solutions for unique challenges. Bishops have to make decisions under large pressure with little time and unappealing options. I can be grateful that I do not have to fulfil their duties; but I want to express what option I would prefer.
I would prefer to continue live audio or video streams of liturgies, as many have quickly introduced during the last weeks. (A lot of these webstreams were not yet made well, but anyone can grow with their challenges.) The church has always made use of modern communication technologies: Paul evangelized via letter, medieval scholars developed illustrated manuscripts, musical notation, and schoolbooks, Reformation and Catholic Revival circulated flyers, after the Council of Trent the Roman Missal was distributed in a printed edition, the 20th century saw the introduction of liturgy broadcasts via radio and TV etc. When I was hospitalized for some weeks in my mid 20s, I could follow the Mass in the hospital chapel over a headphone at my bed. This was not the same as being present in the physical gathering, but it provided a connection that was much more than just mental.
Nothing can fully replace the physical gathering of a community in its entirety. There are practical issues to be solved, such as: Who gets one of the limited seats? One German bishop said it would be no good expression of Christianity if only the young and healthy came while the elderly, sick, and anxious stay at home.
An increased number of Sunday Masses might be the most simple option. But a livestream offers the opportunity to join the one gathering of the local church—albeit in physical distance. There are a lot of ways how the physically gathered can express and experience that they are church (ekklesia) in the full sense of the word, while the church is more than the physical gathering in its limitations in space and time. The Eucharistic Prayer expresses this anyway, but also the Prayer of the Faithful, the sermon, some introductory words etc. can explicitely include the absent. Holy Communion could be brought to the people directly from the Eucharistic gathering. This would be a strong expression of proximity and togetherness in unity—even if not anyone can take part in the same physical manner.