Lessons from Three Types of Television Masses

by Pierre Hegy

What lessons can we learn from six weeks of shutdown? I will consider three channels:

  • CatholicTV of the archdiocese of Boston;
  • KTOTV owned by the French Catholic hierarchy; and
  • Le Jour du Seigneur aired by the state-owned France-2.

I have analyzed the Masses broadcast from March 29 to May 3, 2020.

  1. CatholicTV during the coronavirus shut-down

For many years CatholicTV of Boston has been broadcasting over 20 Masses per week from its studio-chapel in Boston. They all last less than 30 minutes. But on Passion Sunday and Easter, it is Cardinal O’Malley who celebrated Mass in his cathedral.

On Passion Sunday, a female lector read the first reading; the choir consisted of three men and a woman, with a pianist playing on a grand piano.The cardinal read the passion narrative and gave the homily. The service lasted two hours. The Easter Mass came closer to be a studio Mass.The entrance of the clergy was not shown, as Cardinal O’Malley was seen at once as incensing the altar. There was no more choir: all singing was off-screen.

On the following Sundays, all Masses were 30-minutes long. Cardinal O’Malley’s preaching time had been reduced from 16 minutes on Passion Sunday to 3:30 and 3:00 minutes in the following Masses. The entrance and exit processions were skipped.The Gloria and the Credo were recited, not sung, which took less time. All singing and music were off-screen. Participation was reduced to a minimum, with the presence of only the cardinal and one priest in the vast Boston cathedral.

2. The KTOTV Masses during the quarantine

Until the quarantine, KTOTV aired only the Sunday pontifical Mass of Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris for the whole of France. This Mass always involved active participation in the singing. But without an assembly due to the quarantine, these Masses were like TV Masses to be watched on a screen. The performance of the liturgy did not change, but two details stood out: hierarchy and the absence of Communion for the faithful.

The entrance procession is the public display of the church in its hierarchical structure. Each Sunday the processional order was slightly different. For instance:

  • two bishops, the archbishop, two priests, and two acolytes; or
  • the deacon carrying the Book of the Gospels, six priests, four bishops, the archbishop, two more priests and two acolytes; or
  • the thurifer, the cross-bearer, the deacon carrying the gospel, two priests, one bishop, the archbishop, and three acolytes.

At all times it was clear is that the church was a hierarchy and that all members knew their rank.

Inequality became visible at Communion. All priests came to the altar, one by one, to dip some consecrated bread into the wine, but not the deacon; he was given the bread and then the chalice of consecrated wine. The acolytes standing closely behind the clergy were given Communion by the rector, in violation of the distance rule. The cantors (one male, and one or two females) moved out of sight and were not given Communion. One could see the priest carrying the sacred species from the altar to the tabernacle pass them by. It seemed as if, as at the Boston studio Masses, Mass was over after the Communion of the priest.

  1. Le Jour du Seigneur during the shut-down

This program has been running since December 24, 1948 when it first broadcast the midnight Mass at Notre Dame. It is run by a lay committee which is independent from the hierarchy. Its stated mission is “to announce on television the message of the Gospel and to answer, in its own way, the quest for meaning of our contemporaries.” The program consists of three parts:

  • the presentation of a contemporary issue in the Paris studio;
  • the Mass each Sunday in a different parish; and
  • a further discussion of the topic of the day.

With the quarantine there could be no more Masses in parishes. The organizing team had to retreat to its Paris studio. The basic structure in three parts did not change.I will describe four aspects of this production:

  • the studio where the Masses took place;
  • the documentaries presented in the first part;
  • the importance of art; and
  • inclusivity of clergy and laity, males and females.

The Paris studio is very small. On one side there is a wide screen which opens to the outside, showing inspiring pictures from the world. Throughout all the Masses, the camera often filmed the participants against these outside images, giving the impression that we were there, outside, in the middle of a cloister or in the middle of nature. This studio was really open to the world.

In the first part of the program, instead of interviews as in the past, the public was shown documentaries. One of them was a one-hour description of Protestant initiatives inspired by Pope Francis’ Laudato sí. Before the pandemic, every month or so there was a two- or three-hour ecumenical discussion with Orthodox, Protestant, Catholic, and agnostic participants. On March 29, the public was shown a documentary on Easter in art, with comments by Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic historians and theologians.

All great civilizations have great religious art. Friar Thierry Hubert, the producer of the program, together with two other friars, composed and/or arranged polyphonic pieces that filled the Masses.This choir created a very inspiring musical background for the liturgies, different each Sunday.A few weeks later we could hear the exceptional singing of a female cantor to the music of a digital piano. If one of the purposes of choir singing is to provide spiritual inspiration, then this goal was achieved at these studio Masses.

While in Boston and Paris the laity have been mostly excluded from the sanctuary, here there was gradated inclusiveness.Within a few weeks, all the readings were read by females. Increasingly there were more lay participants than clergy: a pianist, a female cantor, two female lectors, and a commentator, vs. one or two priests. Moreover, the laity were invited to partake in Communion by coming forward to take the consecrated bread one by one from the altar, like the priests at KTOTV.


1.  According to the webpages of CatholicTV, “The Mass is the greatest act of evangelization that the Church can offer the world,” and “The Sacrifice of the Mass is… the center of CatholicTV’s mission.” Hence the network’s mission is to produce as many of these evangelization acts as possible. This practice can be justified by Tridentine theology. As asserted by the Council of Trent, private Masses “are celebrated by a public minister of the Church, not for himself alone, but for all the faithful who belong to the body of Christ.” (Denz. 1747). All private Masses are public prayers of the church; hence they are, even without attendance, the greatest acts of evangelization of the church. Moreover, their effect as sacraments is quasi automatic: grace is “conferred by the performance of the rite itself (ex opere operato).” (Denziger 1608)

There is strong clerical support for these studio Masses. Fr. Robert Reed, the director of CatholicTV, has been made a bishop in 2016, most likely through the strong support of Cardinal O’Malley. The cardinals of Boston and New York support this format by regularly celebrating TV Masses. Other archbishops and cardinals occasionally speak out in favor these two television channels. This type of Mass can be found throughout the world. The Irish channel ChurchServicesTV and the international organization mass-online.org/ offer links to Masses being -streamed from Midnight to about 6 PM. On a weekday on ChurchServicesTV there may be over 200 Masses available, mainly from Ireland, England, and Scotland, and exceptionally from the U.S. and Poland.

On the negative side, this type of Mass attracts very few people A survey in the Netherlands about Mass watching on television found that the average age of the viewers was 67, and 71 percent of them were women (Kees de Grott, 2018: 85). In the U.S., at some TV Masses one can count the number of people who come forward for Communion and one may conclude the church was probably 90 percent empty, with mainly senior citizens in attendance. This type of Mass has no future in the general public except among old-timers.

During the week, most morning Masses in parishes are like private TV Masses with a very low attendance and little or no active participation of the assembly. This situation is not likely to change.

2.  In most parishes the Sunday liturgies are like the KTO pontifical Masses. Those taking place in a cathedral benefit from all the resources of the diocese and make possible the active participation of the laity. There, as in Paris, the question is whether the faithful will come back at the end of the quarantine. Two factors hinder easy optimism.

In the Tridentine perspective, a private Mass is a public celebration for the whole body of the church; lay attendance is not necessary. This doctrine was reasserted by the 1983 Code of Canon Law: “A priest may not celebrate without the participation of at least some member of the faithful, except for a just and reasonable cause.” (c. 906). In Paris the pontifical Masses involved so many priests that lectors and acolytes were redundant. When by canon law the faithful are not necessary for Mass (and there is no sanction against those who say Mass alone), why would people come back, now that they have seen that they are not necessary?

“Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 14) This desire was never institutionalized. On the contrary, it has been somewhat undermined by the new Code. According to canon 1248, “The precept of participating in the Mass is satisfied by attendance at a Mass.” This is Tridentine language: the “obligation” is “satisfied” by “attendance.”No doubt Vatican II made possible a greater lay participation in the Mass, but participation always remained a general wish to be implemented at the wish of local pastors.

In our time of religious decline, people find little motivation to attend church. Moreover, many regular churchgoers may continue their habit of TV watching acquired during the quarantine.

3.  Le jour du Seigneur enjoys a 90-minute time slot. Moreover, it is independent from the hierarchy, which allows for great flexibility. The Masses and the discussions are usually strongly integrated, because for each discussion a special parish is selected to fit with the topic of the day. Here are some the past topics: helping immigrants, assistance to the unemployed, the faith life of a French battalion on an anti-terrorist mission in Africa, the healing of memories on the occasion of the anniversary of the 2015 terrorist attack in Paris, slavery in a former French colony, etc., plus an ecumenical program about once a month.

There seems to be no room in parishes for such programs. However, there are many churches which foster lay development through small groups, classes, seminars, conferences, ministries, short mission trips, etc. Bible study groups are common in Evangelical churches. In the Catholic Church, small communities meeting weekly for bible studies are post-conciliar developments. Churches that promote active participation of the laity throughout the week and also at the Sunday liturgy tend to grow, while those who treat them as passive tele-spectators will decline.

There is one caveat. It is not enough to lengthen the Sunday Mass to 90 minutes and have a few socio-political discussions. It may take twenty to thirty years of continuous striving towards the same goal to achieve tangible results. What is needed is vision and persistence. This is achievable. Crises are times of opportunity. Ecclesia semper reformanda (“The church is ever in need of reform”).

Pierre Hegy received his PhD from the University of Paris in 1972 and joined the faculty of Adelphi University in Garden City, New York in 1974, teaching sociology until his retirement in 2008. He taught two years at the Catholic University of Peru and one year at the National University of Taiwan. He edits Catholic Books Review, which posts 100-120 book reviews a year.


  1. I would like to provide more color on the Boston aspects because I would normally attend Mass at the Cathedral over the past year and because I’ve been watching the programming and am familiar with some people involved: the current Sunday Masses are restricted in time to no more than 30 minutes because that’s the broad/cable cast time window allowed by WLVI, which is not under Catholic TV but an entirely separate network, so they have to be pretaped and edited to fit that window – in addition to being shown on Catholic TV.

    And the Triduum and what was subsequently done has been done within the context of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ relatively stringent current rules in force, given that Easter weekend itself was when the surge hit eastern Massachusetts with great force. The Cathedral of the Holy Cross has been open for private prayers for limited numbers of people in the interim, and expects to open with a limited schedule of public Masses (one in Spanish, one in Latin and one in English; none scheduled yet for Ge’ez Rite community that worships at the cathedral) under current phase 1 rules from the Commonwealth this coming Sunday, Pentecost (which were a great surprise to most houses of worship here, as most didn’t expect to be included in phase 1 of “re-opening”). The cardinal’s homilies have been concise, but with meat, as it were; many preachers could benefit from the discipline of required concision.

    In some of the Sundays following Easter, there has been a layperson (differing week to week) offering the first and second readings but more recently one of the priests in the adjacent residence with the cardinal has been doing that, as they all live together and that might afford some reduction in risk of spread. There has been a lay cantor in the gallery at the other end of the nave with the organist/music director.

    One difference from what’s normally shown on Sundays for Boston Catholic TV is that it’s not being done in its studio but is an effort of the cardinal in our cathedral; more people may have seen him and the cathedral in recent weeks than have ever seen over many years. And it’s not because this cardinal and cathedral crave limelight; for a very long time, Boston’s Catholic cathedral was pretty much not an object of any interest to anyone not already part of its worship and apostolates – it’s nothing like cathedrals located in prominently touristed areas of major cities, as for much of its history it’s been in a predominantly poor/industrial area (only changed in the last generation, and then still with a large public housing project across the street and the city’s major homeless shelter a couple of blocks away).

  2. As one who celebrates Mass, edits the video and uploads them I can tell you that just because you didn’t see something doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Absence of proof is not proof of absence.
    Is it important to see the entrance procession? I read somewhere that the entrance procession/gathering rites begin when you walk out your front door. Or do you need to see each minister (and concelebrants) receive Communion?
    Kudos to all doing their best to make the service available online and via cable. We have received many words of gratitude for providing Mass with familiar faces in a familiar space.
    Some may decide to stay at home when we reopen. But I’ve heard from others who said they had no idea how important Mass is to them until they couldn’t participate in person.
    Now is a time to catechize people about what we do and why we do it. Something that wasn’t done too well in some places in the 70s.

  3. After a demonstration of the Missa normativa to the Synod of Bishops in 1967, Cardinal Heenan is reported as commenting
    “At home it is not only women and children but also fathers of families and young men who come regularly to mass. If we were to offer them the kind of ceremony we saw yesterday in the Sistine Chapel we would soon be left with a congregation mostly of women and children.”
    We did in the UK, at least in places which follow GIRM most faithfully, offer them that; with the result Heenan foresaw. Now I am nearly 82, I lived through this, bought into the reform, and still find the liturgical argument persuausive. Heenan’s comment is sociological, so what is the sociology of the failure? Until we have that, recommending more of the same is hardly likely to work.

  4. The KTOTV broadcast of Mass from St Germain d’Auxerrois in Paris occurs at a convenient late-morning hour here in the Central time zone in the U.S. because it takes place at 6:30 p.m.(Sunday) and 6:15 (weekdays) in Paris. In livestreaming, we are virtually present at a celebration actually in progress, not one taped earlier. Dr. Hegy is correct in observing that it is hierarchical: apart from a very good cantor and a couple of inconspicuous altar servers, the rest of the small number appear to be clerics. The presider preaches, and is sometimes Cardinal Aupetit, who is really good. I have recommended those Masses to the francophone African congregation whom I serve, and I hope and trust those Masses will continue, because we shall not be able to assemble in numbers here for a while, and the preaching isn’t as good.

  5. Thanks for this helpful discussion. We are in the process of working out our streaming options and there is a choice for the camera to be closer to the altar, ambo and chair, or a little further which would pick up members of the assembly. Further of course would make it harder to see the lector and presider; we’d be losing clarity in order to gain a wider view. I’d be very interested on input and will come back here to see if there are replies.

    1. I would suggest that you make clear to members of the assembly which seating areas would be within camera view range and which would not be: not everyone wants to be included in electronic media that endures forever, as it were.

      1. Thank you, Karl, that is indeed a good idea, and other have recommended the same. We don’t plan on keeping the liturgies on the server permanently, just for 30 days.

  6. On Option 2: If the physical presence of the lay faithful at Mass is not necessary, why should any of us bother attending at all? Answer: because the clergy still need our money (though of course we can now give electronically!).

    I’m reminded of St John Henry Newman’s famous remark to his Bishop that the Church would look foolish without the laity.

  7. For our Triduum TV liturgies here in Suva Fiji we were allowed by the authorities 6 participants including the presider and deacon. We limited the space for the celebration to the sanctuary of Sacred Heart Cathedral. All moved to each of the focus points, during the ceremony. All stood around the altar, ambo, cross, paschal candle, water, of course keeping social distancing. We had a camera in the sanctuary and another for long shots. All knew that they could be filmed at anytime so were conscious to fully participate. We rehearsed each ceremony. We did our best to use the opportunity to model best possible liturgy under the circumstances and made the most of the medium of TV. Eg on Holy Thursday we had previously shot footage of a family washing each other’s feet in their home and this was shown during the homily.
    We made the most of a situation that Pope Francis would call being in a tunnel …

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