Quiz for budding theologians: In what way is a recorded Mass similar to a Protestant service?
Updated: May 1, 2020
Edward R. Benet
April 30th 2020
In much of the world these days, it is no longer possible to attend Sunday Mass. The best we can do is tune in to a transmission on TV or over the internet. We all know it is not the same as being there in person, but what is the real difference? Say you were going to Mass before the outbreak of the pandemic and you didn’t intend to receive communion anyway, in what way would that have been different to viewing a televised Mass? In both cases you would have heard the readings and the prayers, and in neither case would you have received communion.
A good way of getting an insight into this question is to ask a slightly different one: does it make any difference if the Mass I watch on screen is live or a recording? You may not have noticed, but when Cardinal Robert Sarah of the Sacred Congregation for the Liturgy issued some guidelines at the beginning of the pandemic, he stipulated that the televised Mass should be a live transmission. Back in 1996, the United States Conference of Bishops also issued instructions on televised Masses (http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/the-mass/frequently-asked-questions/guidelines-for-televising-the-liturgy.cfm). These guidelines state that, ideally, transmissions should be live, but that delayed transmissions, or even recordings, would be acceptable if a live telecast was not possible. In the present time, some parishes in the United States are broadcasting recorded Masses. Instead of having the usual number of Sunday Mass celebrations, only one or two Masses are actually celebrated, but one of these is recorded and is later broadcast at all of the usual parish Mass times.
What difference does it make? A televised Mass is the same thing, whether live or recorded, right? The viewer hears the same readings, joins in the same prayers, sees the exact same images and participates in the same way in the exact same event, right? Not quite! Participating in Mass via television is not the same as being there in person, but a live televised Mass is still a heaven of a lot better (to coin a new phrase) than a recorded one. In fact, a recorded Mass shares some of the deficiencies of a Protestant prayer service, as we now hope to illustrate.
How can we appreciate this difference between live and recorded transmissions, however? Our culture is so dominated by images, FaceTime and WhatsApp calls, selfies, video conferencing and a host of other virtual realities that this digital world seems just as tangible and certainly more attractive than drab old reality. The images are what count, surely, and they are the same whether live or recorded, are they not? But the images in themselves are not all that count! The context in which the images are being generated is also important.
Say that your team is in a major final but you are unable to watch the match live. You manage to see it the following day, and to make your viewing more enjoyable, you studiously insist that friends, family and colleagues do not spoil your fun by revealing the result before you sit down in front of the TV. As you watch the match, your excitement mounts. Your favourite player bears down on the goal in the final seconds and you stand up screaming, egging him on. You are just willing that he scores, with every bit of strength that your will can muster.
The problem is that the match is already over a day ago. You might as well be willing that the Titanic didn’t hit that iceberg. Your children are in the next room, listening to your screams and shaking their heads bemusedly, because they know that your favourite player bottled it and your team was hammered in extra time.
It does make a difference whether the images we are viewing are live or recorded, but what exactly is the key to understanding this difference? Maybe things will become clearer if we use an example that is a little more personal. Your parents are celebrating twenty-five years of marriage and they organise a video call with you and your siblings, who are all located in different parts of the world. However, you get the date for the call wrong and nobody manages to reach you on that particular day. The following day, the best you can do is watch a recording of your siblings offering heartfelt congratulations while your parents, with tears of joy, sip their champagne. As the video is playing and your brothers and sisters are shouting “Congratulations!”, you join in and shout “Congratulations!” as well, but you are a day late and no-one is listening to you.
If the Mass was just a collection of Scripture readings, prayers and hymns, then it would still be a worthwhile event to tune in to, but it would make precious little difference if the transmission were live or recorded. All that would matter would be your apprehension of the viewed content. With full respect for our separated brethren, and especially for their reverence for the written word, a live Mass is something different altogether. The Eucharist has all the drama of something that is unfolding in history right now, like a major sporting event or the commemoration of a family milestone, except that this event just happens to be, far and away, the greatest happening in history. Wait, you mean that my dozy parish priest, with his uninspiring homily and infuriating mannerisms, is presiding at an event of cosmic significance? Yes, but the cosmic significance of the event does not depend on a polished performance by the celebrant nor a riveting homily. Something far deeper is going on altogether.
Venerable Fulton Sheen said once that when we participate in Mass, the veil is removed and we stand on Calvary. Jesus is making the ultimate offering of himself to the Father for our salvation and we have the privilege of participating in this act. Make no mistake, of all the great and heroic deeds done by humans over the course of history, none can compare with what Christ is doing here. We join in, offering our bread, wine and very selves upon the altar, all to be transformed by Christ into an acceptable sacrifice for the salvation of the world.
Maybe now we begin to see a hint of the significance of whether the transmission is live or recorded. You are living in a parish in Houston, Texas, and you switch on your computer for the telecast of Sunday Mass. You join in the penitential rite with great sorrow for your sins, listen to the readings with an open heart, and then the liturgy of the Eucharist begins. Your parish priest is his usual annoying self, but none of that matters because when he blesses the gifts, says the prayers of consecration and begins the Eucharistic prayer, he is in persona Christi. Not only does he represent Christ, but the words he is uttering takes everyone who is participating in the Mass to the foot of the cross. You have entered a veritable time machine and your paltry offering of yourself is being transformed by Christ, through his priest, into the most worthy of sacrifices.
Oh, sorry, that was a recorded Mass you were viewing. Those were just digital dots moving on a screen and the priest was not actually on the altar at that moment at all. He had recorded the Mass a few hours previously and was actually down at Walmart buying burgers for his lunch while you were fervently tuned in to the parish webcam. The fact that the Mass was recorded means that something is lost, but what exactly? God sees everything in advance. He saw ahead of time that you would be tuned in to the Mass a couple of hours after it was recorded. He heard your offering of yourself before you ever made it. Surely your self-offering was conjoined to that of Christ in some way, and maybe that is why the US conference of bishops allows recorded Masses if no other alternative is available. Yet, something is missing in the recorded transmissions that is present in the live version. That something is rooted in the fundamentally incarnational nature of the Gospel.
We all know that over the course of history there have been many aberrant views that have sought to overly spiritualize the Christian message. For the Gnostics, the created world was evil and salvation consisted in acquiring exclusive knowledge of the divine. A bunch of Gnostics wouldn’t give a hoot if the priest was down at Walmart while they were watching a recorded liturgy, since all that matters is the spiritual and intellectual content of what is transmitted. In a somewhat similar way, what protestants emphasize in a liturgical gathering is immersion in God’s word and the faith attitude of the believer. These are noble and essential elements, but immersion in Scripture and the fervour of my faith can be the same regardless of whether the transmission I am watching is recorded or live.
The Mass is one of those places where we glimpse the richness and internal coherence of Catholicism. If there is one thing that characterizes our Church, it is its total embrace of the incarnational nature of the Gospel. The truth is that we human beings are made up of body and spirit. If we were all spirit, and if we weren’t so sinful, then maybe we would be capable of concentrating hard and uniting our offering with the offering of Christ two thousand years ago. We wouldn’t need the Eucharist to make the event present to us here and now. In fact, if camera equipment were available at the original time of Christ’s passion, then we could just replay a transmission of those events every day and - not only would we not need to worry if the priest was on the altar or buying burgers - we wouldn’t need a priesthood at all! The fact that it was a recording wouldn’t matter because we would be capable of spiritually uniting ourselves with the offering of Christ, despite the great gap in space and time.
The reality of the human condition is much different. We are made up of body and spirit and we suffer the consequences of original and actual sin. Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross two thousand years ago was sufficient for our salvation, but we struggle to be receptive to what is being offered to us. We labour to participate in it, to recollect ourselves sufficiently, to be grateful, to focus on and appreciate what has been done for us. In short, our sinfulness, and the distance in space and time of our bodies from the historical events of salvation, make it difficult for us to enter wholeheartedly into communion with him. His response? He enters into communion with us through this extraordinary time machine which is the Eucharist! We are graced with a means of participating, bodily, in this event over vast distances in space and time, from wherever his Church and his priesthood happens to find itself. Of course, that was before the coronavirus came along, and now we must make do with televised Masses, but a live transmission is surely more in keeping with the incarnational nature of the Church. If we are going to participate in the self-offering of Christ, then let’s strive to do it in real time when the words and actions of the priest lift the veil and transport us to Calvary.
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Cor 11,26)