Do we need another televised Mass? Liturgy in the time of coronavirus

Do we need another televised Mass? Liturgy in the time of coronavirus

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In the United States as well as many other regions, we are in the midst of a health crisis due to the coronavirus outbreak. And that in turn has led to a spiritual crisis of sorts. Most dioceses in the U.S. have cancelled or severely restricted the celebration of Mass.

This is a golden opportunity to look at what both pastoral leaders and worshipers believe about Mass, real presence, and the role of the baptized priesthood in the liturgy.

This time of coronavirus restriction is a golden opportunity to look at what both pastoral leaders and worshipers believe about Mass, real presence, and the role of the baptized priesthood in the liturgy. Click To Tweet

In my lifetime, the church has given us two lenses through which to view these central issues of faith. The current lens, the current teaching of the church, comes from the Second Vatican Council. When the bishops called for a reform of the liturgy, they had one overarching concern:

Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people…is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.

In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else. (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 14; emphasis added)

The Mass that we celebrated before the Second Vatican Council—the Tridentine Mass—provided a different lens. The primary way the people participated in the real presence of Christ in the Mass was through “ocular communion” at the moment of consecration when the priest (whose back was to the people) would elevate the consecrated elements.

There was a clear separation, both physically and culturally, between the hierarchical priesthood and the baptismal priesthood. No one, in fact, ever referred to those of us outside the communion rail as part of the priesthood of Christ.

The lens with which many Catholics in the United States today view the liturgy is perhaps betwixt and between the lens of full, conscious, and active participation mandated by the Second Vatican Council and the lens of the Tridentine liturgy focused on ocular communion. It is true that in the United States, the reform of the liturgy has done much to encourage the full, conscious, and active participation of all of the baptized. However, there is still much that we need to do.

Where we still need to grow since Vatican II

Much of the celebration of the liturgy of the word is experienced through the lens of participation. However, when we get to the Eucharistic Prayer, we are still influenced by a lens of ocular communion.

For example, the rubrics allow for the optional ringing of a bell after each consecration. This harkens back to the Middle Ages when the practice was introduced to encourage the ocular communion of the otherwise nonparticipating assembly.

Many presiders still elevate the elements at the prayer of consecration in the manner of their medieval counterparts, reinforcing the ocular nature of communion. The rubrics themselves direct the presider to “show” the consecrated elements to the people, which is distinguished from “raising” (elevans in Latin) the elements at the Great Amen.

Few musicians follow the rubric that the communion song is to begin at the moment the priest receives the sacrament (GIRM 86). They tend to wait until after the priest has taken Communion for himself, believing that it’s more respectful to keep silence during the “priest’s Communion.” Those that do begin the Communion song “while the priest is receiving the Sacrament” (GIRM 86) are sometimes asked by parishioners to delay the music a few moments longer to allow them to pray.

Some parishes have yet to restore the communion cup to the assembly. In places where the cup has been restored, many worshipers bypass it. And during flu season, many dioceses are quick to withdraw the cup. All of this is justified by the theology that people receive the full grace of the sacrament solely by receiving the body of Christ in the form of bread. Without disputing the theology, the GIRM emphasizes that communion has a fuller sign when it is shared under both kinds (281).

Most parishes distribute hosts that were consecrated at a previous Mass. Again, the justification is that people are still receiving the full grace of the sacrament. This in spite of the rubric:

It is most desirable that the faithful, just as the Priest himself is bound to do, receive the Lord’s Body from hosts consecrated at the same Mass and that, in the cases where this is foreseen, they partake of the chalice (cf. no. 283), so that even by means of the signs Communion may stand out more clearly as a participation in the sacrifice actually being celebrated. (GIRM 85)

Another aspect of full participation that is still underdeveloped is the practice of liturgical prayer in the domestic church. The ancient church had a clear sense that the households of believers were indeed churches. They called them ecclesiola or “little churches.” The teaching that the home is a church was recovered by the Second Vatican Council (see Constitution on the Church, 11). However, the teaching is not well known and not widely practiced. Many of us still think of the parish church as the only place where liturgy happens.

Ocular communion in the time of coronavirus        

Where the lens of ocular communion becomes clearly evident is in our response to being unable to participate in Sunday Mass. Every diocese and a great number of parishes have quickly responded by producing televised or live-streamed Masses. In most places where this has happened, it seems to have been their first, and perhaps only, response to help parishioners maintain a sense of liturgical prayer. If this is all we do, we risk reverting to the old lens and inadvertently communicate that people’s participation is mainly by watching.
Where the lens of ocular communion becomes clearly evident is in our response to being unable to participate in Sunday Mass. Every diocese and a great number of parishes have quickly responded by producing televised Masses. Click To Tweet

There is nothing wrong with televised Masses as a spiritual aid. Pope John Paul II even commended them in instances where one could not participate in the parish assembly (see On Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy,” 54). But televised or live-streamed Mass was already available before the coronavirus restrictions. How is adding hundreds more Mass feeds providing more spiritual aid?

Even more worrisome is the response of some of the faithful. Some have suggested that their parishes deliver unconsecrated hosts to people’s homes so that they could place them on a table in front of their computer monitors for the next televised Mass. That way they could share in communion along with the priest who is being live streamed. It is not clear if some of these potential communicants think that the hosts will become consecrated simply by “hearing” the words of consecration from a priest online or if they merely want a more tactile experience of ocular communion. One also wonders why, if some households want to add unconsecrated bread to their online experience, they are not also adding a cup of wine.

All these efforts show that people are hungering for communion, both in the sacrament and with their parish family. Yet we need to be careful that in feeding their hunger, we lead them to that fully conscious and active participation that is their right and duty by virtue of their baptism.

What is clear in Pope John Paul II’s teaching as well as in the Catechism of the Catholic Church is that watching Mass is not participating in liturgy (see CCC 2180).

How to celebrate the liturgy fully, consciously, and actively—even when there is no Mass

There are several ways in which the domestic church can celebrate authentic Sunday liturgy to keep the Lord’s Day holy. None of these are Mass, of course. But since participating in (as opposed to watching) Mass is not possible, these forms of full, conscious, and active participation in the official rites of the church would seem to reflect the lens of the Second Vatican Council. In fact, the Code of Canon Law recommends that families and individuals participate in these kinds of prayer forms in their homes when they are unable to participate in the eucharistic celebration (see CCL 1248 §2).

Liturgy of the Hours

Sanctifying the hours of the day is an ancient practice in the church. In the early church, the cycle of the day was marked in the domestic church by praying the Lord’s Prayer in the morning, at noon, and in the evening.

In more recent times, especially in German and German American households, the day was marked by praying an evening Rosary after dinner.

And Christian households can also mark that day by celebrating Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours. Give Us This Day has granted free access to their online prayer resource, which includes a simple Morning and Evening Prayer that can be used at home.

Liturgy of the Word

The church teaches that the presence of Christ is with us when we proclaim God’s word and when the church prays and sings. So when we gather as the domestic church to celebrate the Liturgy of the Word, we are gather in and as the presence of Christ. Give Us This Day is an excellent resource to use for household liturgical celebrations of the word. Also, the United States Bishops have published Tools for Building a Domestic Church.


Some of us think of blessings as something a priest does. He blesses us at the end of Mass, for example. Or he might do a quick blessing of a personal rosary or a new car just before Mass begins. But blessings are actually liturgies. And there are many blessings that can be celebrated in the domestic church. This article gives a good overview of the purpose of blessings. For some blessing prayers you can celebrate, click here.


Only a priest or a bishop can preside at the Rite of Penance. However, we can celebrate penitential services in the domestic church. While these services do not provide sacramental absolution, they “are very helpful in promoting conversion of life and purification of heart…. Penitential services, moreover, are very useful in places where no priest is available…” (Rite of Penance, 37). You can use this outline to celebrate a penitential service in the home. You would not, of course, include “Individual Confession and Absolution.” But the rest of the liturgy can be presided over by a member of the household.

Catechumenate rites

If you have a catechumen in your household, you can celebrate one of several minor rites with him or her. These include:

The church has a rich treasury of resources for celebrating liturgy in the domestic church. All of these answer the mandate of the Second Vatican Council to consider before all else the full, conscious, and active participation of the baptismal priesthood in the liturgy of the church.

If it is spiritually helpful to your parishioners to add a live-stream of your Mass to the hundreds of others that are already available, please do that. But at the same time, catechize the faithful in ways they can celebrate liturgy through the lens of participation so they may continue in their mission to bring God’s salvation to the whole world.

The challenge before us is greater than just surviving the coronavirus outbreak. The disease will be contained, a vaccine will be developed, and we will eventually return to more normal lives, including the celebration of Masses in our parishes.

But we will still be betwixt and between the lens of Vatican II—which calls for the full, conscious, and active participation of the baptismal priesthood—and the lens of the previous era that relied on the clergy for celebrating the liturgy and carrying out the mission of the church.

What would happen if we used this current crisis as a teachable moment to help all our parishioners better grasp their baptismal dignity and vocation?

See also these related articles:

  1. Called to engage
  2. The Creed enlightens our vision
  3. In line with Christ
  4. Christ our compass
  5. You are witnesses
  6. Bulletin Shorts for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
  7. The four dangers of weak liturgy
  8. We will need courage for parishes of the future
  9. Liturgical principles to guide your planning
  10. Live in closeness


Photo by Ben Kolde on Unsplash

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