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Mass Online

Some people ask me what I think about teaching online.  I ask them how they like watching Mass online.  “Really, that bad?”

It’s not that I don’t admire attempts to do Mass online, nor am I ungrateful for the chance to participate, even if only “virtually.” Still, it is a far cry from actually attending Mass.

Others proclaim they are constantly “yearning” for Mass. The danger for me is that I get spiritually numb.  It’s easy to get busy with work and just skip it without a thought.  There’s something good about having to get up and walk over to the chapel.  You must commit to something, physically.  There’s not the same movement either of the body or the spirit if I just click a link and then sit there and watch Mass, as if I were watching the video of an online lecture.

Perhaps it’s because I hate watching online lectures, even lectures I loved in person, but the prospect of watching an online Mass just doesn’t get my blood pumping.  I’m not always wrapped into a state of ecstatic contemplation at a regular Mass either, but watching Mass online is like listening to someone narrate the events of their vacation trip while they slowly scroll through the pictures on their phone.  “And here’s Gladys and me with the waiter at a great sea food restaurant in Galveston.”  And you think, “I could be doing something useful now.  But I’m not.”  You are desperate to hurry things along so it will be over. “Yup, great, next picture.  Next picture.  Next picture.  Wonderful!  See you tomorrow.”

I find an odd reversal of things watching Mass online.  With live Masses, a calm numbness falls over the congregation once we sit down and the readings start, which devolves into something like a semi-comatose state once the homily commences.  Everyone wakes up when the Eucharistic prayer begins, with its standing and sitting and kneeling and the regular responses.  It keeps the blood flowing. Catholics looks forward to this part of the liturgy.

Even though I was once a Protestant, I still can’t understand why Protestants want only the boring early parts and then drop out the wonderful Eucharistic parts in the second half.  Do these people watch only the first half of a football game and skip the second half?  Is there no interest in the culmination of the first half?

With online Masses, I find myself oddly more interested in the readings and the homily and less interested in watching the Eucharistic prayer.  When the Eucharistic prayer starts, I think “Been there, done that,” which I never think when I am at a live Mass.  Watching the Eucharistic prayer online is like watching a dull movie I’ve already seen before.  I’m not in the church, and I’m not receiving communion, so I have this horrible temptation just to change the channel. (Is it time to check my email?  There might be an important message!)

Cardinal O’Malley online

“Active participation” is just not something I do while I’m watching something passively on a screen.  I don’t like talking at my computer – well, not unless I’m yelling at it for glitching.

There’s also the etiquette of it all.  I watch Mass online in my office, since I can’t get up and go to the chapel. Should I say the prayers out loud?  Should I stand and kneel at the usual times while staring at the computer screen?  If someone walked by, wouldn’t I look like an insane person?  (Oh look, he’s finally lost it.  He’s attending make-believe Mass in his head.)

Am I supposed to observe the fast before Mass even though there’s no Communion?  Since I’m sitting at my desk watching something on my computer, I have occasionally reached over to grab my coffee mug and take a sip, only to realize, “Whoa!  I’m at Mass.”  Can you watch online Mass while eating lunch? That seems wrong, but I eat while watching television all the time.

I found a web site (https://mass-online.org/daily-holy-mass-live-online/) that allows me to access streaming online Masses from around the country and around the world.  There is something nice about watching Mass at a lovely abbey church in Ireland, listening to the monks with their wonderful Irish accents.  I saw Cardinal O’Malley of Boston say Mass the other day.  You have to admire a Prince of the Church who can bring the Mass in at less than thirty minutes and not seem rushed.

It is depressing, though, clicking through the links, to see how many American Catholics have to worship in ugly churches.  Every simple rural church in Europe from the eleventh century is more beautiful than these expensive Modernist monstrosities.  How did we get so much better at medicine and so much worse at church architecture?

I have noticed from my review of online Masses that the uglier the church, the more likely the homily will be vacuous, like the worship space.  A lovely church does not guarantee a good homily, but preachers often “preach up” to match the beauty of their surroundings.

It makes me curious: if all we had was online Masses and if a Mass could stay online only if it got enough viewers, which Masses would stay and which would go?  Would ugly, prize-winning Modernist churches lose ratings and finally be turned into storage spaces for extra COVID-19 medical gear? Would the preaching get better if people could just change the channel for a better homily or some tolerable music?

If I thought suffering quarantine for the next three months would save my next-door neighbor’s life, I would do it.  If I thought suffering online Mass for three months would help the Church separate the wheat from the chaff regarding ugly churches and bad preaching, I would do it too.  But since that’s not going to happen, I’ll stick with my Irish monks. Oddly enough, even “Gather Us In” is tolerable when sung by an 85-year old Irish monk with a thin, raspy voice.

Randall Smith

Randall B. Smith is a tenured Full Professor of Theology. His book Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Guidebook for Beginners is available from Emmaus Press. And his book Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture at Paris: Preaching, Prologues, and Biblical Commentary is due out from Cambridge University Press in the fall.