What Video Masses Can Teach Us about the Mass

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To the perceptive, the coronavirus lockdowns can teach almost as much about the Mass as the Council of Trent. For others . . . maybe not as much.

First off, the lockdowns teach that the Mass is essentially a sacrifice offered by the priest, and the participation of the laity, although good for the integrity of the offering, does not pertain to its essence.  It must be a sacrifice: it may additionally be a communal meal or a celebration.

It is stunning (for those who know Church history) that no one has called into question the liceity of “private Masses,” which continue to be offered by our priests during the lockdown. We all speak of “private Masses” as if, of course, they must be proper.

My pastor’s language can serve as an example: “Private Masses will be offered for our current Mass Intentions every day in my private chapel. Please know that my Mass offered on Mondays will be reserved for all our parishioners.”

And yet the Council of Trent felt it necessary to say, “If anyone says that Masses in which the priest alone communicates sacramentally are illicit and are therefore to be abrogated, let him be anathema.” (session 22, canon 8)

Or again, Pope Pius VI, in 1794, had to issue a Bull  (Auctorem Fide), condemning the error that “there is something lacking to the essence of the sacrifice in that sacrifice which is performed either with no one present, or with those present who partake of the victim neither sacramentally nor spiritually.”

This view has consistently seemed plausible among Gallicans, conciliarists, and – in our own day – among partisans of the “spirit of Vatican II.”  And yet here we are, a billion and more Catholics, feeling only immense gratitude that priests continue to offer on our behalf these “private Masses.”

Secondly, and similarly, video Masses underline for us the difference between the sacrifice of the Mass and Holy Communion, as the former continues to take place, but not the latter in the usual way.

Usually the two are not separated, and we refer to them together as “the Eucharist.” But the sacrifice “serves primarily to glorify God by adoration, thanksgiving, prayer, and expiation,” while Holy Communion “is intended privately for the sanctification of the soul.” In the words of the old Catholic Encyclopedia: “The recipient of the one is God, who receives the sacrifice of His only-begotten Son; of the other, man, who receives the sacrament for his own good.”


But haven’t we been guilty of confusing the two, mainly by over-emphasizing the “horizontal” dimension of the Mass, as if it were primarily for the good of the congregation – as if its public nature were simply its aggregating together many private sentiments and interests?  Or, likewise, guilty of not seeing that Holy Communion is genuinely holy and therefore originally “set apart” from us?

Sentimentalism by its very nature blurs together things that are distinct, treating sharp differences in kind as if they were only fuzzy differences in degree.

As we sit in our living rooms, watching the priest offer this “holy sacrifice, a spotless victim,” understanding that, from the point of view of the Mass itself, there is nothing necessary or inevitable about our sharing in it in any other way than watching, the question should arise – if we are attentive – whether we are worthy to receive Holy Communion when it is offered. If we are not worthy, then we must seek that change in kind, not merely in degree, which, typically, only sacramental penance can restore us to.

A huge opportunity will have been lost if, when the lockdowns end, the lines outside confessionals aren’t as impressive as the lines of patrons outside restaurants.

But if Holy Communion isn’t automatic; or a matter of warm fuzzies among the crowd at Mass; or the assertion of some kind of misguided claim of “equality” of the laity with the sacramental priesthood; or a souvenir for the moderately superstitious, like ashes for many on Ash Wednesday – then what is it for?

Here video Masses can instruct us again, although indirectly.  Let’s take seriously the correct idea that the Holy Mass is like a banquet insofar as it leads to a sharing in the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ.  But now suppose that, three times a day, when it’s mealtime, a friend led you to a television, put on a cooking show, and told you to watch the chef make a meal and eat it.  “There you are! Let this show serve in lieu of meals for you.”  You would certainly be “hangry” at your friend.

But if you are not equally incredulous, astounded, dismayed, dumbfounded, shocked, and even tempted to feel insulted by the suggestion that a video Mass can substitute for your presence at Mass, and worthy reception of the Eucharist, then, for all your lip-service about “the Mass is a communal meal,” you have not really grasped it.  Your complacency shows your lack of understanding.

One can grant that extraordinary graces, when truly necessary, and if earnestly sought, can make up for ordinary graces. And surely in this way, during lockdown, many Catholics have received as much grace, or nearly so, as if they had been receiving Holy Communion regularly.  But is the extraordinary still truly necessary, and do we continue to seek such graces with the same earnestness?

Perhaps you have sensed in your own life (not really attributable to the lockdown, for a Christian): a persistent heaviness and weariness; disturbing dreams; a breaking out again of old weaknesses you thought you had mastered; failures of charity which surprise you; greater or new difficulties in prayer.  The list can go on.

What might you conclude?  Perhaps this: The supernatural life you received in baptism is real; it truly needs the nourishment intended for it; and, in spite of your good intentions (of course), you are showing early signs of starvation.


*Image: Eucharist in Fruit Wreath by Jan Davidsz de Heem, 1648 [Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna]

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His most recent book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. His new book, Be Good Bankers: The Divine Economy in the Gospel of Matthew, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in the spring. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI.