Weaning Off the Livestream Mass
“Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:6–11)
Biblical commentators believe this is one of the earliest New Testament texts concerning the divinity of Jesus Christ. It is often called a Christological hymn, and it’s believed that the early Christians would chant these words in the liturgy as a type of creed.
The part that grabs my attention these days is about “every knee bending and confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord.” I envision a great choir kneeling, proclaiming and confessing the Lordship of Jesus.
I’m actually privileged to experience this every morning in our seminary chapel, as a hundred seminarians kneel together at the Mass. There really is something powerful about worshipping our Lord on bended knee. Fr. George Rutler recently wrote about a Desert Father around 300 A.D., Abba Apollo, who had a vision of Satan: “The devil has no knees. He cannot kneel; he cannot adore; he can only look down his nose in contempt. Being unwilling to bend the knee at the name of Jesus is the essence of evil.” (cf. Is. 45:23, Rm. 14:11). As creatures, we’re made to adore the Lord. As creatures of body and soul, we’re made to adore with bended knee. As social creatures, we’re made to do this together, communally.
The thought recently came to me that, with the pandemic and livestream masses, there may be many a Catholic who has not bent the knee for six months! And I have to wonder if, at some point, we become complicit in that.
The Mass is sometimes referred to as “Catholic calisthenics”: we stand, we sit, we stand, we kneel, and so on. At each point our posture corresponds to and reinforces what is occurring in the liturgy. Now I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that when someone is watching the livestream Mass from their living room, these Catholic calisthenics are not taking place.
I admit that, in fact, it might feel a bit odd. Why? Because we’re not there, we are not in the presence during the words of consecration of the Holy Eucharist. There’s a real difference! (Though our faculty and staff, who attend Mass together via livestream, assure me that they stand, sit, and kneel when they are together in their livestreaming room, and it’s perfectly natural.)
But I would still encourage people who are attending by livestream to involve their bodies in the Mass. Shower and dress as you would if you were attending in person. Follow the physical actions of the Mass — sit, stand, and kneel at the appropriate time. Try it out, and see how it affects your prayer. I believe it makes a difference when we involve our bodies in our worship. (Our Academic Dean, who attended the daily seminary livestream Mass all through the March to May shutdown, assures me that it made a difference to his prayer, even when he was alone in his office.)
Now, it needs to be said: this kneeling applies to only those who are physically able. After I ruptured my Achilles this summer, it was a good three months before I could genuflect! And, you know, I can honestly say I missed it. But that’s my point: we have to help people to know what they’re missing. Just as we provided livestream masses so that we could fill a spiritual need for our people, so we may also need to provide some encouragement about “bending the knee” which will also help to meet a spiritual need.
There’s one more point, though. And, while it’s sensitive, I think it needs to be said. Just as we need to adore, and we need to adore with bended knee, so we also need to be together. And, at some point, that means coming back to live Masses.
Now, let’s be clear: coming back to the Mass in person only applies to those who are physically healthy or who are not at risk or in a vulnerable category. It’s irresponsible to tell a person with a walker that they have to kneel. It’s irresponsible to tell a person in a vulnerable category that they have to attend Mass in person.
That said, though, we have to help people to take an honest look in the mirror. Are my kids back in school, and am I delighted that they have that opportunity? Are they involved in sports, and have I been very creative to ensure that they have that outlet? Have we exhibited the same delight and creativity when it comes to attending the Mass in person?
I understand: kids might complain about attending the Mass, so it’s different. But what, then, are we teaching them about priorities? Do we venture out to restaurants? Are we taking trips on a plane? Where, then, does attending Mass in person fit into my priorities? Are we teaching them — not by words, but by actions — that faith comes last?
The Catechism clearly teaches that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of our faith — that it comes first. So: do our lives express that faith?
The longer healthy people stay away from coming back to the Mass in person, the more it will seem the norm that the livestream is just as good — but it is not.
Some might say, “But I just do not feel comfortable coming back to Mass, yet.” OK. But if they say that while performing a whole host of other activities that involve just as much possible exposure, it’s a double standard. As spiritual fathers, we need to be creative in helping them to see that and name it for themselves.
Of course, there’s an important caveat: it’s essential to have a handle on the local data. If you are living in a declared “hot spot,” yes, much more caution is warranted. But it’s also important to consider the data involving individuals that are in your category — older adults, younger adults, children, etc. The 24/7 news coverage of the virus can come to define every aspect of my life, producing a fear of returning to the Mass.
“But,” someone might say, “the bishop has not lifted the dispensation, so I can still livestream the Mass with his permission.” That’s true. It’s the local bishop’s task to consider the data and make the best determination for his diocese. I come from a diocese in which the bishop, following the local medical data, has already lifted the dispensation — and the faithful are not coming back in droves. It’s more of a trickle than a torrent. He knew this would most likely be the reaction. But, in caring for souls and understanding the centrality of the Mass and his call as shepherd, he prayerfully decided it was to come to start the real work of calling his flock back home to the Mass.
So my question is this: when the time comes, how will we call them back? Are we ready to be just as creative and determined in reaching out to fill this spiritual need as we were in switching to livestream to fill that spiritual need? That becomes one of the central questions for a pastor.
A priest recently expressed this sentiment: “I do not want them back. Someone might get sick.” Now, it needs to be said: he did that out of genuine concern for his people. And I understand that. But I want to push back, too. If our standard is “the possibility of someone getting sick by attending the Mass,” our churches will never open. We drive our cars knowing there is a possibility that we could be in a serious accident, yet we still do this freely.
Do we believe, and are we helping our people to believe, that the Eucharist is the key to eternal life? Or are we slowly and inevitably — even with the best of intentions — creating another generation of C & E Catholics (those who usually only attend at Christmas and Easter)?
I think Christmas will be the next time there will be a demand for more Masses (so that we can welcome the people who want to attend Mass, while still meeting the safety requirements). I know the priests are more than willing to get creative and offer more Masses in order to have people physically present. But I wonder if there will be a temptation to just view the Christmas Mass at home, skip communion, and avoid the hassle — and I wonder if we’re feeding that, and I wonder if we need to do more to wean people from that. As G.K. Chesterton once said, “Men in a state of decadence employ professionals to fight for them, professionals to dance for them, and a professional to rule them.” Have we become satisfied now to have professionals worship for us as we remain in our living rooms?
Chesterton also said this: “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.” As I think about that, and our current circumstances, I’m tempted to paraphrase it this way: “A dead thing can go with the livestream, but only a living thing can go against it.”
Swimming upstream takes effort. Calling people back to Mass will take an effort. And the results will surely be mixed at first. But sooner or later we’re going to have to cross this bridge, and call people back to the fullness of what practicing the faith means. This might start with a discussion around the dinner table (or, if your house is more like mine growing up, with a dictate from my parents!).
Whatever the approach, let’s get the ball rolling. We were creative in getting livestreams started, so people could continue to follow the Mass, and rightly so. Let’s get ready to be just as get creative in calling people back to attending Mass in person, and making that a priority in their lives.FILED UNDER: ARTICLES TAGGED WITH: COVID-19, LIVESTREAM MASSES, PARTICIPATION IN MASS, THE EUCHARIST, WORSHIPPING AS A COMMUNITY, WORSHIPPING WITH THE BODY
About Fr. James Mason
Fr. James Mason is the President-Rector of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary and a priest of the Diocese of Sioux Falls, SD. Fr. Mason attended the North American College and received his S.T.B. from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas – Angelicum, Rome; he also holds the J.D. from the University of Minnesota Law School. After his ordination in 2001, Fr. Mason served as pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Garretson, SD, was the Director of Vocations, Vice-Chancellor, and Medical Moral Advisor for the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls, and then directed the Broom Tree Retreat Center from 2004-2014 and was Pastor of St. Lambert Parish in Sioux Falls from 2008-2014. He joined the Kenrick-Glennon Seminary community in 2014 as Director of Spiritual Formation and Dean of Students. In 2015, Archbishop Robert J. Carlson appointed him President-Rector.