In the face of stay-at-home orders and church closures put in place throughout the world to keep people safe from the coronavirus, Catholic priests have exhibited remarkable pastoral creativity. One has only to browse social media to see admirable examples of how priests are pushing their own limits and meeting these challenges to do what they can do to serve their people. Indeed, as would be expected, various articles in Homiletic and Pastoral Review 1 have discussed how the coronavirus crisis is affecting priestly ministry. My aim is to put issues that have emerged through this situation in dialogue with an unlikely commentator, the eleventh-century Doctor of the Church Saint Peter Damian, in order to suggest that during this crisis and through social media we are discovering a unique way to preach the Real Presence of Christ.
Saint Peter Damian (1007-1073) was a prodigious writer of letters. Indeed, we can say that he effectively used the social media of his day, letter writing, to influence, promote ideas and to teach. His letters were sent to royalty, popes, and common folk. They focused on a range of topics, from the problem of chastity among priests and bishops addressed in Liber Gomorrhianus 2 and directed to Pope Leo IX, to letters remarking on ordinary challenges such as living with one’s mother-in-law.
In Dominus Vobiscum he reports that hermits who routinely celebrate Mass alone in their cells have asked him, “Are we to ask a blessing of the stones or from the boards of the cell or to say to them, ‘The Lord be with you?’”3 Saint Peter Damian responded with an enthusiastic yes! Ask for the blessing and give the blessing, he says! The enthusiasm of this Doctor of the Church for what might seem like liturgical minutia should cause us to ask what he might say in our day to priests celebrating Mass alone out of necessity and how he might understand the phenomena of Mass celebrated via social media, or Mass ad Digitalem, as it has been called in this periodical.4
Saint Peter Damian passionately believed that even when alone in his cell and celebrating Mass without a congregation, the priest-hermit should say all the words of the Mass and even say the responses, “The Lord be with you,” and “Let us Pray.” “Truly the Church of Christ is so joined together by the bond of love that in many it is one, and in each it is mystically complete,” he wrote. He is directing us toward a profound Christian mystery that “we believe each individual soul, by the mystery of baptism, to be the whole Church.” He asks again, “Why should we wonder if any priest, who is undoubtedly a part of the body of the Church, should function all alone in the place both of him who greets and of him who is greeted by saying: ‘The Lord be with you,’ and then responding: ‘And with your spirit?’” Saint Peter Damian would tell us that during this time of sheltering in place “the whole Church . . . rightly called the one and only bride of Christ” is present in its fullness, whole and entire, in each of our own baptized bodies.” So, when celebrating the Mass without a congregation, he would encourage celebrants to recognize the Church’s mystical presence even in its physical absence by not only saying each of the celebrant’s words in the missal, but also the words of the absent congregation.5
While celebrating a Mass via Zoom or some other social media platform, one might legitimately question if it would be aesthetically pleasing for the priest to say both parts of the Mass. Certainly, one can imagine that having reflected deeply on how to prayerfully perform both roles, some priests would do this well. However, many others would not. Therefore, a priest might consider saying the priest’s parts and then taking a moment to imagine the congregation responding before going on with the Mass. In fact, even if the priest is assisted by one or two others, it would be spiritually efficacious to imagine a host of others responding, “And with your spirit!” By listening closely to this sort of intrapersonal communication, we are made more fully aware of the mystical unity of the whole Church, which Saint Peter Damian identified, existing in our bodies.
Intrapersonal communication can be described as internal talk. However, scholars sometimes use the term “Imagined Interactions” to refer to a fuller understanding of what happens within us. Words and nonverbal cues, as well as emotions, converge to create an interaction and for this reason they prefer the term to “internal talk” or “internal dialogue.” When we recall a situation from the past, we recall every detail: what we said, how we felt, how we moved. Likewise, when we imagine an important conversation that we will have in the coming days, we try to anticipate words, feelings, movements in order that all will go the way we hope. Imagining the Church present, even in its physical absence, is critical during this time of the coronavirus.
Modern Communication Studies would support the opinion that when celebrating Mass without a congregation, the priest should say even the parts of those not present. Scholars have pointed out that by routinely imagining interactions and talking to ourselves, we work to sustain relationships and manage conflicts. Individuals maintain an emotional relationship with another (or conversely, a difficult relationship) by remembering experiences or anticipating them. Married couples involved in long-distance relationships report that imaginative interactions with their beloved helps to preserve marital commitment. We all know the experience of rehearsing a personal story that causes us to relive positive or negative emotions. We know from daily experience what it is like to rehearse a situation so that things will go the way we hope.6
If we know that imagining interactions helps us in other areas of life, it seems all the more important to imagine interactions around the altar, especially during this time when the number of those able to attend Mass is greatly reduced. It is important to imagine the interaction of all of our people: the woman who is shut alone in her house; the child who wants to run around and play; the man who wandered in, though he is not sure why. Imagining these interactions within our individual selves, as the whole church, is a way of sustaining our personal commitment to the people we serve and preparing ourselves for that day when they are able to join together physically around the altar. Indeed, it is a way of being present to the reality of the church around us, even in its physical absence.
The philosopher Gabriel Marcel wrote, “A complete concrete knowledge of oneself cannot be self-centered.” He suggested, we come to know ourselves through fidelity to others. “We can understand ourselves by starting from the other, or from others, and only by starting from them,” he said.7 So, we can say that imagining interactions with the faithful around the altar is a way nurturing fidelity not only with our truest self, which is centered in the other, but also to the community, physically absent. As long as we attend to our fidelity to others, the whole Church is present with us around the altar, just as it is present in each of the baptized. Marcel even suggests that there may be a correlation between a lack of fidelity to self and others and loss of belief in God. Social media is offering us a way to connect spiritually, making us aware of fidelity to one another while sustaining belief in God.
Some have discounted the digital efforts of priests to sustain their communities through Masses and other forms of prayer offered via social media. However, I would argue that these efforts are of the utmost importance. They demonstrate an awareness that our self-identity as Catholic Christians is communal; it is rooted in fidelity to others whom we love and who love us. This fidelity is paramount to ensuring that belief in God does not dissipate. In an age when, according to a Pew Research Poll,8 the Real Presence is denied by 7 out of 10 Catholics, Mass ad Digitalem is important. It reminds us that the Church benefits from every mass that is celebrated since Christ, who is always faithful to us, makes Himself intimately present through the Eucharist. Through the celebration of every Eucharist, we exercise fidelity to God who shows fidelity to us.
In a particular way, Mass ad Digitalem reflects the mystery of the Eucharist. Indeed, it does this in a way not ordinary possible by offering a different kind of intimacy. Take, for example, the extended family globally dispersed at a time of bereavement and loss. With the death of a loved one, when travel restrictions prevented them from being physically present — though only the priest was able to be with the body — 150 family members joined in celebration and prayerful remembrance through social media. From different cities and even continents they were they were remote, even isolated, but vitally present and connected. The Church was able to exercise fidelity to these family members through its virtual presence in their family rooms and kitchens. This fidelity to what it means to be Church manifested the Real Presence of Christ, not only in the Eucharist consumed only by the priest, but also in the hearts of the bereaved.
Distinction must be made between “On-line Religion” and “Religion On-line.” Religion On-line is described as utilizing the internet simply in order to provide information, while On-line Religion actually offers the possibility to participate on-line. Some would say that there is a continuum between the two polls of On-line Religion and Religion On-line. For example, many churches offer the opportunity to submit prayer requests through their website. However, while this does offer some degree of on-line participation, it is minimal. Others, however, utilize modern social media to offer full participation on-line. Certainly, until coronavirus, most Catholic churches would have been much closer to being described as Religion On-Line. Overnight, many Catholic parishes became identified with On-line Religion.9 While nobody is hoping that we remain an On-line Religion, certainly, we Catholics have been pushed into the deep end. We are learning lessons. Most especially, we are learning how social media can intensify our fidelity to one another and sustain our faith in God.
Somewhat cynically, the hermit-priests asked Saint Peter Damian, “Are we to ask a blessing of the stones or from the boards of the cell or to say to them, ‘The Lord be with you?’” Of course, they were missing the point. It seems they had forgotten that they carried the entire mystical body of the Church within themselves. Or perhaps they didn’t believe it.
Celebrating Mass alone during the lockdowns has reminded many priests that they are not alone. Those confined to their homes, watching their own priest celebrate the Eucharist, knew they were not forgotten. Fidelity was nurtured. Priest and laity were reminded that the whole church is in them, as it is for all the baptized. Of course, Saint Peter Damian was unaware of anything like modern social media. But if he were, wouldn’t he understand that through it we catch a glimpse of what it means to always be surrounded by the church?
Even as churches reopen, the number of those able to attend Masses will continue to be greatly restricted and there will still be those left far from the altar who should not be forgotten. Priests should be encouraged to understand that Mass ad Digitalem will be with us for some time to come and may be a part of what will become a “new normal.” And this is not a bad thing, since social media allows a unique and intimate way to strengthen our fidelity to others and thereby to strengthen fidelity to God.
- See Marc B. Caron, “Mass in Time of Pandemic,” Homiletic & Pastoral Review, 28 Apr. 2020, http://www.hprweb.com/2020/04/mass-in-time-of-pandemic/; John Nepil, “Absence — the Appeal for Love’s Presence,” Homiletic & Pastoral Review, 28 Apr. 2020, www.hprweb.com/2020/04/absence-the-appeal-for-loves-presence/.
- Peter Damian, The Book of Gomorrah: and St. Peter Damian’s Struggle against Ecclesiastical Corruption, trans. Matthew Cullinan Hoffman (New Braunfels, TX: Ita Ad Thomam Books and Media, 2015).
- Peter J. Damian, The Letters of Peter Damian, 1-30, trans. Owen J. Blum, vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1989), 256.
- Patrick F. Welsh and Thomas J. Dailey, “Mass Ad Digitalem.” Homiletic & Pastoral Review, Ignatius Press, 28 Apr. 2020, www.hprweb.com/2020/04/mass-ad-digitalem/.
- Damian, The Letters of Peter Damian, 262.
- Renée Edwards, et al., “Imagined Interaction as an Element of Social Cognition,” Western Journal of Speech Communication, Apr. 1988, pp. 23–45.
- Quoted in Aidan Nichols, “Gabriel Marcel, Philosopher of Mystery: A Centenary Appraisal,” New Blackfriars, vol. 70, no. 828, June 1989, pp. 294.
- Gregory A. Smith, “Just One-Third of U.S. Catholics Agree with Their Church That Eucharist Is Body, Blood of Christ,” Pew Research Center, 5 Aug. 2019, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/08/05/transubstantiation-eucharist-u-s-catholics/.
- Christopher Helland, “Online Religion as Lived Religion,” Academia.edu – Share Research, 1 Jan. 2005, http://www.academia.edu/.
Fr. Edward Linton, O.S.B., a monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, was ordained in 1991. He currently serves as Director of the Institute for Continuing Theological Education (ICTE) at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, Italy. Fr. Edward holds an M.Div. from Saint Meinrad School of Theology, an M.A. in English Literature from Middlebury College and a PhD in the Philosophy of Communication from Southern Illinois University. Previously, he has served as a College teacher, associate pastor, pastor, monastic guest master and Director of International Benedictine Formation at the Badia Primaziale di Sant ’Anselmo, Rome.3
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