On Live Streaming the Mass
FEBRUARY 12, 2021 BY FR. CHRISTOPHER SEITH
In an article written in 1953, the German philosopher Josef Pieper raises an alarm about the TV-transmission of the Mass that, at first, sounds hyperbolic and out of date. He seems horrified at what, for us, has become the norm. He argues that what takes place at Mass is so intimate and sacred that to broadcast this event on TV amounts to an act of profanation. He says:
Anyone who dares to photograph the face of a person while he is immersed in prayer or while as a believer he receives the Body of Christ, and not by chance and in passing (as may happen sometimes on special occasions) but intentionally as part of a plan; and anyone who . . . presumes to expose the faithful to the camera in such a situation must consider that he is thereby committing an act of profanation which differs only in degree from the publicizing by film of a birth, a death, and an act of reproduction.[Josef Pieper, “On the TV Transmission of Mass (1953)” in Traditional Truth, Poetry, Sacrament, trans. Daniel Farrelly (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2019), 196.]
For those of us living in the midst of a pandemic, these damning words seem hopelessly antiquated. At this point, a priest who chooses not to broadcast Mass on the Internet seems to lack evangelical zeal and pastoral care. Can Pieper really mean to condemn a practice that has borne such good fruit, especially in the lives of the sick and home-bound? Would he prefer that people who cannot be physically present simply suffer the absence of Mass?
As extreme as his position may seem, I think it necessary to reflect seriously on his concern. At the very least, he is looking at the issue by first reflecting on what happens when someone celebrates the Mass, something that many of us have failed to do. We tend to be overly practical. At the outset of the pandemic, we encountered a problem: it became dangerous to attend Mass. And our gut reaction was, “how do we fix this?” Pieper, instead, primarily wants to understand what is taking place. I begin this article with his (perhaps) exaggerated argument because it encourages us to slow down and simply look at what we are doing. Only when we understand what happens at Mass and what takes place when we live stream an event can we start looking at solutions. As we look to the eventual end of the pandemic and a return to normal human interaction, we would do well to reflectively examine what we as a Church have done over the course of the last year. If we fail to do so, my fear is that we will move further away from a sacramental view of reality, replacing a world of depth and adventure with a world of easily accessible but flat and superficial commodities.
My argument will be that the sacraments (and the Mass, in particular) demand that those who receive them adopt a position before God and reality that is opposed to that adopted by those in front of a screen. As visible, tangible signs, the sacraments communicate grace to the person who is immersed in the world of the sacrament itself. They require their recipients to conform themselves to that world if they wish to encounter the God who communicates his life through these sacraments. By contrast, the screen requires no such conformity. Whatever is communicated through a screen is brought into the individual’s world. The posture adopted by those in front of a screen is not one of humble receptivity, but rather of control. The encounter with God and immersion into his life that the sacraments provide simply cannot be communicated through a screen. The message does not fit the medium. As useful as the screen is for proclaiming the Gospel, it is ill-equipped to transmit the encounter with God that one has through the sacraments. Thus, although there are strong reasons for live streaming the Mass, there are stronger reasons to refrain from it lest we lose sight of what the Mass (and the sacramental encounter with God in general), in fact, is.
By making this argument, I do not intend to malign those who decided to broadcast their Masses via live stream. The faithful were (and in some cases, still are) starving for the Eucharist. Many priests have felt like fathers who have not been allowed to feed their children. It has been a horribly painful experience. But in the midst of this pandemic, fundamental questions are being allowed to surface. How does one encounter God? What, really, is the importance of the body in that encounter? Did Christ really mean to communicate his life principally through physical realities that are so tied to time and space? Answering these questions, which pierce to the heart of what it means to be human, will help us better understand our present spiritual situation. More importantly, it will help us understand the intimate encounter with God that Christ offers in the sacraments, especially in the Eucharist. From there, bishops and priests will better know how they can effectively feed the faithful. Indeed, understanding our present spiritual state may reawaken in us a longing for union with God and a resolve to fight for a more authentic human existence in the midst of our technological world.
To begin, we must understand the world of signs to which the sacraments belong. Signs, primarily, are visible, tangible realities that communicate to someone a reality that is not immediately perceptible.1 In antiquity, all visible reality was perceived as a sign of an invisible reality. Whether it be Plato’s theory of the forms or Augustine’s awareness of all creation speaking of the Creator, the visible world was seen as a sign that referred to something otherwise imperceptible to man.
In addition to the sign-value of visible creation, people can turn natural things into signs in order to communicate something to another person.2 For example, when someone takes two pieces of wood and makes a cross and then places this on the side of a highway, he turns a natural thing into a sign that refers to an event: someone’s death by car accident. Of course, for someone to understand the message communicated through this sign, one must be immersed in the context that gives the sign meaning. To a local who was present at the accident, the sign communicates, “Joe, my next-door neighbor, died here three years ago during the snowstorm.” To someone less immersed in the context, the sign says only, “someone died here.” And to someone even more distant the sign says merely, “I am a sign.” Thus, the ability for signs like this to communicate their message depends in large part on the understanding of the person who sees it.3
Furthermore, these signs are bound by space and time. The cross on the side of the highway speaks only to those who are physically present. And if someone were to move the cross into his bedroom because he liked how it looked, its meaning would change. It would no longer refer to a car accident, but to the death of Christ. The sign’s location itself is part of its meaning.
Physical signs like this, by demanding that the observer be immersed in their context in order to understand the meaning, communicate a depth of meaning to those who understand them. They do not merely give information; they provide the context in which that information can be understood. The person physically present at the cross on the side of the highway enters the world of those who remember the event. Unfortunately, however, these signs do not say much to someone who is not so immersed in the context. So while there is a depth of meaning, there is a dearth of information.
I have needed to examine this feature of physical signs (that they can only be understood by those immersed in the context) because we live in a world of commodities which has little patience for them.4 Why go through the lengthy and difficult process of being conformed to something in order to understand it when I can extract information without so much trouble? If Joe’s car accident were posted to YouTube, I could remain safely in the comfort of my own home and gain more information about the event than the person who visits the cross on the side of the highway. We no longer see the goal of signs to be that of immersing us in reality, but rather of merely communicating information. For us, to “know” something does not mean to be united to that which one knows, but to have a commodity.5
We find ourselves, then, in a rather difficult situation when we try to understand the sacraments. Admittedly, sacraments are more than signs. They do not merely communicate a message; they actually make present that to which they refer. Nevertheless, they do so by means of physical signs. As such, if someone wants to receive what they communicate, he must be immersed in the context that gives them meaning. They have little to communicate to the person who is not so immersed.6
This is evident in the life of Christ who is the fundamental sacrament.7 Those who did not follow him, who did not conform themselves to his life by faith, could not understand the message he shared. Because they did not know Christ, because they were not united to him, they did not know the Father. Those who only wanted information were sorely disappointed. In Jesus Christ, God does not give information; he gives himself.
This is true also for the sacraments. As physical signs, they offer more than information about God. They cannot be reduced to commodities that are in one’s power. Rather, only those who enter into the sacraments’ world can truly receive the grace they communicate. One must “go out,” as it were, from his own neatly controlled environment and enter into a world in which he is not sovereign. This is what distinguishes the sacraments from magic. Magic seeks to put divine power in human control through a series of rituals.8 The sacraments, by contrast, are not subject to the human will. They are “instituted by Christ.” When someone celebrates a sacrament, he implicitly conforms himself to the will of Christ. In the sacramental world, God reigns.
Before examining what any of this has to do with live streaming the Mass, it is important to reflect on God’s decision to communicate his life to us through the sacraments. There is no question he could have used more powerful means of revealing himself. Indeed, it is part of the mystery of God that, when he raised Jesus from the dead, he “granted that he be seen, not by all, but only by such witnesses as had been chosen beforehand by God, by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” Apparently, God is not terribly concerned about popularity or about widespread acclaim. What he is interested in is communion of life. He is interested in our love.9 He does not offer us information; he offers us himself. Thus, although his invitation is open to all, the message he wishes to communicate can only be heard by those who are willing to accept his sovereignty and live by faith. By choosing the sacraments as the primary means of communicating his life to us, we learn the intimacy he desires us to have with him.
From this reflection on signs and the sacramental encounter with God, it becomes possible to understand Pieper’s concern about transmitting the Mass on TV and more importantly, what is taking place when we broadcast the Mass via live stream. Whatever someone knows through the Internet is at his disposal, able to be accessed according to his will. One does not need to wait for someone to reveal herself to me. Rather, someone can know about another without that person even knowing. The screen does not demand patient conformity to that which one desires to know. I remain comfortably in my world, where I reign. And that which I know becomes a commodity, wholly in my control.
This is not to say that the Internet is thereby evil. Certainly, I am extremely grateful that I can know about a restaurant before going to it (back when we used to be able to go to restaurants . . .). Likewise, it is nice to see what a park looks like before going for a walk there. But it is important to be aware of the commodifying process of information that takes place when someone seeks to know something through the Internet. When I look up a restaurant, I am shown other restaurants that are similar to that one. When I buy something online, I am encouraged to look at other items in which I might be interested. Everything centers on me. The screen does not take me outside of myself.
Pieper’s alarm, then, does not seem quite so absurd. What occurs at Mass is the most intimate encounter between God and the individual as the celebrant offers himself, in union with Jesus Christ, to the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit. It demands a letting go of control, a stepping out of oneself into the world of God. It is not a magic trick by which someone, through a ritual, transmits divine life according to his fancy. Rather, only by letting go does the person enter into communion with God at Mass. This “letting go,” however, leaves the person participating at Mass in a rather exposed position. Pieper argues that when receiving the Eucharist, the believer “[dares] to acknowledge and proclaim publicly, without embarrassment, the hidden foundation of his existence: ‘Lord, I am not worthy . . .’ This, however, inevitably leaves him extremely vulnerable and defenseless, in need of protection from outside uncommitted onlookers.”10 The one receiving the Eucharist is due the silence and separation becoming to lovers. The proper means of communicating that intimacy is through the sacramental encounter with God in the Eucharist. The screen, for all its benefits, is powerless to transmit that which the Eucharist gives. Indeed, it can expose the faithful, in their most vulnerable moment, to the mockery of the imperceptive masses.11 bring them all into the trashy sphere, that is, within the reach of the masses.”]
At this point, two objections come to the fore. First, it would seem that, although live streaming the Mass is clearly not ideal, it is certainly better than nothing. Why should we let the ideal become the enemy of the good? This argument, however, is setting up a false dichotomy. It assumes that, without live streaming the Mass, the faithful would simply have nothing to receive from the Church. This is simply false. When a husband and wife, for legitimate reasons, do not come together in the marital embrace, they do not simply abandon all expressions of love. Rather, they creatively find other ways of showing love. To say that we must live stream the Mass for the faithful to receive God’s love through the Church is like saying that for a husband and wife to show love to each other while they are physically separated, they must somehow engage in sexual intimacy through a screen. It is a false and dangerous assumption.
Instead, a period of time without Mass is an opportunity for the domestic church to come to life. The family, led by the father and mother, could pray the Liturgy of the Hours. They could pray the Angelus together at the appointed times. There is a treasure trove of prayers and devotions that the faithful can engage in during these difficult and painful times. Certainly, I am not arguing that such prayers and devotions give the same grace that the Mass gives. To be without Mass is a real source of suffering that cannot be overcome simply by turning to other prayers. What I am saying, however, is that watching the Mass in front of a screen also fails to give what the Mass gives. And doing so has the additional drawback of obscuring the sacramental encounter with God.
Priests, meanwhile, should be using the Internet to reach out to their flock. It provides a wellspring of opportunities for the prophetic ministry of the Church, as Bishop Barron and others have shown so well. Just because the Internet is not the right medium for the Mass, this does not mean that it is not the right medium for any of the Church’s ministries. Having said that, I wonder if the unquestioned readiness to live stream the Mass has made bishops and priests too willing to give up on finding creative ways of celebrating Mass for the people. If we did not have this option, would churches have been more willing to fight to bring Christ to the faithful? Would we have been more sensitive to people’s pain as they suffer the absence of Mass and so seek more satisfying solutions? Obviously, this would have to be done prudently. But I think the ease of live streaming has stunted the creative energy of the Church.
The second objection against my argument looks at the very real ways that the TV Mass and the live streamed Mass has benefitted those who are sick and homebound. Am I suggesting that the grace that has come through these means is manufactured and fake? To respond, it is important to recognize, first, that God communicates grace apart from the sacraments. The sacraments are privileged channels of grace for the faithful, but they are not the only ones. I am not suggesting that those who watch Mass on TV do not receive grace. Rather, I am arguing that they are not having a sacramental encounter with God. And to the extent that broadcasting the Mass online obscures that encounter, I think it dangerous.
Second, I wonder if the sick and homebound would be better served by some means other than broadcasting the Mass online. Admittedly, in exceptional circumstances the Church allows the Mass to be broadcast on the screen.12 But if we chose not to live stream Mass, would we find other, more fruitful ways of bringing Christ to those who suffer? I do not doubt that people have had genuine experiences of God’s love while watching the Mass online. But it seems to me that there is a tendency in the Church to choose, as the primary substitute to celebrating public Masses, the last in a series of other far more fruitful possibilities.
Nevertheless, the primary concern about live streaming the Mass is that Christ instituted this saving memorial of the Cross for the sake of offering his flock the most intimate encounter with God possible this side of heaven. At the very least, live streaming the Mass confuses that for which the Mass exists. The medium of the screen is not the right medium to communicate this intimate message. Before we make this a norm, we would do well to reflect on the great and intimate gift that the Lord has given us in offering us himself in the Eucharistic sacrifice. It is fitting that such intimacy be communicated through the sacraments, with all their spatial and temporal limitations, rather than through a screen.
- Cf. “Sign and Symbol as the Language of Christian Faith,” in Exercises in the Elements: Essays — Speeches — Notes, trans. Daniel Farrelly (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2019), 58-75.
- For an extensive study on communication through signs and the transformation of communication that has taken place through digital media, cf. Albert Borgmann, Holding On to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 17-23.
- Borgman, Holding On to Reality, 37.
- In Letters from Lake Cuomo, Romano Guardini discusses technology’s transformation from that which creates culture to that which creates commodities. Cf. Romano Guardini, Letters from Lake Cuomo: Explorations in Technology and the Human Race, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1994), 12. Cf. also Albert Borgmann, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), 42.
- Nicholas Carr examines Google’s unique role of commodifying our understanding of what it means to have knowledge. Cf. Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember (London: Atlantic Books, 2010), 152.
- Cf. Ambrose, “On the Mysteries” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 10, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. H. de Romestin, E. de Romestin, and H.T.F. Duckworth (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 317. Ambrose shares with the newly baptized the reason for delaying their instruction in “the Mysteries” until after their having received the Sacraments of Initiation. If they had been taught them beforehand, they would have had the illusion of knowing something that could only be understood by those who were themselves immersed in the event of the Redemption by their baptism.
- Edward Schillebeeckx, Christ: The Sacrament of the Encounter with God (New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1963), 15.
- Cf. Josef Pieper, “The Sacred and its Negation” in In Search of the Sacred: Contributions to an Answer, trans. Lothar Krauth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 36.
- Cf. Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, trans. Philip J. Whitmore (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), 267.
- Pieper, “The Sacred and its Negation,” 35.
- Cf. Guardini, Letters from Lake Cuomo, 60-61. Here, Guardini beautifully articulates whatever happens to that which is shown on a screen: “. . . here everything is made showy and trashy — and the more hopelessly so, the greater the technical perfection. So it is with everything. Whatever figures of history or art films lay hold of they destroy. They [films
- Cf. Pope Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2007), no. 57.
About Fr. Christopher Seith
Rev. Christopher Seith was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington in 2014. In 2017, he began his doctoral studies at Catholic University, while living at St. John Paul II Seminary. In the spring of 2020, he successfully defended his dissertation in which he examined Josef Pieper’s thought to argue that digital devices, unless they are used in a way contrary to their intended use, will imprison their users within a workaday world and damage their ability to joyfully celebrate the divine mysteries. He is currently the Director of Spiritual Formation at the seminary.