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Ordained in 2011, Father Friel served for five years as Parochial Vicar at St. Anselm Parish in Northeast Philly. He is currently studying toward an STL in sacred liturgy at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
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“For any member of laity, who is at least somewhat literate, the ignorance of the Latin tongue, which we can call a truly Catholic language, indicates a certain lack of affection towards the Church.”
— Pope Pius IX

Should the Liturgy Be Televised?
published 15 November 2015 by Fr. David Friel

NEW BOOK released in September 2015 is well worth your purchase and reading. From the pen of Fr. Uwe Michael Lang, it is entitled Signs of the Holy One: Liturgy, Ritual, and Expression of the Sacred. Like all of Fr. Lang’s writings, this book is timely and insightful.

Fr. Lang is a member of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri. In addition to his teaching at Heythrop College, he is also a board member of the Society for Catholic Liturgy and serves as editor of that society’s journal, Antiphon.

This new book wrestles with two separate questions. The first two chapters concern the various non-verbal “languages” through which the liturgy speaks. This section readily accepts that modern society has become what Ratzinger once called a “culture of images” (Introduction to the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, xvii). The next three chapters deal more pointedly with issues confronting the disciplines of sacred architecture, sacred art, and sacred music.

N BETWEEN these two sections, the author includes what he calls an “excursus” on the topic of liturgy in the mass media. It is this brief (seven page) section on which I would chiefly like to focus.

The author first acknowledges three main reasons why the broadcasting of liturgical celebrations has been generally accepted:

1. First, telecast Masses sustain the presence of the Church in the public sphere, allowing a wide diffusion for her central and most significant act of divine worship.
2. Secondly, telecast Masses provide a service for those who are not able to take part physically at a liturgical celebration (those who are hospitalized, homebound, or imprisoned).
3. Thirdly, broadcasts of liturgical celebrations in the mass media can be a useful tool for evangelization and catechesis. (Lang, 63)

Like many other places, Philadelphia has a locally televised Mass that airs every Sunday morning. I have participated in these Masses numerous times over the years, originally as a musician and later as a priest. More recently, I was involved in televised Masses throughout the week of the World Meeting of Families (photos here, reflection here). Without a doubt, the airing of these liturgies has enabled many people to see the proceedings who would otherwise be unable to do so. This can certainly bear significant spiritual fruit while bringing about both healing & comfort. Nevertheless, my experiences with televised Masses have raised some concerns in my mind. The same appears to be true for Fr. Lang and others.

Karl Rahner and Josef Pieper—representatives of two very different Catholic perpectives—both rejected liturgical broadcasts outright. 1 According to Fr. Lang, the major objection raised by Pieper is that the liturgy “requires a threshold or even barrier that clearly distinguishes it from the sphere of the quotidian (the street and the marketplace). This threshold is mitigated, removed, or simply ignored by a telecast Mass” (Lang, 64). To televise the liturgy for all to see is certainly a far cry from the disciplina arcani embraced by Christians of the early centuries.

Another issue with liturgical broadcasts is that the sacred liturgy is designed to be “a unique event in time” (Lang, 65). Broadcasts, however, may be watched and re-watched without regard to the proper setting of the liturgy as it was celebrated in real time. Fr. Lang raises further questions about whether watching a televised Mass can in any way satisfy the demand for “full, conscious, and actual participation” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, #14). It is more natural to think of television viewers as spectators than as participants.

Finally, the excursus concludes with reference to the scant Church guidelines established for liturgical broadcasts, including a 1980 Instruction from the CDW entitled Inaestimabile Donum, which states: “Particular vigilance and special care are recommended with regard to Masses transmitted by the audio-visual media. Given their very wide diffusion, their celebration must be of exemplary quality” (#19). The other guidelines mentioned include the need for close governance by the local bishop, the preference for live telecasts, attention to proper ars celebrandi, and the need for discretion in accompanying the broadcast with commentary.

HESE ISSUES are fascinating to me. While I don’t think there are perfect answers to every pitfall of televised liturgies, these matters definitely warrant thoughtful consideration. What benefits or limitations do you see in the broadcasting of liturgies? Should such telecasts be encouraged or discouraged, permitted or forbidden? What other ecclesial guidelines might be useful? (Your input is again quite welcome via Facebook comments.)

This new book from Fr. Lang is easy to read, thoughtfully arranged, and rich in homage to the teachings of Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI. I am certain that anyone who enjoys reading Views from the Choir Loft will also enjoy reading Signs of the Holy One.


1   K. Rahner, “Die Messe und das Fernsehen,” Orientierung 7 (1953): 179-83; J. Pieper, “Zur Fernseh-Ubertragung der Heiligen Messe (1953),” in Pieper, Werke, vol. 7, Religionsphilosophische Schriften, ed. B. Wald (Hamburg: Felix Meiner, 2000), 587-90.