IVE STREAMED Masses have become ubiquitous. Parishes have found ways to adapt to technology so as to reach the faithful via their computers and in their homes. Many, many people are genuinely grateful to their parishes and pastors for creating this way of staying in contact and offering Mass in the only way possible for now. Without diving into the ongoing conversation about the absence of public Masses and the loss of the Sacraments to the faithful, I would like to offer some thoughts about possible long-term effects that watching live streamed Masses from home may have on all of us, especially if we are forced to continue this practice for much longer. Perhaps these consequences have already begun to take hold.
Consequences and Fears
1) Most parishes were probably not set up to become television production studios, yet many have made amazing strides and gotten very good at it. Multiple cameras, fade ins and cross fades, close ups and long shots, each week’s installment is better than the last. But is that a good thing? Even as production values increase, most parishes will probably never have the time or resources to become as adept as the non-denominational church that was, frankly, already built as a glorified TV studio. Nor do we want to, or need to. But if we take on some of those techniques and some of those production values, what will keep people from seeing that type of “screen” worship as just another option once the public celebration of Mass finally returns?
2) We all know that our attention spans are becoming eroded. Screens have done this to us. During live streamed Masses we can see people commenting, saying ‘hi’ to each other, thanking the priest, or asking why their internet is slow. This new participatio actuosa makes one question how much of the Mass we are actually seeing or hearing. And so we question, are those things we have been lamenting for years, the loss of reverence, solemnity, sacred silence, and perhaps most of all, belief in the Real Presence, being eroded like so many spans of attention?
3) Imagine the difference between live theater and a movie. Both are important parts of the artistic milieu of our culture, and both have value, but they reach their audiences in different ways. A high budget action movie is non-stop action and excitement, a visual and aural overload of the senses. Its appeal resides in keeping the audience constantly on the edge of their seats. A live play requires a different kind of participation. People have to relate in the here and now to living human beings, listen attentively to the spoken word, sometimes imagine things beyond what they see. We can watch a movie a hundred times over and it will always look and sound exactly the same, but a play is one and done. It will never be the same no matter how many times we go back to the theater. And let’s face it, movies are more popular than live theater. Screens have become equivalent, for the most part, with entertainment. Our screens give us constant, immediate, and usually quick bursts of satisfaction. We can look as long as we want, no investment required. If we don’t like it, we can move on. Not so in real life. The opposite of the captive audience, with an on-screen Mass, leaving is an easy thing to do. And if someone is not entertained, they can just change the channel.
4) Liturgy, derived from the Greek, was a work for the people, with service at its root. In Christian use it is the official public ritual of the Church. It is incumbent on a communal response and participation with both the Divine and those gathered. I wonder if live streamed Masses even qualify as liturgy? Let’s face it, watching a Mass on a screen with almost no one in the church is weird. It’s off, it’s not right. Even weirder might be the Mass that is pre-recorded. I understand that some places, perhaps a cathedral or a parish specifically created for television, need to pre-record to meet national broadcast standards and time constraints. No argument there. But if the rest of us are going offer real liturgy, let’s at least do it live. Otherwise, is it even liturgy?
What Will Happen When Public Masses Resume?
We all pray that people will return in huge numbers, and even that attendance will increase from what it was before the crisis. But some will still fear large crowds. Some at-risk folks may be required to stay at home a while longer. In this case, it may be necessary to continue to live stream. If so, the messaging needs to be clear – the live streamed Mass can never be a substitute for the real thing. It is only a medium in extraordinary times and circumstances. Yet, inevitably, some people will ask for it to continue. They will cite the convenience factor, or that their children away at college can tune in, or that they can hear it better from home. We cannot let our liturgy become inculturated by the medium. We cannot become entertainers. If our live streamed Masses become too good, too slick, too produced, we could have problems down the road. Let us pray that this crisis ends soon and that there will be no more need to turn our parishes and cathedrals into TV studios.