Going to Mass Online Makes One Mindful

Pope Francis leads the daily Santa Marta Mass at the Vatican, February 27, 2020. (Vatican Media/Handout via Reuters)
Absent in the body, present with the Lord.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE W hen she’s running late for Mass, a friend of mine asks her guardian angel to go ahead and stand in for her at the church until she arrives. So she told me once. A canon lawyer would say no. I might lightly mock her sentimentality if it didn’t touch on a crucial question. Catholics cherish the real presence, as we call it, of Christ in the Eucharist, the bread and wine consecrated by the priest at Mass, but what about our presence? Is that a mystery too?

It is possible to be at Mass in body but not in spirit. We can park our bones in the house of God while in our minds we wander the valley of the shadow of hell: Maybe we find the music insipid, the homily banal, and begin to murmur mentally about wasted time. We grow resentful as the priest, the lectors, and the music director tacitly conspire to lengthen every syllable, prolong the pauses between words, and make the music slow. The hymns are no less unmemorable for our having to wait as the organ drowns out the handful of congregants pretending to sing all 14 verses.

The sacrifice on the altar is a great brilliant fire. The ceremony in which it is concealed according to the liturgical conventions of mainstream contemporary Catholicism is a dull leaden lump of a furnace. It’s an encumbrance. I would blast it away and cut to the chase, the sacrifice, a ritual that the priest can accomplish at a dignified pace in 20 minutes. Granted, the wish to embellish and adorn the Mass may be sweet, but most parish liturgy committees aspire to more than they achieve, unless (would this be worse?) what they do achieve is exactly what they aspire to.

Pardon my grouchiness. The typical Sunday Mass in 2020 pleases most Catholics who regularly attend it. Most Catholics don’t regularly attend it. Their reasons for staying away vary. Some don’t believe what the Church teaches about the real presence, the resurrection of the body, apostolic succession, the intercession of the saints. Others believe, more or less, but not in the ability of the Church’s leaders to communicate the splendor of the truth of the faith.

I sympathize with that latter group of nominal Catholics even while joining the regular churchgoers. Practicing Catholics know the drill: “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass” (Code of Canon Law, can. 1247). (Note the word “participate.” I’ll come back to it.) The longstanding assumption among Catholics is that what constitutes a violation of our duty to participate is the failure to be physically present in a space where Mass is celebrated. Such a failure is a mortal sin.

You can understand why Catholics would settle on physical instead of mental presence as the criterion of participation. The line between being physically present and not physically present is, if not always indisputable, usually bright enough. How late can we arrive and still say that we went to Mass? (The most common answer, in my experience: No later than the beginning of the gospel.) How early can we leave? (After Communion, but not before? In any case, remember that we’re discouraged from cutting corners.)

I recently read that, according to the letter of canon law, we fulfill our obligation if we’re physically present anywhere on church property while Mass is being celebrated somewhere on it. Does that mean that we could spend the hour in the church parking lot, perhaps reading a book? The discussion online was theoretical and hedged with disclaimers: Be mindful that not everything that is lawful is recommended or beneficial. I confess that more than once I’ve walked out of Mass and gone to the Adoration chapel, to try to concentrate and pray.

Those who know Christianity only from a distance are often slow to recognize its emphasis on the corporeal: the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the largely biomedical and nutritive miracles that pervade the gospels. Catholics in particular appreciate devotions that are demonstrative and engage the whole body, as when a pilgrim travels to a holy place. We admire the power and the glory of the pious gesture and assume that the depth of the concomitant intention is probably commensurate. We forgive ourselves if it isn’t, figuring that by making the gesture we’ve made at least an act of will.

This Holy Week and Easter, given the pandemic, many of us feel deprived of the incarnational dimension of our faith as we pray the Mass while following it online. Good, if it jolts us from complacency, from an overestimation of the value of our bodily presence alone, from an overindulgence of our habit of mental absence during worship. From the other side of the screen on which I type these words, I’ve watched the pope say Mass in Rome. Whether my guardian angel flew there to represent me at the foot of the altar matters less than whether I cared enough to ask him.

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