‘Is it time to turn on church yet?” In normal times, this would be a bizarre question for most families to ask. Yet here we are. Public, communal church services have been among the victims of the coronavirus pandemic. So, church on television it is.
For Catholics, Sunday Mass attendance is ordinarily an obligation from which we are not lightly released. We Catholics are not alone. Most major faith traditions in the United States have some sort of weekly communal liturgy. Church on Sunday is a venerable institution among Christians of all stripes, regardless of whether it is strictly required. Weekly services are common to Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh congregations and communities alike.
Nearly all of those in-person gatherings are suspended right now across all faiths, throughout the country and around much of the world. One of the earliest signs of the gravity and global reach of the pandemic came when the Saudi government announced in early March that it would close Mecca to foreign pilgrims during the annual hajj. In Rome, not far from one of the epicenters of the pandemic, Pope Francis will celebrate Easter from a largely empty St. Peter’s Basilica for a television audience. He will do so without the customary 5 million visitors a year who crowd the Basilica square. Catholic dioceses, ours among them, have issued dispensations from the obligation of Sunday Mass. Less centralized Protestant denominations have made decisions on a church-by-church basis.
Most everything about a Catholic Mass is built around the physical gathering of a community. This is not surprising, coming from a tradition that stretches back almost 2,000 years. The churches themselves are laid out for close-quarters seating and processions, not for television broadcasting. The Mass is full of call-and-response prayers and songs. The sign of peace, once conveyed with a kiss, is today typically a handshake. The handshake has been a frequent victim even of regular flu season and may be headed for permanent extinction after the current pandemic. The centerpiece of the Mass is Communion: the believers’ encounter with the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The liturgy surrounding the Eucharist is a commemoration of the Last Supper, itself a communal breaking of bread.
Now, we gather around a screen. The liturgy is still there, but the community and the physical presence are not. Many faith traditions are going online, often forcing un-tech-savvy clerics into uncharted waters. Conservative Jews who need a minyan of ten to conduct a prayer service have been improvising over Zoom. This does not work for everyone, however. The Mormon Church has closed all temples, postponing services, such as some weddings and baptisms, that can take place only in a temple ceremony. Orthodox Jews’ strict no-technology rules for Sabbath observance (drawn from the rule against working on the Sabbath) make it impossible to hold services.
For the faithful at home, picking a Mass on television or the Internet raises a number of unfamiliar questions: Should we watch the local parish Mass, the bishop, or the pope? Should we tune in live, or record it? If so, when should we watch? My wife is a morning person; my oldest daughter, abruptly and involuntarily home from college, is not. Trading in a fixed Mass schedule for contents of the DVR opens up a much more fluid negotiation over when to tune in. We gather on sofas in the den.
The first Sunday at home, we record the bishop’s Mass. The bishop, being a modern bishop, seems at home on television, but the absence around him is palpable. Catholic priests are required to say Mass daily even if there is no public Mass to celebrate, so it is second nature to go through the ritual without a congregation. But not at the altar of a large, empty cathedral. The cantor gamely leads the congregation in song, but there is no one to sing along.
The quiet and emptiness are felt across faith traditions. Al Jazeera quoted a weeping muezzin who ordinarily sings the call to prayer at Riyadh’s Al Rajhi Grand Mosque: “This feeling is indescribable. . . . The minarets are crying. The mosques were once full of worshippers.”
In church, we know the cues and responses by heart, and if the mind wanders, we follow the crowd. Sitting on a couch at home, not dressed for church, what do you do? Stand, sit, and kneel at the appropriate times? Sing along? Even in a family accustomed to saying prayers together in the home, it feels uncomfortable to act as if we were in a crowded church. Man’s desire for the divine is natural; liturgy is not. It is practiced. The role of the congregation in making it feel normal to participate in Mass is underrated until you try to do it without one.
Mass in the best of times is a tug of war between a prayerful mindset and a drifting attention span. That, too, is easier when you have gone to the effort of separating yourself from the home. With the distractions of home nearby, and without the familiar setting of the pews, it is harder to concentrate.
The second Sunday at home, we attempt to record the bishop’s Mass again, but the DVR starts recording it midway through. This is a hazard of ordinary television programming that we are not normally accustomed to facing with Sunday Mass. Rather than watch half a Mass, we opt for the local parish Mass, which is on YouTube. Can we play it on the TV screen? Our youngest suggests that we can run a YouTube video through the Wii, but we are not going to church on a Wii. We plug in a laptop. The recording has a few technical hiccups, but thankfully nothing as mortifying as the viral video of a priest in Italy who accidentally broadcast Mass with ridiculous animated hats and glasses imposed on him by automated filters. Christians are called to be “fools for Christ”; broadcasting or attending Mass remotely requires a willingness to risk a good deal of feeling foolish.
It is announced that the pope will offer a global blessing on a Friday afternoon. We tune in, expecting a short prayer, and the service runs for an hour of the workday. There’s that itch of distraction again. But popes since medieval times have been calling for universal prayer; how often have most of us actually tuned in to experience it live, at the same time, as Catholics all over the globe facing a common challenge? Pope Francis speaks into the dark, rain-slicked expanse of a square where people would ordinarily press in upon him from all sides. We may not be in communion, but we are not alone.
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