Like many cultural Catholics from my home state of New Jersey, I was baptized, attended CCD on and off through the years, Sunday Mass perhaps a couple dozen times, and Christmas every other year. I knew enough that Sunday was somehow reserved for the Lord, but nothing of the precepts of the Church which require as binding on the faithful that among other things, the faithful attend Sunday Mass.
It was not until I was a teenager accidentally stumbling upon a rerun of The Frisco Kid that I had any sort of imaginative understanding of Sabbath. In the ‘70s Western, Rabbi Avram Belinski (Gene Wilder) falls in with a stranger (Harrison Ford) in his travels west to take up a post at a synagogue in San Francisco. They are soon pursued by a posse out to hang Ford’s character for robbing a bank. As the stranger saddles up to ride, the rabbi starts walking his horse. As the stranger argues the need for haste and reminds him of the imminent danger to their lives, the rabbi asks, “Why is this Saturday different from all other Saturdays?” To which the stranger responds, “Cause this Saturday there’s a hangin’ posse chasin’ us.” The rabbi walks away and the stranger finds himself frustrated but nonetheless follows. And Rabbi Avram will continue walking till finally the sun just sits below the distant mountains. The companion’s horses, now rested from the Sabbath, then fly from the exhausted posse that had been on the cusp of overtaking them.
I am not extolling the movie for any profundities, but simply observing that we live in a culture with little imaginative grounding for observing the third commandment. Already for the majority of practicing Catholics, our observance has shrunk to the 50 minutes we spend in Mass. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have read a lot of theoretical plans for how this presents an opportunity to rebuild Sunday in our Catholic imagination and restore the liturgy. What is harder to grasp is what, if any, change for the better is being implemented.
Writing now five months into the general dispensations that have been granted, and as cases of COVID-19 rise in my state of Kansas, I thought it worthwhile, given my familiarity with some of the alternatives to live-streaming Masses in the archdiocese, to jot down some notes on these alternatives for historical reasons and possibly as a vademecum for the near future. I will begin with some data from our archdiocese and end with some suggestions for improvement in the case of future restrictions.
Archdiocesan Liturgical Solutions
In March of 2020, a liturgist I know and admire in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas sent out a plea for help creating a mobile-friendly version of a Liturgy of the Hours at home. Having run a parish website before and knowing a modest amount of HTML and CSS, I volunteered to help. My part was the smallest in the operation, but it gave me a birds-eye view in the weeks and months that followed of the archdiocese coming to grips with how to minister to a quarantined flock.
As many parishes began the default response of live-streaming or recording Masses, this suburban parish of several thousand began to equip parishioners to say the Liturgy of the Hours. Soon, the archbishop got word of the effort and suggested the addition of the Sunday readings. With the head of liturgy for the archdiocese, they finally arrived at something the archdiocese called Our Sunday Supplication, which adapts the provision found in the General Instruction of the Hours for the combining of Morning or Evening Prayer with the Mass. Obviously, spiritual communion took the place of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, but in this way the program fulfilled both the archbishop’s mandate to include the Sunday readings and the local liturgist’s desire to teach the faithful that, even deprived of Mass, they need not be deprived of the Church’s liturgy.
For the first three Sundays of the shutdown, the parish only offered this combination of Liturgy of the Hours and Sunday readings. On average about 490 families were using this resource. The pastor conceded to demands for the addition of a livestreamed Mass for the Triduum which drew 587 families, with Our Sunday Supplication dipping down to an average use of 345 families. Through the remainder of the stay-at-home order, Our Sunday Supplication averaged around 170 families and the live-streamed Mass averaged 630 families. After May 17th, the stay-at-home order was lifted in Kansas and numbers using online resources dropped significantly and have remained continuously around one third of what they were during the stay-at-home.
This summary only represents data we were able to collect. For the first few weeks, The Leaven, the archdiocesan newspaper, delivered physical copies of the prayers. As many diocesan papers have shuttered over recent years, it is hard to see how easily this solution can be reproduced nationally. And we will never know how many took our recommendation to simply say some form of the Office either through downloading apps such as iBreviary, reading Magnificat, or any of the other resources to which we directed them, but for which we do not have analytics.
What lesson does this and our other data hold? The cynic might look and say that the livestreamed Mass was a Pandora’s box. Once opened there was no going back. The “C & E Catholics” also showed up for Easter and were not retained, as usual. But apart from the livestreamed Mass, I am a little more hopeful. I see at least a hundred families who, when presented with the opportunity to just sit on the couch and watch Mass, have chosen instead the Liturgy of the Hours, the recitation of the Sunday readings, and the practice of spiritual communion.
In addition to Our Sunday Supplication, the standard outreach in the archdiocese has been live-streamed or recorded Masses. One heard of the occasional parish that organized a drive-through Mass with radio broadcast in the parking lot, but drive-through communion was never distributed. A few priests in other parishes, however, diverged from the livestream norm and utilized their homily podcasts to provide their faithful with daily fervorini based on the day’s readings and an exhortation to pray the Office. I am told by two of these priests that they saw a similar dip in audience numbers once the stay-at-home order was lifted, but have also seen a small return in the past few weeks as infection rates rise in Kansas.
Forewarned is Forearmed
As we look down the great unknown of colleges and schools reopening, I thought it worthwhile not only to share this experience of ours but also to weigh responses according to fidelity to the Church’s teaching.
If, or when, another shut down occurs, we must be clear that Sunday does not blend into the other days of the weekend. As Pope John Paul II observed in Dies Domini (4), the “weekend” as a modern phenomenon can be positive in so far as rest prepares us for celebration, but to keep our eyes on heaven requires spiritual maturity and the gift of faith. Besides the celebration of Mass, we are asked to sanctify the day with thanksgiving to the Lord. If we are honest with ourselves, it would be difficult to come up with a list of ways in which parishioners in the United States distinguished the restful activities of their weekend from the leisure-as-worship that the Church envisions. Later in the same encyclical (52), John Paul II offers some concrete examples of Sunday leisure outside Mass: parents sharing formative moments in their faith life with children, the solemn celebration of Vespers, family catechesis (not just parish-led religious education!), and pilgrimage to local shrines.
Still, when it comes to Sunday worship, as he reiterates, “the objective must always remain the celebration of the Sacrifice of the Mass” (53). But what are we to do when the faithful are prevented by sickness, disability, or other serious cause from attending Mass? John Paul II makes it clear, citing Canon 1248 from the 1983 Code of Canon Law, that the preferred way to celebrate without Mass is the readings and prayers of that day from the Missal coupled with a desire for the Eucharist. He describes radio and television as a “precious help” but which fail to meet the test of true participation (54).
I would argue, therefore, that if and when our parishes are required to dispense or exclude the faithful from Mass, the first priority ought to be educating the laity in how to lead the household in praying the readings and making acts of spiritual communion. Furthermore, I would argue that televised and livestreamed Masses have proven—in the 22 years since Pope John Paul II wrote Dies Domini—to be less a help than a hindrance in the New Evangelization. Sunday worship is grounded upon the bodily resurrection of the Incarnate Word. Television and livestreamed Masses by the very nature of the medium, to borrow a phrase from Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, “excarnate.” If Masses are to be viewed remotely, the pastor ought then to beware that the medium is teaching a counter-catechesis to the Gospel. But here I am wandering into territory which deserves its own, longer reflection.
To return to the liturgical crisis of the moment, as parishes begin returning to Mass this summer and fall, we cannot afford on either a practical or theological level to act like Aesop’s proverbial grasshopper. We must be ants for the coming winter.
After we have taught the laity suitable prayers in the absence of the Mass, we should see this as an opportunity to recover prayer outside the context of Mass as a communal act. That is, we need to recover the Liturgy of the Hours as something not just for priests and religious. Even the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, according to Sacrosanctum Concilium (98), would fit this category of public prayer of the Church, and therefore deserves some consideration before the invention or adoption of private devotions in times of social and spiritual isolation.
Next, technological solutions are often at odds with the proclamation of an incarnate Savior. While we can, let us teach the faithful how to make a place of prayer in their home. The fixed presence of a simple crucifix and image of Our Lady on the mantle do more to call us to conversion than the temporary image of Mass at St. Peter’s basilica displayed on the same 84-inch screen which will soon give way to cartoons, sports, and melodrama.
Finally, as we prepare for what this winter brings, let us not forget to take up those three great weapons of the Christian life: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.