The beatification ceremony of Carlo Acutis in Assisi earlier this month seemed, in some ways, to have fallen at just the wrong time. It is exceptionally rare for the Church to give such recognition to someone who was known personally by those still alive: Carlo died in 2006 aged 15. It is even rarer that someone should be proclaimed Blessed whilst their parents are still with us. So it was bittersweet to see the devout teenager’s mother and father, Antonia and Andrea, donning masks at a socially distanced ceremony dedicated to remembering the grace-filled life of their son (pictured). When they tentatively greeted Cardinal Agostino Vallini during the service, there was a palpable sense that the celebration had to be reined in by the practicalities of the pandemic.
In another sense, however, the timing of the livestreamed beatification could not have been more appropriate. Blessed Carlo has, after all, been described as the “patron saint of the internet” for his youthful efforts to build a website devoted to documenting Eucharistic miracles. At a time when the pandemic has restricted so many people’s access to Holy Communion and when so many have turned to the internet to catch just a glimpse of the Eucharistic feast, it is all the more fitting that this was the moment the Church officially recognised Carlo Acutis’s capacity to intercede for us.
Of course, the validity of live streaming church services has long been recognised, as were television and radio broadcasts before it. Indeed, at the outset of Pope Francis’s papacy, a new stress was placed on this when Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran told crowds in St Peter’s square during the Pope’s first Urbi et Orbi that a plenary indulgence could be received by “all those who received the blessing, either in person or by radio, television or by new means of communication” – a clear nod to the millions who were watching over the internet.
The current pandemic, however, has greatly accelerated the digital provision of church services. Many have turned to Mass live streams when starved of the possibility of even attending their local parish, let alone a papal event in Rome. Pope Francis himself introduced daily live streams of Mass from his home at Domus Sanctae Marthae back in March, and many parishes across the globe have since followed suit.
According to Catholic Voices’ “Coronavirus, Church & You Survey”, approximately half of parishes broadcast Sunday Mass over the internet during the nationwide lockdown. And of those Catholics surveyed, 93 per cent said that they had accessed church services over the internet during lockdown, with 66 per cent of respondents saying they agreed that online worship was “a great liturgical tool”.
Dr Eleanor O’Keeffe, a researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University who is currently looking at the impact of Covid-19 on religious practice, agreed that many churches have seen a dramatic “growth in online attendance, which in some cases has been exponential”. Speaking to the Catholic Herald, however, Dr O’Keefe added that this “burst of online activity” had also “heightened debates about the efficacy of online ritual practices”.
Many clergy have been supportive of online services because they have allowed parishes to reach new people. Writing for the Herald back in May, Fr Christopher Colven expressed his delight at the viewing figures for St James’s, Spanish Place in London: one Mass was streamed to 3,000 viewers. He said live streaming Mass had meant that, as a result of the present lockdown, “more people are ‘attending’ Mass at Spanish Place than before”.
But others, such as Fr Jerry J Pokorsky, remain unconvinced of the efficacy of such “unreal” services. Fr Pokorsky, parish priest at Saint Catherine of Siena Church in Great Falls, Virginia, told the Herald that he feared “the indiscriminate promotion of virtual Masses” brought on by the pandemic would accelerate “the crisis of faith in the Real Presence”.
Those who share Fr Pokorsky’s concerns can point to the excesses that arose when pandemic restrictions began and people tried to press the sacraments into the virtual space opened up by the internet. Johann Pock, Dean of Catholic Theology at the University of Vienna, wrote that, if the Church can now allow people to receive plenary indulgences remotely, lay Catholics should also be permitted to participate more fully at home in Mass live streams by having “not just a spiritual, but an actual communion with bread at the table”. Similar proposals for the Sacrament of Reconciliation were made: a parish in the Philippines tried offering general absolution over the internet. In such cases, Church authorities rearticulated a need for the Sacraments to be administered by those who were physically present.
Fr Thomas G Weinandy, OFM, Cap, a member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, explained that this “physical presence is absolutely necessary” for the sacraments, including the Eucharist and Confession, because they are “physical signs that enact what they symbolise and symbolise what they enact”.
“Such an understanding follows upon the nature of the Incarnation itself,” Fr Weinandy told the Herald. “The Son of God became man, and, as man, he enacted his saving deeds, his death and resurrection. These saving deeds are made present in the sacraments. Thus, to participate fully in these saving sacramental actions, one needs to be physically present so as to participate in those acts.”
Fr Weinandy added pointedly that, while a person can be “virtually” present at Mass through the internet, such a person is “not actually participating in the sacrifice of the Mass for one is not actually present”.
Of course, as the Catechism states, God bound salvation to the sacraments, “but he himself is not bound by his sacraments” (CCC 1257). Therefore, “virtual presence” still makes possible “Spiritual Communion” and an “Act of Perfect Contrition”, as was stressed by the bishops of England and Wales during lockdown.
Dr Katherine Schmidt, a theologian specialising in the Church’s engagement with the internet, goes as far as to argue that Catholicism is uniquely suited to appreciating the value of the virtual presence in live-streamed services. According to Dr Schmidt, in her book Virtual Communion, the way in which the internet “collapses space and time has deep resonance with the Church’s own understanding of the Communion of Saints and the ekklesia. That is, we as Christians have always been called to engage with our brothers and sisters across aisles, across borders, and even beyond the grave.”
This need to reach out to those who are not physically present also applies to those who remain virtually absent, and it is here that the dynamism and ubiquity of the internet has made it a central tool today for ministries of evangelisation.
Fr Clement Dickie, OP, a Dominican friar in Ohio who joined the Order of Preachers “to share Christ with the world”, told the Herald that questions about “whether the Church needs an online presence or whether online evangelisation is fruitful have been rendered moot” by technological advances. The always-on online reality of today’s smartphone culture means that “a place that cannot be found via a Google search is invisible” because people “expect every place we go to be able to communicate using standard online platforms.”
“Therefore, every Catholic ministry needs to put something online about what it does, but that does not mean that the internet is the centre of every ministry. We need to stop thinking of online evangelisation as a distinct project, and to see the various platforms as tools that should be used in a healthy way to communicate the Gospel.”
Dr Robert Tilley, a lecturer at the Catholic Institute of Sydney, however, warned that we cannot just treat the internet as a neutral tool. “As Marshall McLuhan famously said, ‘the medium is the message’; the means by which we communicate will shape what it is we want to say. A virtual medium will impart a virtual sense to everything it transmits, and this will shape the consciousness of a society.”
Speaking to the Herald, Dr Tilley argued that the internet tends to replace “Real Presence” with “pseudo-presence”, and it creates a spirituality that is “divorced from visible institutions” that help sustain it. “Evangelism requires discipline, attention, education, and commitment; while the virtual world indulges, distracts, and shallows the soul.”
It is possibly here, however, that the witness of Blessed Carlo Acutis becomes uniquely significant. His devotion to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist led him to a life that was undoubtedly marked by “discipline, attention, education, and commitment”. It was only then, with that foundation in Christ, that he began to share his faith across the world wide web.