Being a part of Notre Dame’s “digital generation” student body, I cannot remember a time when information and contact with a friend or family member weren’t a click away. The digital world is increasingly inescapable. However, despite its almost complete permeation into every part of my daily life, there was no trace of tech in my trips to Mass pre-Covid. Attending Mass in my living room, staring at my TV screen, and sitting, standing, and kneeling on the rug suddenly made me realise I had taken something beautiful for granted. I prayed and prayed and prayed that I wouldn’t wake up one day and think that this was normal, that I wouldn’t forget what it was like to sit alongside my Catholic brothers and sisters in sanctuary. With the rest of our lives already so digitised, it would be too easy to accept this final adjustment.
It has been tempting to accept that the hybrid of online and in-person worship we have seen in the last year will and should contine – even as we put the pandemic behind us. For one, it is more accessible for those with difficult schedules and disabilities that prevent them from being able to attend things in person. It allows people to choose whose preaching they hear each week. It’s convenient. It provides for the type of freedom that those in my generation are accustomed to – seemingly unlimited choice and personalised scheduling. And now, many of my peers still choose livestreamed Masses even though their churches are open and they are vaccinated.
Before Churches unlocked, my friends and I tuned in to Father Mike Schmitz’s Sunday Mass livestreams, drawn in by his clear, relevant preaching and emphasis on the Eucharist – even though we could not ourselves receive it. Others followed the likes of Bishop Robert Barron, who appeals to the young. Some of my friends prefer these preachers to their parish or college priests. So they are sticking to streamed mass. Digital church life has a real appeal, but it’s a double-edged sword. It can do them – and the Church – more harm than good.
The convenience of parish life – especially Mass – being online risks the degradation of its importance. If you can have Mass at any time, it becomes secondary. It can be moved if necessary, where it should be the most important part of the day. If the holiest hour of the week can be pushed back to accommodate a yoga class or a lunch date, what does that say? Mass should be accessible to all, but not in a way that excludes them from the heart of the celebration, the Eucharist. The pandemic has blurred the lines in hitherto unimaginable ways, making it one more commitment in a stream of never-ending livestreams and Zoom calls.
What is more, the digital takes away from the genuine community of parish life. Community has an essential role in the formation of Christians, second only to the family as a basic unit of the Church. When I was young, we sat next to the same elderly couple, Mac and Mary, at 10am Mass at St Patrick’sCatholic Church in Dallas every Sunday. I am the second of six kids in my family, and every week Mac and Mary would help my mother, who would have otherwise sat alone because my father was an usher, wrangle all of us into our seats and keep us happy for the duration of the Mass. They let us sit on their laps and disrupt their prayer with our tears and noisiness. Every memory I have of them is touched by their patience and love for us. They had no relation to us kids other than that we were their fellow parishioners at St Patrick’s.
They are some of the earliest examples I have of living witnesses to Jesus Christ, embodiments of His call to build up his Church. The Church’s identity is one of community, and each person is called to be a part of it, as is spelled out in the Catechism: “Society is not for him an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature. Through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential; he thus responds to his vocation” (1879). The spiritual bond of the Church is both visible and invisible – without the physical meeting of people in Mass and other parish events, we lose part of its visibility.
We lose models of faith like Mac and Mary and their support in instances of suffering and struggle. Teens and young adults have lost many of these communities in the past year, but the process began long before, accelerated by social media. It is crucial that they don’t lose this real community, the visible solidarity of the Church, both at home, where those in all walks of life offer support for one’s journey of faith, and on college campuses, where meeting at Mass can spark friendships.
My generation will, no doubt, continue to participate in the mix of virtual and in-person church life we have seen in the past year. While it’s not a total loss, I hope that they realise that amid the endless choice and supposed freedoms, there lies only one true freedom.
It is a freedom that exists in the absence of screens, through the grace of Christ, and one I pray that each of my peers can experience in the physical presence of their brothers and sisters in Christ.
Anna Hurt is a Catholic Herald intern studying at the University of Notre Dame
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