Shrewsbury Cathedral, where I am associate priest, is like many churches presently offering an online live-streaming of the Mass, devotions, and Eucharistic Adoration. Like others, we have been stunned by the sheer number of those who have been logging on from their homes, their sick beds or self-isolation, or during their lunch hours to join with the celebration of Mass: just over 82,000 viewers since the crisis began. The broadcasting of the Mass over the internet has been a lifeline for so many; a surreal experience for the priests speaking into the void of an empty church, but a daily reassurance that prayer and daily offering of the Mass continues, though churches remain closed.
But the situation also raises theological and pastoral questions. Many of those joining us online are from outside the diocese of Shrewsbury. Parish priests are familiar with exiled or refugee parishioners who, preferring the music, homilies, pastoral care or Mass time of one parish determine to attend a church other than the parish they live in geographically.
Whilst understandable, this tends towards a weakening of the bonds of belonging to a local church from the parish to the wider diocese and from the diocese to Rome. When we decide to “opt in” to one parish, we choose to “opt out” of another. In this we might begin to see a fragmentation of the Church and the bonds of communion.
Sometimes the challenge and growth in the spiritual life comes from the perseverance in a parish where things are not as we might have them, or in a diocese where the leadership might be wanting: but the bonds of communion put us there, geographically, canonically, and so almost force us to maintain communion, even if reluctantly!
There is also a theological question: there is a risk of a new dualism arising in our present crisis with the closure of our churches. Our bodies matter – matter matters: we are not just souls, but bodies too. The whole sacramental economy is based upon matter and form, sacraments use the material to communicate an action of grace. Our physical presence in a church for a Mass on a Sunday, or even better if possible every day, is important. We should respect and follow the guidance and direction of our bishops and the government, but we must not forget the need for a physical entering into worship and full, conscious and actual participation in the Mass. An act of spiritual communion is beautiful, but can never replace receiving Him in Holy Communion. The internet is a life raft but is not the barque of Peter.
I find parishioners asking very incisive questions: when watching online, should they stand or kneel or sit? Should they live tweet or interact in some way with the responses? Should they ask the family to come and watch with them? Are they able to multi-task – have Mass on in the background, but carry on with household tasks? As pastors we have an opportunity to offer direction.
There are incredible positives coming out of the emergency and the live-streaming of Masses: our own Mass attendance has, thanks to the webcam, increased by over 1000 per cent! We are able to extend the ultimate pastoral care for souls, the offering of the holy Mass, to numbers unknown in our history. We have the privilege to sustain, albeit at a physical separation and distance, a huge number of souls in a time of national emergency and to show that whilst the churches are closed, the Church endures. Yet I would invite other pastors to consider what we are doing to prepare for our churches to reopen; what we can do to maintain, encourage, and strengthen communion; and what can we do to ensure that we do not lapse into a dualism that makes permanent a kind of distancing of soul and body.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.