By Father Adam Sedar
As we are all too aware, the pandemic we are currently facing has had many effects upon our lives. One of the most difficult and painful aspects of this crisis for good and faithful Catholics has been the inability to come to Holy Mass and to receive Holy Communion. This has been a difficult situation and thankfully parishes are once again permitted to have Mass with the faithful present. This situation has also given rise to some questions about the Mass itself and the how the faithful participate in the Mass.
The first question that has been raised: Are “private” Masses the same as “public” Masses?
I place the words private and public in quotation marks, because technically every celebration of the Holy Mass is, according to Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Mediator Dei, a public act of the Church’s worship. He teaches us that the Mass necessarily and of its very nature, has always and everywhere the character of a public and social act, inasmuch as he who offers it acts in the name of Christ and of the faithful, whose Head is the divine Redeemer, and he offers it to God for the holy Catholic Church, and for the living and the dead. This is undoubtedly so, whether the faithful are present – as we desire and commend them to be in great numbers and with devotion – or are not present, since it is in no wise required that the people ratify what the sacred minister has done. ( Mediator Dei 96)
So no celebration of the Holy Mass can be a “private matter,” as every Mass is offered for all the faithful living and deceased, that is, the members of the Church here on earth and all the souls in Purgatory. Every Mass is also offered in the presence of all the saints and angels, the Church in Heaven, who worship and adore the Lord’s true presence. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states,“To the offering of Christ are united not only the members still here on earth, but also those already in the glory of heaven. In communion with and commemorating the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints, the Church offers the Eucharistic Sacrifice”. (CCC 1370)
Every Mass, with or without a congregation, is perfect in and of itself because nothing could be more perfect or more pleasing to God the Father than the sacrifice of His Son. And this is exactly what each Mass is: the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross, where He offered His own Body and Blood to God the Father. In the Mass this sacrifice is represented, in an unbloody manner to the Father, whether or not any member of the faithful is present. Again Pope Pius XII makes this point very clearly: The unbloody immolation at the words of consecration, when Christ is made present upon the altar in the state of a victim, is performed by the priest and by him alone, as the representative of Christ and not as the representative of the faithful. But it is because the priest places the divine victim upon the altar that he offers it to God the Father as an oblation for the glory of the Blessed Trinity and for the good of the whole Church.(MD 92)
Even so, the Church desires that the faithful be present at Mass, as Pope Pius XII says, “in great numbers.” So much does the Church desire this that the priest may offer Mass with no member of the faithful present only when it is necessary. The Mass is for glory of God, and the sanctification of the faithful. There is great benefit when the faithful attend the Mass.
This leads to the next question: Are Masses offered without the faithful present beneficial for the whole Church?
The answer is yes! The priest, acting in the person of Christ, offers for the whole Church the sacrifice that is Christ Himself. This sacrifice brings the greatest honor and glory to God and reconciles mankind to the Father. In the Mass, the Lord Himself both makes intercession for us and offers thanksgiving for us to His Father. Every celebration of the Mass, as a perfect act of praise, reparation, thanksgiving, and intercession, is an effective means of bringing grace to all the faithful, both the living and the dead. In the Mass, the Church has been given the means and the ability to apply the fruit of her Lord’s sacrifice. The fruit of the Mass may be understood as the effect of the Mass as a sacrifice that is both impetratory and expiatory. Impetratory in that the Mass without fail gains the spiritual good we ask of the Father (if what we ask is really for our good) because Christ Himself pleads on our behalf, and expiatory in that it makes atonement for sin, because Christ Himself paid the price for sin.
The Church distinguishes three applications of the fruit of the Mass. The general fruit of the Mass is always applied to the Church, the living and the deceased. The special fruit of the Mass is applied to a specific intention. We are most familiar with this being the “Mass Intention” for which a member of the faithful may request the Mass be offered and for which a stipend is given and these intentions are often listed in the parish bulletin. The third is the personal fruit of the Mass, which is applied to the priest who celebrates in the Person of Christ and to the faithful, who are present, and who join with the priest.
What’s more, as Pope St. John Paul II reminded the Church so well, every Mass has a cosmic implication. In his encyclical “Ecclesia De Eucharistia” he taught: Because even when it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world. It unites heaven and earth. It embraces and permeates all creation. The Son of God became man in order to restore all creation, in one supreme act of praise, to the One who made it from nothing. He, the Eternal High Priest who by the blood of his Cross entered the eternal sanctuary, thus gives back to the Creator and Father all creation redeemed. He does so through the priestly ministry of the Church, to the glory of the Most Holy Trinity. Truly this is the mysterium fidei which is accomplished in the Eucharist: the world which came forth from the hands of God the Creator now returns to him redeemed by Christ. (EE 8)
Can one participate in Mass the same way when watching Mass on television or the internet as being there in person?
No, one cannot participate in the same way virtually or remotely. With personal presence at Mass, there is of course the obvious difference of being able to receive Holy Communion, the benefits of which cannot be overstated.
In teaching about the Church’s essential need for the Holy Eucharist, Pope St. John Paul II said: “The mystery of the Eucharist – sacrifice, presence, banquet – does not allow for reduction or exploitation; it must be experienced and lived in its integrity, both in its celebration and in the intimate conversation with Jesus which takes place after receiving communion or in a prayerful moment of Eucharistic adoration apart from Mass.”(EE 61) Notice that Pope St. John Paul II emphasizes the need to experience the Holy Eucharist “in its integrity” as “sacrifice, presence, banquet,” and this can only be realized as one is present at and participates in the Holy Mass. This is also why the Church only allows for the reception of Holy Communion outside of Mass in exceptional circumstances, usually for those unable to come to Mass due to illness or debilitation.
We must also understand that there are other benefits besides receiving Holy Communion to the faithful who attend Mass. As we have noted above, the third fruit of the Mass is a personal one that is applied both to the priest who celebrates and the faithful who are present and join with him. About this joining, Pope Pius XII says “…the faithful participate in the oblation, understood in this limited sense, after their own fashion and in a twofold manner, namely, because they not only offer the sacrifice by the hands of the priest, but also, to a certain extent, in union with him. It is by reason of this participation that the offering made by the people is also included in liturgical worship.”(MD 92)
Pope Pius goes on to say that the faithful’s participation is not essentially a matter of taking a specific role in the Sacred Liturgy, such as reader, cantor or server. Although these are praiseworthy, Pope Pius teaches that the primary manner of participation of the faithful is a joining of “…their hearts in praise, impetration, expiation and thanksgiving with prayers or intention of the priest, even of the High Priest Himself, so that in the one and same offering of the victim and according to a visible sacerdotal rite, they may be presented to God the Father.” (MD 93)
While it is true that members of the faithful can join themselves to the offering of every Mass being offered on altars the world over, this devotional offering is not the same as when one is actually present. In that beautiful prayer that so many of us learned when we were children, the Morning Offering, we ask that all our joys, sorrows and works be united to the sacrifice of Christ in the Masses being offered on altars the world over. This is a pious and noble practice. It is a great devotion that can bring much spiritual good.
Such devotion to the Holy Mass is to be encouraged. Being able to see the Mass on TV or the internet may enhance such devotion, especially if one does not simply watch, but truly prays. One can follow the prayers attentively and reflect on the Scriptures, be inspired by a homily and reflect on the mystery of the consecration. All of this can be a means to receiving an actual grace, that gift that is God’s help to us to cooperate with Him, especially in specific moments, to do good and avoid evil. It could, for those in the state of grace, even lead to an increase of sanctifying grace, as all good works can.
However, to join the priest sacramentally in the offering of the Mass the faithful must be present. While both the sacramental and the devotional are in fact spiritual, the nature of the sacraments requires presence.
Being there is substantially different than participating devotionally, either by a prayer of offering or a kind of “attendance by media”. Physical presence, as we see so well by the very act of the Incarnation — the fact of God truly becoming man and making His dwelling among us — is a different and also superior kind of participation than virtual or remote.
The institution of the sacraments as outward and physical signs that communicate saving grace flows from the fact of the Incarnation. The Lord came here to save us. He created the sacraments using the physical instrumentality of those ordained to share in His Priesthood. Salvation is not accomplished remotely or virtually. Our Lord really suffered in the flesh on the Cross. The sacraments “touch us” at every level of our existence, through our bodies and into our souls.
Every sacrament is like this. For example in Baptism, water is poured over our head and our soul is cleansed of sin. It is “in-person,” flesh and blood participation that the Lord intends. If His presence at the Mass is real, and it is, then the purpose of this Presence is to be with us and for us to be with Him. The Mass allows us to be at Calvary, to be at the Cross which stands at the center of human history, and for us to fully and actively share in Our Lord’s act of redemption, by being right there with Him, just as His Mother was, and offering ourselves to Him and with Him.
Were it not His will that we be there with Him, God could have made the Mass to be merely a re-enactment, one that might well move us on some level, perhaps a very deep level, but not actually make the salvific act of Christ present to us. Hearing about it is not enough. Seeing it re-enacted is not enough. We must be there, in the flesh!
Just so, seeing the Mass and hearing the Mass, through the use of our technology is not the same as being there, even if we can see and hear better through such means. By way of analogy, we can see this on various human levels: I can often see and hear a ball game better on TV than being there, but being there engages me on a deeper level. Being there when your team wins the big game brings a sense of being part of it that watching on TV can never do.
So it is with the Mass. We are meant to be there, even if we could see and hear better on TV or the Internet.
Most importantly, the faithful are called to join with the ordained priest in offering themselves with the sacrifice of Our Lord, both spiritually and sacramentally. It is at these moments, at Holy Mass, when we are united as ordained priests and baptized faithful, and together offer ourselves with the sacrifice of Our Lord and Savior, that we are truly God’s holy and priestly people.