Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Does an online Benediction offer the same spiritual effects as an actual Benediction inside a church or a chapel? When Pope Francis did the Benediction with the Blessed Sacrament in the empty St. Peter’s Square during the height of the COVID pandemic in Italy, did we, who saw it on TV, receive the spiritual benefits of an actual Benediction? Was it similar to the papal blessings urbi et orbi [to the city of Rome and the world]? This thing of online liturgy is getting more confusing than ever before. — C.M., Surigao, Philippines
A: The answer to the question depends in part on what is meant by the term “spiritual effects,” which can embrace many different realities.
In the widest possible meaning, following an online liturgy when actual participation is not available will almost certainly produce some positive spiritual benefit. The faithful can hear God’s word proclaimed and preached, and unite themselves spiritually to God and the Church’s prayer in the manner of a spiritual communion. In short, they are occasions of grace.
That said, however, any online celebration has inherent and inevitable limitations. It can never replace actively participating at Mass or being in the presence of Christ in the tabernacle or the monstrance.
For example, one cannot receive, except by a special concession, the usual indulgences granted by the Church for adoration of Christ in the Eucharist. It is not possible to act united heart and soul as a liturgical assembly united in common worship. This is because a virtual community can never objectively replace a real one. I do not deny that there might be a high level of subjective unity in an online community, but it cannot really gather around an altar to participate in Christ’s holy sacrifice. And, of course, one cannot ascend to the high point of active participation by receiving Communion at a virtual Mass.
Our reader mentioned the Benediction imparted by Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square on March 27, 2020, when the pandemic began to take hold. It is important to clarify the exceptional nature of this act. The Holy Father had decreed this Eucharistic Benediction as a blessing urbi et orbi in a manner analogous to those granted at Christmas and Easter. Thus, all those who participated live at this Benediction received the graces and indulgences associated with the usual blessings urbi et orbi.
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Follow up: Communion in the Hand
Pursuant to our September 1 article on a bishop’s authority and Communion in the hand, a reader from Wagga Wagga, Australia, wrote:
“In your most recent article on ‘Communion in the Hand During the Pandemic,’ you indicate that ‘There would be no need for a special papal indult [for the right to receive Holy Communion on the tongue to be removed] as the situation is covered by general canonical principles and practice in analogous cases.’ However, in 2009, during a pandemic which caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, the question was answered by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments who indicated what is contained in Redemptionis Sacramentum, i.e., that ‘each of the faithful always has the right to receive Holy Communion on the tongue.’ I also suspect that there would be many who don’t agree with your interpretation of the canon law relating to this issue. One reason for this is that the authority to dispense from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass is already in the Code of Canon Law itself, and a dispensation from an obligation is a very different aspect of law than the capacity to remove the right of one to receive a sacrament in a particular way established and protected in law by the Church.”
The reader included a scan of the above-mentioned letter from the CDW.
I admit that I am not a trained canonist and perhaps my reasoning might not pass muster in the rigors of a formal trial.
I can also say that I was aware of the existence of the letter mentioned by our reader before writing my original reply, but did not consider its contents as being relevant to the current situation. It basically did no more than restate the norms of the instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum without mentioning the context of an earlier pandemic. It was also a private reply signed by the undersecretary and as such has no legal force. A different reply could well be given in changed circumstances.
With respect to the bishop’s authority in this matter perhaps, we can take into account the actions of the Holy Father’s vicar for the Diocese of Rome. The Pope is the Bishop of Rome and the cardinal vicar takes care of the day-to-day running of the diocese acting under the Pope’s authority.
When Italy entered a strict lockdown, the cardinal vicar, along with the Italian bishops’ conference, suspended the celebration of public Masses although, in accord with Pope Francis express wishes, left churches open for private prayer.
Since Rome is home to many religious congregations, male and female, and many other clerical colleges, a special ordinance was made to allow those who lived together with minimum outside contact to continue to celebrate their community Mass while following certain protocols.
In this first ordinance, Communion in the hand was highly recommended but not obligatory.
A few weeks later, after almost all the sisters in some convents had caught the virus and several priests of religious congregations passed away, the vicariate issued new norms that tightened the previous ones.
In this second set of rules, Communion in the hand was made obligatory for all.
I had all this in mind when I wrote what I did regarding the bishop’s authority in this matter, although it did not seem necessary to enter into such detail at the time.
If the Holy Father’s delegate in the Diocese of Rome considers that he has this authority, and no one has contested his action, I believe that other bishops have similar authority in analogous situations
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