Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: With the pandemic that the world is experiencing, I am curious about an aspect of the online Mass. Is It valid, for example, to celebrate the Mass through a video conference platform, and the readers are at the other side of the screen not physically present where the Mass is being celebrated? — A.P., Tacloban City, Leyte, Philippines
A: Before answering this question, I would first like to outline some positive benefits of celebrating online Masses in places where public Masses are currently not available.
These Masses offer the faithful an occasion of growing in grace by hearing God’s word proclaimed, by being nurtured by preaching, and by uniting themselves, in a manner analogous to spiritual communion, with the prayers and actions of the priest who celebrates the holy sacrifice of the Mass.
However, and here we must be very clear, just as making a spiritual communion is a good thing but is decidedly not the same as receiving Christ’s body and blood, following an online Mass is a good thing but it is not participating at Mass.
Only those who are physically present at the Mass participate fully.
On April 17 Pope Francis, in his own online Mass, reminded us that online Masses and spiritual communions do not represent the Church:
“This is the Church in a difficult situation that the Lord is allowing, but the ideal of the Church is always with the people and with the sacraments — always.”
From this, it also follows that Mass cannot be celebrated on a virtual platform, and all parts of the Mass must be celebrated at the same location and at the same time.
Therefore, it would not be correct to have readers or singers entering from other places and substituting those physically present at the celebration.
There have even been some, thankfully rare, attempts at online concelebrations with priests intervening from different places. While the Mass celebrated by each priest would be valid, they would also be illicit as each priest omitted a part of the Eucharistic prayer and other parts of the Mass. This would constitute a grave abuse.
Since following the online Mass is primarily a spiritual activity, and not actually participating in the Mass, those who are doing so could independently engage in activities that enhance that experience.
For example, if a family was watching the Holy Father’s morning Mass in Italian, one of the members could do the readings in the local tongue. If they wished, they could also sing a hymn as a means of spiritual communion.
These are all temporary measures due to the present crisis. As public Masses are gradually restored, online Masses will necessarily diminish, and the transmission of Mass by all forms of media to benefit the housebound will return to the norms established by the local bishop or, as the case may be, the bishops’ conference.
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Readers may send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city, and your state, province, or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.