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Televised Masses

The Ideal Is to Live Telecast

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: For many years my diocese has sponsored a televised Mass ministry. While it is clear to me that this ministry is well received by many homebound Catholics, there are some liturgical aspects of the production of these Masses that bother me. The Masses must strictly fit into a TV station’s half-hour time slot, so the celebrant and participants at the taping must be very aware of the clock. The real masters of the production are the members of the camera crew. Since the Masses are taped for future viewing, it usually happens that several Masses are taped at the same time and at the same site. By way of example, this may mean that Masses for the Twenty-third through Twenty-fifth Sundays of Ordinary Time might all be done at one sitting, weeks prior to those Sundays. The TV stations then show each Mass on the appropriate Sunday. I have such mixed feelings about this. As a priest who truly loves the liturgy, these hurried Masses that are out of sync with the liturgical calendar really bother me, but from a pastoral perspective, I see that they meet the needs of many people who are unable to worship with their parish families. What is your opinion about this? — W.M., Wisconsin

A: Fortunately, in this case, I am not limited to a personal opinion but can cite official norms. Much of what I offer below is taken from an earlier column from 2005, but since so much time has passed it bears repeating.

The norms I have available to me, those of the United States, issued in 1997, and those of Italy, from 1973, agree as to the principles involved.

The U.S. guidelines for televised Masses which develop the theme more fully may be found in the Web page of the U.S. bishops’ conference, at www.usccb.org/liturgy/current/tv.shtml.

In Italy, Masses transmitted on a national basis (the usual case for Sunday transmissions) come under the norms of the conference, except for the frequent transmissions of papal Masses.

Locally transmitted Masses are subject to the ordinary of the diocese where the Mass is celebrated, and he may issue appropriate norms adapted to particular circumstances.

In the United States the local bishop is responsible for assuring that all is done according to liturgical norms.

The first thing to remember is that a televised Mass is not a substitute for assisting at Mass and does not fulfill the Sunday precept.

It is rather a means offered to those unable to attend Mass to somehow participate in the worship of the community. While those unable to attend Mass do well to follow a televised Mass, they are not obliged to do so, and may honor Sunday in some other way through prayer and sacrifice.

As the U.S. guidelines state: “The televised Mass is never a substitute for the Church’s pastoral care for the sick in the form of visits by parish ministers who share the Scriptures and bring Communion, nor is it ever a substitute for the Sunday Mass celebrated within a parish faith community each week. However, televising the Mass is a ministry by which the Church uses modern technology to bring the Lord’s healing and comfort to those who cannot physically participate in the liturgical life of the local Church and who often experience a sense of isolation from the parish and its regular forms of prayer and worship. In addition, many regard televised liturgies as a means of evangelization, of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ and promoting the Church’s worship via modern means of communication (cf. ‘Inter Mirifica,’ No. 14).”

The U.S. guidelines recognize the limitation of the medium of television “with its inherent lack of physical interaction, to lead people to more passive roles as spectators.” But the benefits for those who make use of it outweigh the dangers involved.

Because of the difficulties involved, such as time constraints and cost, the U.S. guidelines suggest the following principles:

The first requirement for good telecast liturgies is good liturgical celebration. When the Mass or other liturgies are televised, those responsible for the planning, production and celebration must make every effort to respect basic liturgical principles, including:

— giving careful attention to the modes of Christ’s presence in the liturgy, e.g., the Word, the Eucharistic bread and wine, the assembly, the priest;

— following the directives of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal;

— the full, conscious, and active participation of the faithful;

— the integrity of the liturgical year;

— a homily addressed to the assembly while taking into account those who watch on television;

— the appropriate use of trained liturgical ministers;

— the use of live liturgical music that fits the celebration;

— a sense of noble simplicity;

— the good use of liturgical space;

— an unhurried, reverent pace;

— an awareness of and visual contact with the viewing congregation;

— notification to the viewers when the Mass is pre-recorded.

The U.S. guidelines also suggest several models for a televised celebration. The ideal situation is a live telecast in real time. This may also permit some parishes to make the texts of the liturgy available to those watching and even bring Communion to coincide with the end of the televised Mass.

Live transmission is practically the only form contemplated in the Italian norms due to the particular Italian situation in which Mass is transmitted live every Sunday by one of the national public television stations, either from the Vatican or from a different church or cathedral every week. A next-best solution is the delayed telecast, which is the taping of a Sunday Mass and its transmission on the same day.

The least satisfactory solution, to be avoided if possible, is the pre-recorded telecast.

Viewers must be informed that it is pre-recorded and has certain limitations such as having been celebrated outside the liturgical day or season. The guidelines give as an example the “taping of ‘Christmas morning Mass’ on Monday of the fourth week of Advent.”

Other disadvantages are that the Mass usually must take place in a studio and not in a community that regularly gathers for worship. Editing may include inappropriate special effects, or shorten some elements which are not convenient for worship. Editing may even make the priest and ministers appear to be actors.

However, if no alternative is available, this Mass should be taped on the closest possible date to the day of transmission and only one liturgy may be taped with the same group on any one day.

Also, the full liturgy should be recorded and editors should not eliminate any elements of the Mass (the Gloria or a reading) due to time constraints.

Thus far the official norms.

Time and technology advance, however, and it is quite possible that other solutions might be proposed that could be pastorally more fruitful than the norms for television.

For example, some parishes in each diocese, with the authorization and supervision of the local bishop, could livestream one of their Sunday Masses for the benefit of the sick and shut-ins. Recent technological developments allow for quite a high standard of sound and image at reasonable cost even though it might still lack the professional quality of the live televised Mass. It would certainly be a more authentic experience than any pre-recorded celebration. It could also help many of those unable to attend their own parish to still feel part of the local community.

Although I have been unable to find official norms for livestreaming, I think the overall principles of the norms for televised masses would be applicable.

Indeed, it is fairly certain that such livestreaming is already being done. A quick Internet search produced over 19 million results including the livestreaming of Sunday Mass at a certain neogothic cathedral in New York.

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 Readers may send questions to zenit.liturgy@gmail.com. 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.

About Fr. Edward McNamara

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