Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

TV Masses are a blessing, but they leave a longing to participate in person.

A Vatican TV (CTV) cameraman attends Pope Francis' Easter Mass at St. Peter's Basilica on April 12, 2020.
A Vatican TV (CTV) cameraman attends Pope Francis' Easter Mass at St. Peter's Basilica on April 12, 2020. (photo: Photo by Vatican Pool/Getty Images)

Television Masses are a blessing. They remind us of the Church’s universal nature, e.g., EWTN liturgies from Rome or elsewhere during the Pope’s travels. TV Masses, including those broadcast locally, have also long been a blessing for shut-ins, who cannot make it to Sunday Mass because of their infirmities.

And now, amid the COVID-19 crisis, Catholics throughout the world are viewing Mass (including online), instead of worshipping together at their local parishes churches, whether on Sunday or weekdays. I’ve enjoyed watching Palm Sunday Mass from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper from the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament Cathedral in my native Detroit, and the Easter Vigil from St. Thomas the Apostle Church, my parish in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

As one who’s written on “Faith, Family and Football” a number of times, I can say that I often enjoy watching a game on TV as much — or even more, depending on the weather — as being there in person, especially if you’re watching a game with friends and family.

Not so with the Mass, even though I’ve been edified by TV liturgies, understand why we’ve been dispensed from our Sunday Mass obligation during this virus crisis, and appreciate the value of spiritual communion when reception of our Eucharistic Lord is not possible. But, to advance a theme from a Motown hit, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.” Because watching Mass on TV feels more like being a spectator than a participant, which is what we’re called to be in the liturgy, and including because we cannot receive the Holy Eucharist from a distance.


Participating vs. Attending Mass

In that light, I’ve never been a fan — pun intended — of the commonly used term “attend Mass,” because it incorrectly implies we’re at Church as spectators, like those who attend an opera, a play or even a sporting event.

On the other hand, as can often be seen with the devotion of fans who proudly fly their team’s flags, wear their club’s clothing, or even paint their faces accordingly on game day, one can sadly wonder who has the more devoted followers: Jesus Christ or local sports teams? Thus the term “fanatics.”

As “the source and the summit of the Christian life” (CCC 1324), the Mass — our sacramental participation anew in Christ’s one Eucharistic Passover Communion Sacrifice (CCC 1337-40; 1362-67) — is incomparably more important than any merely temporal sporting event, or other ephemeral personal interest, although that’s unfortunately not as obvious as it should be to many. Indeed, it seems some Catholics are much more likely to engage in a sports ritual — or other some other personal interest — than fulfill their blessed Lord’s Day obligation of participating in Sunday Eucharist.

There’s that word again: “participate.” As the Code of Canon Law provides, “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass” (canon 1247, emphasis added; see canon 1248). The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy affirms: “Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations” (No. 14, emphasis added).

I will leave aside debates over the Ordinary Form vs. the Extraordinary Form of the Mass in fostering such participation, except to say that a reverent celebration of the Ordinary Form is undoubtedly efficacious in helping the faithful encounter their Eucharistic Lord in communion with each other as members of his Mystical Body (see 1 Corinthians 10:14-22), and we should strive to help our brothers and sisters participate accordingly. Without proper formation, a Catholic will not adequately appreciate and benefit from any rite of the Mass.


Will Absence Make the Heart Grow Fonder?

The COVID-19 restrictions will hopefully begin to subside in May, yet I pray this pandemic serves as a blessing in disguise, because absence makes — or should make — the heart grow fonder. Still, we’ve only had a small taste — no pun intended — of what our brothers and sisters in persecuted countries have long experienced: restricted access to the sacraments, limited freedom of worship, and not being able to share the Gospel in public as we would like.

In a more remarkable example, the Catholic faithful in Japan endured without the Eucharist for 250 years, showing the Lord’s invincible providence, because while God has normatively bound salvation to the sacraments, beginning in baptism, “he himself is not bound by his sacraments” (CCC 1257). And so we are again reminded of the value of spiritual communion and other non-sacramental prayer. Thankfully, the Japanese did benefit from both baptism and holy matrimony during their long trial, yet their heroic endurance should give us perspective and encouragement in our present plight, including in offering up our relatively smaller sufferings.

Meanwhile, I commend the great many bishops and pastors who, while understandably restricting public celebration of the Mass, as was also done in St. Louis during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic for good reason, have been working diligently to make available other sacraments, such as by open-air Confessions and also giving the last rites to the terminally ill. As Cardinal Robert Sarah has said, these are nonnegotiables, especially in a pandemic.

In summary, we should never take the Eucharist or any other sacraments lightly, because they are God’s quintessential gifts for us to participate and grow in intimate communion with him. May the COVID-19 crisis end soon, and may we renew our participation in the sacraments — and thereby advance the kingdom — more fruitfully than ever (Romans 8:28).