Rightly so, many are saddened by the loss of the ability to participate in Mass throughout the United States this month. In an unprecedented decision, there is no Catholic diocese offering public Masses after today for the next two weeks, and in many places the wait for Mass will be longer. While we can debate the prudence and even efficacy of this sweeping move, the fact remains: the faithful are left without Mass in their Churches and in some places without any of the sacraments, unless there is immediate danger of death.
Despite the difficulties, many will say we are blessed. Modern technology allows us unparalleled connectivity to a global community. We order household goods, clothing, and most anything we can dream of online with the touch of a button. We can search the knowledge of scholars from all over the world and from previous eras, too, with the touch of a button. Most comforting of all, perhaps, is that we can keep up with family, friends, loved ones, and co-workers who may be distant in real time through video calls. Might we also be able to celebrate and receive sacraments through the digital medium that has become ingrained in our society?
Live-streamed and pre-recorded video Masses have been happening throughout the world to get to Mass from the time the technology was available. EWTN’s daily Mass is a staple for those who are chronically ill or unable to travel to Church because of sickness or old age. As a child, Christmas midnight Mass live from the Vatican was always on in grandma’s living room when we arrived for Christmas Eve festivities. Now, in addition Mass, people are asking for other sacraments through a digital medium. Why not confession through an iPad screen? Can’t the priest witness wedding vows via video call? In these sacraments the matter of the sacrament does not change hands physically from the Church’s minister to the person receiving, but we are missing something else.
Catholicism is an incarnational religion. We believe that the Son of God became present among us. He took on human nature, a particular human body, in a particular time and place, through the Fiat of a particular woman. In first century Israel, He walked among the people, performing miracles, teaching the multitudes, and curing the sick. Most importantly, for the sake of our salvation, He suffered His passion and death and on the third day was resurrected. This all happened in a particular place, and at a particular time. We are separated from that particular place by almost 7000 miles and that particular time by almost 2000 years. While a pilgrimage to Jerusalem is possible (not now, but theoretically), we still cannot make up for the distance of time. The convergence of us in time and place make possible the moment of encounter not only with the historical person of Jesus, but with the grace he offers.
Jesus gave the Church his sacraments as effective signs of grace so he and the grace he won for us through his sacrifice would be present to us throughout space and time. The sacrifice of the Mass makes present in space and time the sacrifice of the cross and bestows on the baptized who are present that same grace. This efficacious participation in the Mass is brought about through our presence, so while reception of Holy Communion at Mass is undoubtedly the fullest sign of our participation, it is not the only means of participation, nor is it the only way to receive efficacious grace. Every baptized Christian can participate effectively and efficaciously in the Mass, simply by prayerful presence, in the same place, at the same time, whether or not they receive Holy Communion. So, while viewing a live-streamed Mass is laudatory and can be a source of grace, it cannot have the same effect as participating physically.
This theology of encounter in space and time is reason the Church does not permit the celebration of other sacraments through a technological medium. Confession requires the priest, who stands in the person of Christ, to be actually present to the sinful person receiving the mercy of absolution. In marriage it is the baptized couple who administer the sacrament to each other, but the presence of the Church’s witness, the priest, is necessary (with the exception of particular extreme cases). While even these sacraments have ‘matter’ – all the sacraments have both ‘matter’ or the stuff of the sacrament and ‘form’ the words that make the matter sacramental – the more tangible matter of the other sacraments, Baptism, Confirmation, Anointing, and Holy Orders, make the necessity of the moment of sacramental encounter more evident. We won’t be having valid mail order Confirmation or one-click Anointing anytime soon, or ever, nor can these be valid options for any of the other sacraments.
What can we do then? At times when the efficacious sanctifying grace of the sacraments is not available to us, we can still receive grace through prayer, the use of sacramentals, and participation in another part of the liturgy of the Church, the Divine Office. Now is the time to set up your home altar in your domestic Church, the Church of your home. Place your computer on it for live-streaming the Sunday Mass. While participation is not the same, it can still be a source of grace. Set aside regular times for prayer throughout the day. Read your bible, pray for the intercession of the saints, make the Stations of the Cross. Learn to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, the prayer of the Church, prayed by laity and clergy alike. It is meant to sanctify all of time, not just that time of sacramental encounter.