Rebecca Spellacy is the Associate Director of Liturgy at the Office of Formation for Discipleship at the Archdiocese of Toronto.
I remember being a young girl and going to visit an older family member. The thing that stands out in my mind is my mother reminding me and my sister that we had to behave. It was understood that behaviour that would be overlooked in our house would not be appropriate in this different place.
We all know from a young age that certain behaviours are best expressed in certain places. We also know that certain places are more conducive to certain behaviours. For example, if I were to make a lot of noise in a library, others would get angry at me because that is a place to quietly study and read. It is designed to foster that behaviour.
I have been reflecting on these examples as we near the resumption of publicly celebrated Masses. The COVID-19 pandemic caused us to be separated from our parish communities. We did this out of justice and love for our neighbour, as Cardinal Thomas Collins, Archbishop of Toronto, reminds us.
In this separation, many of us turned to livestreamed Masses, so we could remain connected to our parish from the comfort and safety of our home, work or even car. While online Masses can be spiritually beneficial – and we thank God for the technology that allowed us to pray in this way – Mass viewed from a computer or TV screen is not the same as Mass in our parish. Mass is best lived out when we gather as a community in our parishes.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that the parish “is the place where all the faithful can be gathered together for the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist. The parish initiates the Christian people into the ordinary expression of the liturgical life: it gathers them together in this celebration; it teaches Christ's saving doctrine; it practices the charity of the Lord in good works and brotherly love” (CCC 2179). St. John Chrysostom puts it in a slightly different way: “You cannot pray at home as at church, where there is a great multitude, where exclamations are cried out to God as from one great heart, and where there is something more: the union of minds, the accord of souls, the bond of charity, the prayers of the priests” (cf. CCC 2179).
There is something different about our parishes than our homes. This is because there is more to Mass than just hearing the prayers and saying our responses (though that is important).
In an April 17 homily, Pope Francis touched on the concept of online Masses saying that one’s relationship with Jesus “is intimate, it is personal, but it is in a community.”
The parish is the place where we gather as the people of God. It is the place where we remember that we are called to be in community with our brothers and sisters. It is the place where we are formed as members of the Body of Christ, in community with those around us. It is the place of “the union of minds, the accord of souls, the bond of charity.”
The danger of Masses through a screen is it can individualize the liturgy. We lose the physical connection to our community. We lose the ability to be more deeply initiated into the mysteries of the faith. We lose the physical reminder that God is our God, not just mine.
Livestreams were the best we had while the churches were closed. And many parishes will continue to offer online Masses to serve those who cannot go to their parish while COVID-19 remains in our communities (Cardinal Collins continues to dispense the faithful of their Sunday obligation during the pandemic).
But our parishes are places set apart for us to come together. They are places that remind us that we are called to serve outside of ourselves, we are called to be in community, to be in the world. Livestreamed Masses provided an important service during the church closures – and will provide an ongoing service to many who cannot be in their parish during the COVID-19 pandemic – but we cannot become complacent and accepting of this reality if we are able to physically attend Mass. We need to be mindful that a screen in our individual home is not the best expression of the Mass.
The Mass calls us to give our best to God and neighbour. For those who are able to safely gather again, our best is best given in community, in our parishes.