Does watching a televised Mass provide spiritual nourishment?

By Jenna Marie Cooper 

OSV Question Corner

Q: In the past few weeks, due to extreme weather, I've missed Mass a couple of times. My parish has a Facebook channel, so I watched the services there instead. I wasn't able to receive Communion. In talking to the priest, though, he said that in such situations, a person can receive invisibly or symbolically, and either way still be fed. Could you comment? (Southern Indiana)

A: Watching a livestream or pre-recorded Mass is not the same as attending Mass in person and receiving Communion. But given the circumstances you describe, it sounds like watching Mass online was still a good way to be spiritually nourished in that particular instance.

Most Catholics are aware of our "Sunday obligation," that is, the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays or the Saturday vigil and holy days. As Canon 1247 of the Code of Canon Law states: "On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass." Sometimes this word "participate" is translated from the original Latin "participandi" as "assist at Mass," which underscores the idea that the lay faithful are meant to have a "fully conscious, and active participation" in liturgical celebrations (See "Sacrosanctum Concilium," No. 14).

A true fully, conscious and active participation in the Mass is understood to require our literal, physical presence at the liturgy. Because of this, watching Mass on a screen would not fulfill the Sunday obligation. During the time of the pandemic, a dispensation temporarily removed the obligation.

That being said, the church intends for all of our obligations to be rooted in common sense, and a foundational principle of the law in general is that nobody can be bound to do what is impossible. Therefore, if you are truly unable to attend Mass in person — whether that be due to inclement weather, illness, being a caregiver for the ill, car trouble, prisoners being at a great geographical distance from a Catholic church, etc. — then you are not bound by the obligation as long as these circumstances persist.

The Code of Canon Law explains in canon 1245, “a pastor can grant in individual cases a dispensation from the obligation of observing a feast day or day of penance or can grant a commutation of the obligation into other pious works.” If you have a situation such as going on a cruise where Mass will not be available, you may ask your pastor for a commutation wherein he may transfer the obligation from Sunday to a different day, even a weekday, for you to attend Mass or for another pious work and thereby fulfill your obligation. Also, a dispensation may be granted which eliminates the obligation as explained above.

Yet even if you are unable, and thus not required, to attend Mass, the commandment to "keep holy the Sabbath day" still applies, and in that case, we should still do what we can to keep Sunday as an especially restful and prayerful day. In fact, Canon 1248, Paragraph 2 tells us: "If participation in the Eucharistic celebration becomes impossible because of the absence of a sacred minister or for another grave cause, it is strongly recommended that the faithful take part in a liturgy of the word … or that they devote themselves to prayer for a suitable time alone, as a family, or, as the occasion permits, in groups of families." My own thought is that attentively watching a broadcast Mass and devoutly following the readings and prayers would be very much in line with the personal prayer time Canon 1248 recommends for circumstances where in-person Mass attendance is not possible.

Similarly, the graces attached to receiving the real presence of our Lord Jesus Christ in Holy Communion is not something that can be replaced by an online broadcast. But there are many beautiful prayers in our Catholic tradition for a spiritual communion, where we express our longing to receive Jesus at least spiritually, even if we cannot receive him physically in the Eucharist.

There are some circumstances when a Catholic should attend Mass to fulfill the Sunday obligation but not partake in the Eucharist, such as when he or she has committed a serious sin but has not yet received absolution in the sacrament of penance, or when he or she has not kept the required one-hour fast before Communion.

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Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to [email protected].