Grateful for online, but it’s not the same
“With the streaming of beautiful online Masses due to Covid-19, some people don’t feel the need to participate in person anymore. How does the Church see this dilemma?” A. H.
By Msgr. Michael Magee
Times that bring trials and crosses to endure often bring blessings as well, while gifts and strategies developed for surviving challenging times often remain as strengths long after the trials are past.
Such will hopefully be the case regarding the fact that we have been forced by the pandemic of the past year to develop ways of maintaining connection using new media such as live-streaming, videoconferencing, and similar tools.
It is not only churches and businesses, but families who have benefitted greatly from such tools, facilitating contact with quarantined relatives. Even so, these tools did not take away the pain of physical separation experienced by those who were prevented from visiting parents and grandparents while only being able to be in touch with them by these means.
There is no substitute for real, physical presence with those we love, and for being able to embrace them or grasp their hands; to read subtle facial expressions that electronic media cannot convey; and to hear voices as their sound hits our ears immediately rather than merely through the medium of electronics.
God has made us as creatures of flesh and blood, who relate to each other through the medium of our bodies. Electronic media can provide us with living images of those we have come to know.
But it is difficult to imagine ever being able to sufficiently develop such relationships without real physical presence or being content to maintain close relationships for the long haul exclusively by electronic means.
When we consider this physical dimension of our relationality, we can recognize with great gratitude the beautifully loving way by which God himself has chosen to come to us through the Sacraments — through Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Mass, through Confession and Anointing of the Sick, and through those Sacraments that establish new and lasting relationships of various kinds between persons by virtue of Matrimony and Ordination to sacred ministries.
None of these could ever be reduced to a mere transmission of beautiful images or to the electronic conveyance of words, thoughts and melodies. Circumstances such as the pandemic might limit us for a time to being able to participate in these divine and life-giving events only by live-streaming or recordings.
But at the same time, they remind us that these beautiful gifts were given us by God so that he might do nothing less than actually touch us in our physical nature, washing us for the forgiveness of our sins, feeding us with the awesome gift of his body and blood, having the hands of a minister held out to us or imposed upon us to remind us of the passage of this gift of the Holy Spirit from person to person throughout the ages, conveying the love of God palpably in the gestures of a person physically present to us.
Rules are important for religion, but their real purpose is not to force mindless adherence, rather to remind us of realities that are so valuable that they call on our freedom to act in an appropriate way.
So let us focus our attention here not merely on a mere “must” or “should” — but on what our choices might be telling us about our openness to the gifts that God wishes to give us.
Going back to that analogy of our natural families, what would it say about my relationship to my grandmother if I found video chatting with her (learned by necessity during this lockdown) to be adequate, desiring nothing more? What would it say if I found this preferable because it rendered travel unnecessary and could be brought about without much effort?
Instead, both she and I would naturally be on the lookout for the earliest possible opportunity to be together again in a natural way, without the mediation of electronics, despite the blessing that these had proved to be when they were the only means possible.
The Church is God’s gift, intended by him as a true, supernatural family, where we encounter him in a living way, not merely by images and words but through the senses, and by a living encounter with each other in the sacred space of God’s house. Our desire for that gift rightly makes us grateful for the possibility of online contact when it is the only kind of participation feasible.
But only forgetting who we are as God’s Church, and of how beautiful it is to touch him in the sacraments, could ever allow us to be content with only an online presence and participation as soon as the more serious risks of physical presence have subsided. Of course, the kind and degree of such risk will vary with persons due to age, physical condition, and other factors.
Even so, a clear preference for in-person participation whenever possible is the only way we can really do justice in our hearts to the gifts we have as God’s family.
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