Now that parishes are opening up again, I’ve been disheartened to see row upon row of empty pews. I also read a post on social media recently that made me especially sad: “Once the pandemic is over, can’t we please still stay at home and watch Mass on TV? I really like the ease of worshiping God from the comfort of my couch.”
The question came from an elderly man and was directed to a priest. While I realize there may be compelling reasons for a person to feel this way (perhaps poor health), the idea that someone would prefer a streaming Mass over a real one disheartens me for so many reasons. It also makes me conclude that, somewhere along the line, many of us (myself included) have lost sight of the glory, the supreme treasure, the sublime mystery that is the Mass. Folks like St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis of Assisi, and Padre Pio speak to such realities far more eloquently than I ever could (and I’ll cut to them in a moment). But for now, I’ll stick with the analogy of cooking shows and touch on the smell of incense.
An altar boy worth his salt would use words like smoky and sweet to describe the effect of his swinging golden censer. But I guess we could just burn some on the living room table, right? What about stained-glass windows—the way they catch dust mites dancing in floating puddles of light? Or a cold stone floor beneath your feet; how about hundred-foot-high vaulted ceilings; antique statues of Our Lady, St. Joseph and other saints; walls painted with frescoes; candles flickering with light. This hopeful description of your nearby parish—cliché as it sounds—certainly renders a sense of timelessness and transcendence. But it’s all just a peek inside the sanctuary.
St. Thomas Aquinas once said: “The celebration of Holy Mass has the same value as the Death of Jesus on the Cross.”
Put that in your stock pot and let it simmer. Something about watching Mass on my computer screen reminds me of flipping the channel to find Rachael Ray with a flaming pan of cherries—“I can’t actually eat those,” my brain is quick to say. The frustration is real. Still, I wonder how many of us were living in the reality of Aquinas’ above sentiment when we received word our parishes would be closed last spring? I know I wasn’t, and for that I’m still repenting.
Padre Pio echoes Aquinas: “It would be easier for the world to survive without the sun than to do so without the Holy Mass.” Yet I was quick to let my local and state governments dictate my spiritual needs far too long. I never even wrote a letter in protest to my local diocese to say that Mass is far more important to me than shopping at Walmart. Lord, have mercy.
On a softer note, I particularly missed my elderly neighbors when we forced ourselves to watch streaming Masses at home last year. The dapper men in pressed suits and the little old ladies with bright lipstick—the generation that still knows how to really dress up. Now that we’re back, our parish just isn’t the same without them. And while I’m certain that some of this crowd has legitimate reason to stay home, the post on social media that initially got me thinking is a thorn in my side and makes me wonder if the inquirer was ever exposed to St. Lawrence Justinian who once said:
No human tongue can enumerate the favors that trace back to the Sacrifice of the Mass. The sinner is reconciled with God; the just man becomes more upright; sins are wiped away; vices are uprooted; virtue and merit increases; and the devil’s schemes are frustrated.
Or St. Leonard of Port Maurice:
O you deluded people, what are you doing? Why do you not hasten to the churches to hear as many Masses as you can? Why do you not imitate the angels, who, when a Holy Mass is celebrated, come down in myriads from Paradise and take their stations about our altars in adoration to intercede for us?
And St. Francis of Assisi:
Man should tremble, the world should quake, all Heaven should be deeply moved when the Son of God appears on the altar in the hands of the priest.
The reality described above certainly can’t be experienced through a computer or TV screen, which is why such mediums are best left for nature documentaries, family movie night, and—of course—the already mentioned cooking shows. Speaking of food, can we ever ponder the point enough that when God, the Creator of the universe, chose to break into time 2000 years ago, He chose a feeding trough for His crib; can we ever get our heads around the fact that the word manger comes from the French mangier, which literally means “to eat?”
Fortunately, the social media exchange had a happy outcome. The good priest gave a good answer to the fellow requesting no end to streaming Masses. He said: “Come back to church because Jesus is real!” He then expounded on John 6:55: “For my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him” (John 6:55–56).
In short, let Rachael Ray do Rachael Ray, with her flaming bowl of cherries that you’ll never get to actually eat (seriously, when was the last time you set fruit on fire?). And we’ll do Mass—in person, more often, and with more thanksgiving than ever before!
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