My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
Last week, Pope Francis, in his morning homily, made some comments on the virtual situation of our sacramental life in the Church.
The Pope’s reflection was occasioned by a call from a bishop, who in a sense, reprimanded the Holy Father for celebrating the Easter Vigil with so few people in attendance in St. Peter’s Basilica. The Pope understood the Bishop’s intention to say, “Be careful not to virtualize the Church, to virtualize the sacraments, to virtualize the people of God. The Church, the sacraments, the people of God are concrete. It is true that at this moment we must have this familiarity with the Lord in this way. But we must come out of the tunnel and not stay there.”
How true it is that we all want to come out of this tunnel. In the meantime, however, we must content ourselves with this virtuality which seems to encompass us all around. The beginning of virtuality, I think, in our society began with the invention of the television. I am old enough to remember a time when we had no television. When the first television came, it was a 14-inch screen which we all had to crowd around to look at the black and white picture.
What was even more interesting to remember was the type of programming that was offered. It was real. And, in a sense, what we saw was real-life situations, real-life humor. But what did we look at in those days of wholesome programs; I Remember Mama, The Goldbergs, Life is Worth Living with Bishop Fulton Sheen, The Ed Sullivan Show, and wrestling which was in a certain sense fake but very popular. These were real-life situations. There were no programs that went beyond what we normally could see with our own eyes. As time went on, however, television and the media have become virtual in many ways. We see programs that are not real but imitate reality and, therefore, are virtual.
Unfortunately, we must be careful if we apply this with our present situation in the Church, especially to the celebration of the Eucharist on television as the new norm We have experienced tremendous success in NET-TV re-converting itself truly into a Prayer Channel, which many of you will remember was its former name. During this pandemic, Mass is celebrated in seven different languages on Sundays; Chinese, Creole, English, Italian, Korean, Polish, and Spanish. It is our hope to continue these celebrations during the COVID-19 crisis. The numbers of people watching the Masses are truly fantastic. Viewership on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday Masses across all languages reached an estimated 240,000 people. The English Masses were viewed by an estimated 70,000 people. The Spanish and Polish Masses were viewed by about 40,000 people each.
The Holy See has given certain directions regarding the televising of the Eucharist. Primarily, the Holy See tells us that the Mass should be live and not taped. Again, this is better so that truly in real time, we can participate in the Mass and, in effect, make our spiritual communion with the Lord. Sometimes, however, this is not possible. All of the Masses that we have televised from the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph are real live Masses; therefore, we are participating in real-time with the priest, just as the live streaming being done in some parishes. How virtual is this? Perhaps we must understand that it is as real as possible for us at this present time, and, therefore, something for which we should be thankful.
As people look toward the future the question arises, “Well, will people just stay home and not come to Mass? Will they say, as my sister jokingly said to a friend, “I could get used to watching Mass from my couch?” How possible this could be. But I truly believe that people will return to the Eucharist and understand that in the interim, this virtual experience could be a valuable lesson whereby we will come to appreciate even more the great mystery of our faith, the Eucharist itself.
There have been other issues that we are facing during this time that have been controversial. Some have said that the government is infringing on our religious liberties. Well, there are different ways of looking at this issue. It is rather that our government is trying to save lives. We are only part of a greater program of protection and social distancing. Unfortunately, this will continue as things start to open up.
In a conference call last week with all of the priests of Brooklyn and Queens, we spoke about the eventual and gradual reopening of our Churches, whereby we may have to have social distancing in our Churches. This means six feet apart to our left and right and four feet to our front and back, which means an empty pew in between each row. The capacity of our Churches will be diminished. Perhaps we will have to have additional Masses to accommodate the faithful. These are some of the issues that we will confront in the near future that we must begin to plan for now. It is our hope that the end of the tunnel is closer than we believe; however, for the next month and maybe the next two months, we may be in this same situation. It is completely unknown to us, however, as of this writing.
It is also important for us to realize that after the conclusion of this time of trial that we might experience and need a New Evangelization post-Coronavirus. As I mentioned several weeks ago in a column, the question comes to mind, will people return to Church in greater numbers or will there be a diminution of the practice of the faith because some people instinctively, unfortunately, seek to blame God for the existence and transmission of the virus and not we humans who are truly responsible.
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, in the same homily on virtuality, spoke about the accompaniment in life’s journey that we all have with the Lord Himself. This past Sunday’s Gospel of the disciples on the way to Emmaus truly exhibits this point. As they walked along with this stranger, they did not recognize Him. In a certain sense, it was a virtual post Resurrection apparition which the disciples saw. Only when they arrived at Emmaus and broke bread together did the explanation Jesus had made of all of the citations of Scripture that referred to Him make sense. They recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread, in the Eucharist itself. This is what we are hoping and waiting for, that when we are again able to celebrate the Eucharist together, and not just virtually, that we will recognize the Lord and have a certain type of post Resurrection experience, our own resurrection, from the confinement that we have experienced.
Truly, we will put out into the deep, recognizing that our following of the Lord is more important than ever. That our participation in the Eucharist with our presence is truly the best way to encounter Him.