“Although the virtual reality of cyberspace cannot substitute for real interpersonal community, the incarnational reality of the sacraments and the liturgy, or the immediate and direct proclamation of the gospel, it can complement them, attract people to a fuller experience of the life of faith, and enrich the religious lives of users,” Wrote the Pontifical Council of Social Communications (“The Church and the Internet,” February 22, 2002, p.7). Over the last three decades, the internet has changed the landscape of our culture affecting the way that we interact with our families, friends, society and the Church. Whether the prevalence of virtual space is here to stay, there is a whole generation of people that have grown up relying on the possibility that what they are looking for is online. But, what does it mean to participate in a Mass brought about in virtual space? Specifically, does participation in a virtual Mass constitute the fulfilment of celebrating the Eucharist? According to the Pontifical Council of Social Communication, the answer to this question is a firm no. Many think that the Church ought to consider or actually use the internet as a means of education and communication. “The virtual reality of cyberspace cannot substitute for real interpersonal community, the incarnational reality of the sacraments and the liturgy, or the immediate and direct proclamation of the gospel.” The reception of the Gospel could be both simultaneous and direct if the Mass is “live-streamed” on the internet and the participant accesses this stream with a device capable of receiving the audio and visual of the Mass. Reception of the Gospel is a crucial part of the real world Mass and this is possible for a participant who joins a Mass that occurs in “cyberspace.” We explore the position that a virtual Mass cannot provide “the incarnational reality of the sacraments and the liturgy.”
I refer to the historical evolution of liturgical reform based on the changing needs of the lay members of the Church. We can explore the possibility of the virtual Eucharist as an extension of the Church’s willingness to accommodate the needs of the people to access the faith with other believers. Human beings cannot bypass their created nature, their embodied souls or their need for embodied closeness with one another. The virtual bread and wine cannot substitute for the embodied reception of the Eucharist in community. However, the virtual community celebrating Mass together could be viewed as a sign of solidarity with those who cannot attend such an embodied Eucharistic service. The virtual Mass cannot substitute for a physically gathered Christian community. This does not mean that the virtual Mass ought to be dismissed as completely devoid of community value. There are ways that the virtual Mass can provide at least some semblance of community. This community will not be the same as the embodied Christian community and therefore, should not be perceived as an end goal but rather a new medium to show the message. There are two main risks, namely, the increase in the privatization of faith and the growth of the sense of alienation that arises from isolation from Christian community.
In 1965, Vatican Council II promulgated the document The Church in the Modern World. The document is a “pastoral constitution” that outlines a set of guiding principles for the Church, and this includes thinking about the influence of technology. As such, the Church recognizes the need to take technology seriously, because the document tells, “Thanks to increased opportunities for many kinds of social contact among nations, the human family is gradually recognizing that it comprises a single world community and is making itself so. “Virtual Mass could provide a safe alternative given the rise of terrorist organizations and religious persecution. There are regions around the world where there are no clergy to perform the Eucharistic celebration. In this case participating in a virtual Mass could be a way for Catholics to participate in the Eucharist every week instead of intermittently. With the consideration of the sick and the differently abled persons who are willing to attend Church but cannot, the question of the fairness of the Church’s stance on virtual Mass is brought to the fore. As such, it is imperative for the Church to examine how the internet can be utilized in order to further its own goals and continue to be a relevant institution in society for years to come. Yet the virtual reality is no substitute for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the sacramental reality of the other sacraments, and shared worship in a flesh-and-blood human community.