This year’s Holy Week celebrations resulted in a major spike of new viewers tuning in to watch Vatican liturgies – an increase from 1.5 million online viewers last year to 5.5 million this year – and a trend matched by ordinary parishes throughout the world forced to go virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet as technology has allowed many Catholic Churches to transition to a new schedule of online rosary groups, live streamed adoration, and televised Masses, parishioners and priests alike have struggled to adjust to the new normal.
For Catholics, who are used to the physical realities of participation in the Mass – from the kneeling to the sign of peace to, most importantly, the reception of Holy Communion – it’s been an abrupt change and theologians have differing opinions on whether, to use the language of Vatican II, one can engage in “full, conscious, and active participation” in a Mass if they are watching via television or online.
“If you turn to a TV Mass with the same attitude that you binge-watch the latest season of [Netflix series] The Crown, then this is not a real act of participation,” said Timothy O’Malley, the academic director at the University of Notre Dame’s Centre for Liturgy. “Of course if you attend Mass as a spectator, hoping to hear some nice music, to see some of your friends, this is not the ideal sense of participation either.”