With dioceses throughout the United States and Europe dispensing with the Sunday obligation in an attempt to help slow the spread of COVID-19, many priests have taken to livestreaming their Sunday Masses over the internet.  In a recent article on Cruxnow.com, Mark Pattison reported that many of these priests say the experience feels odd.

That’s understandable.  When, as an educator, I first transitioned to online teaching from the live classroom environment, which I’d inhabited full-time for about sixteen years, I found the experience a bit unsettling, too.  Talking to a camera in an empty room isn’t the same as talking to a room full of students.  Even if many are disengaged, you can usually find a couple of responsive and interested students in the room to serve as anchor points—asking questions, providing feedback, and creating a dialogue.  When you’re teaching to a camera, you don’t have that.

So, I have sympathy with priests who find themselves in this situation.  Giving a homily to an empty room must be weird.

These priests are to be commended for doing what they can to bring the Sunday Mass to their parishioners when the bishop and the civil authorities have told those parishioners to stay at home.  My own view is that, under these circumstances, any pastor who has the ability to livestream his Masses should try to livestream every Mass he or his associate would have celebrated publicly if things hadn’t been disrupted.  Doing so would provide parishioners more of a sense that they were really attending Mass and not just watching a television broadcast.

Don’t get me wrong, what EWTN offers is very important, and we should be thankful for it.  If all you have is a livestreamed Mass celebrated in a foreign parish by a priest you’ve never met, by all means, avail yourself of it.  But it’s not the same as a livestreamed Mass celebrated in your home parish by your own priest—that is, of course, assuming your parish isn’t a liturgical disaster area under normal circumstances.

Still, I think that things are probably more difficult for these good priests than they need to be because, since they were ordained, they’ve been celebrating Mass in a way that unduly accentuates dialogue with the congregation.  Of course, the congregation is always presupposed in the liturgy, at least in principle.  I’m not suggesting that the priest doesn’t rightly perceive that something’s amiss when they aren’t there.

No one could read Ignatius of Antioch without coming away with the clear picture of a congregation being taken up into unity through the cultic actions of the ordained clergy, with whom they are together lifted into Christ and drawn into the bosom of the Father.  It’s a good thing that, when a priest celebrates the Mass in the absence of a congregation, he perceives their absence and remembers them as he prays.

But the Roman Missal includes rubrics for celebrating Mass in the absence of a congregation.  So, the homily aside, the idea that this circumstance makes the actual praying of Mass seem odd brings to light a fundamental flaw in the versus populum posture that has become the standard for celebrating Mass in the Latin Rite since the end of the Second Vatican Council. 

If you’ve ever noticed a priest uttering the words of institution while looking out into the congregation and holding the elements above the altar while sweeping them from one side to the other, you already have all the evidence you need to diagnose the problem.  The priest is speaking these words while facing the congregation, so, he instinctively and unconsciously behaves in that moment, inappropriately, as if he’s addressing these words to the congregation.

In fact, the Eucharistic anaphora is addressed to God the Father, to whom the sacrifice of the Mass is being offered.  The congregants are to enter into that sacrifice and prayer, but they’re not the intended “audience” to whom the prayer is addressed.

Of course, the priests know this.  It’s not my intention to bash anyone.

The problem is that the bodily orientation of the versus populum posture gives rise to an unconscious response.  It’s natural.  Let me give an example of how it works.

Every now and then I wave back at someone who’s actually waving at the person behind me.  It’s awkward and embarrassing, but it happens because I’m facing someone and he’s waving in my general direction.  I don’t think I’m alone in this.  The priest, likewise, looks out into the nave and sees scores of people looking at him as he speaks.  How do you expect him to react?

After decades of being habituated to expect a congregation looking back at him, constantly, as he prays the Mass, it’s understandable that the priest should feel awkward celebrating Mass looking out over an empty nave, his back turned to the liturgical East.

In fact, no matter what your general view on the versus populum vs. ad orientem controversy, under the present circumstances, versus populum has no justification whatsoever.  The people aren’t there.

God, however, is always present.  Perhaps if the priest would just turn around to the liturgical East and face him, it would help everyone participate more fully in the sacrifice of the Mass under these unfavorable conditions.  The congregants praying their responses at home wouldn’t feel quite so much like they were talking to a television screen, and the priest would be reminded that he’s not alone after all—that someone is listening to him, and to his dispersed congregants, with rapt attention.