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May 7, 2020

Vatican II and livestreamed liturgy

Vatican II and livestreamed liturgy

I have been watching a lot of livestreaming of liturgies lately, and it has made me think this thought: The liturgy, celebrated according to the norms of Vatican II does not work as well when it is something you only watch. My observations are that the old rite, what is called the Extraordinary Form, works better in most livestream situations. If I spent a little time thinking about the reasons, we might talk about how the two liturgies are different, not only in terms of ceremony, but in terms of Ecclesiology and in terms of Liturgical Theology as well.

But what it all comes down to is this:

The liturgy needs the people as much as the people need the liturgy.

The concept of having a single book for Mass — what became the Roman Missal — was developed almost by accident, a change from having individual liturgical books for lectors, deacons, priests, cantors, etc. Itinerant priests going to mission lands needed a resource that allowed the Eucharist to be celebrated even when there were few (if any) other Christians around to fulfill the many roles. From this necessity grew a theology whereby the liturgy didn’t need the people and, in fact, was better if the people were not involved because it was so sacred, so other. What was at stake was a vision of Church and of liturgy, to the point that when there were celebrations that required the participation of more than just the priest — what became the High Mass — this theology led to the notion that only those in the clerical state could fill those roles.

So it makes me really happy (in a way) to see that when we are forbidden from gathering as a community, the current form of the liturgy doesn’t adapt naturally to livestreaming. That is exactly as it should be. The reforms of the Second Vatican Council were designed to make the faithful an indispensable part of the celebration. And so it is. And it is good. Mass celebrated without the people, and often without the involvement of any women, seems stilted, strange and incomplete. For now, it is the best we can do, but it will never be a replacement for the vibrant Sunday celebrations, a replacement for an army of ministries — from those who prepare the space, to ushers and greeters, to ministers of music, lectors, deacons and priests, extraordinary ministers of Communion, catechists forming children and RCIA candidates and catechumens. Thank God we need them all.

And then there is the people, the assembly. We now know, if we didn’t before, what a wonderful contribution to the liturgy we make. Cardinal Dolan of New York, at every livestream celebration of his that I have seen, makes the point of how he, personally and deeply, misses the people of God. Watching liturgies in empty churches really drives this point home. Some of the best work being done in livestreaming works to counter this absence. I really enjoyed the streaming from Saint Monica parish in Santa Monica, California. I watched their Easter Vigil, and it was fascinating to see the lectors reading from their home and the music ministers singing together from their various homes, being livestreamed into the liturgy; into the church building. It was fascinating.

So, while the way we learned this lesson wasn’t something I was looking for, it is an important lesson that we need to share with each other:

As much as the liturgy makes us who we are, we also make the liturgy, and the liturgy needs us.

May we be making that contribution again and soon.

Dr. Glenn CJ Byer
Dr. Glenn CJ Byer

Dr. Glenn CJ Byer has written widely on the liturgy, including articles on the meaning of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, marriage preparation, the renovation of churches and the Anointing of the Sick. He also speaks widely on the role of lay ministers in the Mass.