Monday, April 13, 2020

Live-Streaming the Absurdity of Versus Populum and the Prayerfulness of Ad Orientem

Now that thousands of parishes, chapels, and cathedrals around the world are livestreaming Masses on a weekly or even daily basis, it is more possible than ever to experience the bankruptcy of that postconciliar innovation that Msgr. Klaus Gamber considered the single worst liturgical change to be visited on the Catholic Church: the stance of the celebrant facing the people at Mass.

NLM has featured many articles over the years critiquing versus populum from theological, liturgical, and psychological points of view — see, for example, “Mass ‘Facing the People’ as Counter-Catechesis and Irreligion”; “How Contrary Orientations Signify Contradictory Theologies”; and, highly pertinent in light of the recent memo sent by a certain bishop in the American Mountain West, “The Normativity of Ad Orientem Worship According to the Ordinary Form’s Rubrics.” (This memo was the subject of an extended critique here.)

But with broadcasting, the problem is compounded a thousandfold, because the celebrant stands not towards a congregation, as if in a closed circle with them — for in this situation, at least there is something of a human symbol, albeit not the precise symbol called for by the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass — but towards a camera, like a talkshow host or a cook at a cooking demonstration.

Joseph Sciambra comments on his blog:
The COVID-19 crisis has also clearly revealed another point of polarization in the Church: the Novus Ordo and the Traditional Latin Mass. One is priest-centered and lends itself well to the media-age—it is suited to live-streaming over the internet with the focus on the personality of the presider; hence, many parishes have a cult of personality around a charismatic priest who is mainly known for his amicability. I remember these priests; for their rainbow-colored vestments; for their stupid jokes told during the homily; and for how they endlessly wandered about the church, hugging everyone, during the “kiss of peace.” Over the years, I have been to countless Latin Masses offered by many different priests; I do not remember the priests very well, but I remember that Christ was there.
That there is great confusion about the very essence of the Mass and the meaning of the ministerial priesthood may be gleaned from newspaper articles that interview priests who are now at loose ends because they have no congregation to engage. Having been led to define priesthood as a relation with the people when it is a relation with Christ first and foremost, on behalf of the people, they search in vain, or at least with great difficulty, for an intrinsic and transcendent meaning to the offering of due worship to the Most Holy Trinity, such as animated centuries of so-called “private Masses,” which the Magisterium of the Church encouraged right through Benedict XVI (see my article “The Church encourages priests to say Masses, even without the faithful”).

Dan Millette points out that half a century of priests being trained to “say Mass for the people” has built up in many of them a habit of thinking of Mass solely or primarily in terms of seeing and interacting with the congregation, “touching” them with eye contact, a certain tone of voice, a suburban ars celebrandi:
It [live-streaming] does raise the issue, caused by a versus populum paradigm, of priests’ need for an audience—that saying Mass alone is somehow unfulfilling or even weird. Thus, a camera is set up, often right on the altar mere inches away from the priest’s face, and his well practiced liturgical voice and gestures are given their desired audience. Along those lines, I think of an earlier story to come out of the COVID-19 crisis in Italy. It was of a lonely priest, forbidden from saying public Mass, who decided to post printed selfies of all his parishioners on the pews of the church. The action, which other priests soon imitated, was perhaps heartfelt, but nevertheless a sentimental absence of real liturgical understanding. This is not a live-stream issue per se, but it coalesces with the need priests have for saying Mass with an audience.
Here is the innovative use of taped photographs to which Millette refers:

If ever there was a reductio ad absurdum for the versus populum stance, this, the final outcome of the closed-circle mentality, would be it. If the church in which this priest is standing happened to have a tabernacle behind the altar, the inversion would be complete: a priest praying towards pieces of paper with faces, instead of praying towards the God who dwells with His people as their Head, their King, and their Shepherd, in Person—the Son of God whose bloody sacrifice on the Cross, sacramentally enacted upon the altar, is the reason Mass is said at all, for the profit of the living and the dead, wherever they may be.

Although perhaps this photo of a bishop saying Mass to a camera is just as effective a reductio ad absurdum:

More examples may be seen in an article just posted at PrayTell, including a photo of a man proclaiming the Word to an empty church:

Seeing this photo brought home to me once again the wisdom of the tradition in having the Epistle chanted eastwards and the Gospel chanted northwards: in this way the position of the reader is dictated by theological and symbolic ideas that lead to no weirdness when implemented in an empty church, unlike the scenario depicted above.

The current wealth of live-streaming opportunities has, however, brought with it a change for the better: the sheer number of ad orientem Masses (almost always in the usus antiquior) that are now just as easily available via social media as the versus populum options. To my knowledge, such eastward-facing Masses were not nearly as plentiful or visible in the eyes of the Catholic people as they are today. I wish I could find out statistics about viewers, but just as there can be no doubt that more (private) TLMs are being said right now than at any point since 1969, I would guess that the number of Catholics currently viewing ad orientem Masses from their homes is a significantly higher number than the Catholics who were already attending ad orientem Masses in person every week. The bishops’ rapid shutdown of public worship, whether or not it was required by civil authorities, may backfire on them in surprising ways.

A Catholic who desires a more prayerful immersion in the holy mysteries can end up viewing such liturgies as these instead:

Note that in the third of these images, an auxiliary bishop is sitting in choir on the left side. He preached the homily of the Mass.

We have even begun to see a few instances where the hierarchy of the Church recognizes the value of the traditional stance and encourages it to be broadcast:

With so great a number of viewable Masses, we are reminded again and again of the simple yet central fact that the most important mysteries of our faith are invisible. No camera can capture them; no human eye can observe them; no information from the senses will make up for a lack of supernatural faith. The Trinity is invisible; the angels are invisible; the moment of Incarnation, the hinge of material and spiritual reality, was invisible; the divinity of Christ was invisible throughout His mortal life (“flesh and blood hath not revealed this to thee, but my Father in heaven”); the Redemption Our Lord won through His death on the Cross was invisible — and no less universal and definitive for that.

Live-streamed Masses give us all the opportunity to ask once again: What is it that we think we are seeing at Mass? Why do I need to see the priest’s visible face when I am seeking the hidden face of the Lord, covered by sacramental veils? Why should I be distracted with a talking head when I can enter into the silence with the image of the high priest and enter, in faith, the sanctuary not made by human hands? Why would it benefit me to see a table with bread and wine when what I need is an altar of sacrifice on which to offer myself and all whom I love in union with the Victim who saves the world from sin, death, and hell? Why should I look at the unseeable miracle of transubstantiation when it is far better for me to take hold in my mind of the hem of Christ’s garment, together with the server taking hold of the edge of the chasuble, and beg His healing power?

In the latest newsletter of the Benedictine monks of Norcia, I read these moving words:
For centuries, it was not possible to see up-close the mysteries of the altar. In certain periods, curtains were drawn at the most important moments of the Mass. Still today, the solemn prayers of consecration are said in the lowest of tones—a whisper—as the drama of the liturgy unfolds. The hiddenness intrinsic to the Mass (with an iconostasis in the Byzantine rite) was common to all in some form for many hundreds of years; it summoned an atmosphere of mystery. In our age, which demands to see in order to believe, God is offering us a chance to rediscover mystery—the mystery of the Mass’s unseen efficacy (2 Cor 4:18). We must rely on an invisible medicine for our ultimate salvation in the face of this invisible threat.
 This article was updated.

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