By Father Edward McNamara, LC
ROME, 22 July 2014 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Is it correct in any way to pray for someone over the phone? May one ask a newly ordained priest to bless him/her over the phone? — O.C., Avezzano, Italy
A: With respect to prayer, I see no reason why not. If we can pray for somebody with no physical or virtual connection, such as when we offer a mystery of the rosary for a friend or relative in need of prayer, then accompanying them in some way by phone or other technical means of communication can be a means of enhancing this effect from a subjective point of view.
In the case of priestly blessings we would probably need to distinguish some factors. Insofar as a blessing is a prayer, then I believe that a simple blessing can be directly transmitted by electronic means if the priest's intention is to implore God's blessing on those blessed.
There are some who disagree with this opinion and believe that a blessing of this type is reserved to the Holy Father. The documents are clear on the Pope's power to impart such blessings but are silent as to other cases.
When the Holy Father imparts the blessing "urbi et orbi," anybody who receives this blessing by direct transmission is truly blessed by the Pope and also benefits from the plenary indulgence attached to the papal blessings. The papal blessing is necessarily tied up with the plenary indulgence, which only he can grant.
This indulgence, and hence the blessing, is not received by deferred transmission. As the Enchiridion of Indulgences specifies: "The indulgence is gained by the faithful who, not present for a reasonable cause at a Papal Blessing, devotedly follows the rites through TV or radio 'dum peraguntur,' i.e., 'while they are being performed.'"
I believe that this principle of no recorded blessings would also apply to other clerics who could only give a simple evocative blessing over the phone, radio or other means. Even though a priest has the power to bless, a blessing, even in its simplest form, is a rite of the Church, and rites require some form of immediate participation.
A recorded blessing can be a source of grace, just as a recorded prayer or rosary can move us to prayer. But it is not a rite of the Church, and in this case it does not, strictly speaking, enter into the category of a sacramental.
Likewise, such blessing could not apply to constitutive blessings which require the physical presence of the person or object being blessed. Such blessings are those involving persons such as institution of ministers, religious professions and the like, or objects such as chalices or rosaries.
An exception to this is the Holy Father who may, on some occasions, extend his intention to bless devotional objects such as medals and rosaries even over radio, television and Internet, to those who follow the transmission directly. This cannot be presumed for every transmission of a papal Mass (far more common now in the Internet era), and his intention would normally need to be specified.
In the same line of thought I would also say that the liturgical blessings contained in the Book of Blessings would not necessarily be efficacious as blessings if the rite naturally implies the physical presence of the person being blessed.
These same formulas, however, could be used as prayers for those persons at a distance.
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Follow-up: Blessings Over the Phone [8-20-2014]
In regards to our July 22 piece on blessings over the phone a reader asked: "In an emergency, with the intended recipient between unconscious and comatose, could absolution be given over the phone? A priest who came to the house upon being phoned said he gave absolution, on the spot, from about four miles away. Kosher?"
I think we have two different questions. One is if absolution may be given to a person who is unable to make a sacramental confession and is in imminent danger of death. Here the answer is yes, although some effort should be made to make the person aware that the priest is giving absolution. If possible, it is preferable to administer the anointing of the sick in these cases; the sacrament also has the effect of forgiveness of sins when confession is impossible.
The second question is more delicate: Can absolution be imparted from a distance or even over the phone? Here the general view is that this is not possible. All of the sacraments require some form of physical presence between minister and recipient. Even the possible exception of marriage by proxy still requires the personal presence of the proxy delegate. Likewise a general absolution in an emergency requires the physical presence of those who receive the grace of forgiveness.
This point is corroborated in a statement of the Pontifical Council on Social Communications on The Church and Internet. To wit:
"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. There are no sacraments on the Internet; and even the religious experiences possible there by the grace of God are insufficient apart from real-world interaction with other persons of faith" (No. 9).
This merely updates earlier teachings. For instance, absolution by telegraph was declared invalid by a Holy See commission, and this was reiterated on July 1, 1884, regarding the telephone. Most theologians consider that a negative reply in a case such as this is settled Catholic teaching.
The answer would not change just because the question regards a dying comatose person in which issues such as the sacramental seal or determining the penitent's true contrition are not involved.
he question of invalidity revolves around the essentially interpersonal nature of the sacraments. They are not magical rites but encounters with Christ in which the minister is the human instrument of this personal encounter.
This does not mean that a person in this state is deprived of all spiritual assistance. As canon law states in No. 960: "Individual and integral confession and absolution constitute the only ordinary means by which a member of the faithful conscious of grave sin is reconciled with God and the Church. Only physical or moral impossibility excuses from confession of this type; in such a case reconciliation can be obtained by other means."
Such other means are an act of perfect contrition (see Canon 916), obviously made before falling into unconsciousness, and many other means which are not specified in Church documents but which God in his mercy makes available.
In this light we can recall how St. Alphonsus Ligouri, in his book on preparation for death, liked to quote the Book of Wisdom (3:1-4): "But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. For though in the sight of men they were punished, their hope is full of immortality."
The same saint later continues: "Father St. Colombière held it to be morally impossible that the man who has been faithful to God during life should die a bad death. And before him, St. Augustine said: 'He who has lived well cannot die badly. He who is prepared to die fears no death, however sudden.' (De Disc. chr., c. 12)."