Broadcasting the Parish Mass

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Broadcasting the Parish Mass

ROME, 11 DEC. 2007 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: My church often has overflow crowds to the point where the doorway, halls and aisles are so filled with people that it is impossible to move. We have added extra Masses on these occasions and we also have two Masses being celebrated at the same time. Our church retained the original structure and it is used every week for Masses being celebrated simultaneously, especially on such occasions as Easter and Christmas. With the number of priests growing smaller, it seems that this problem will grow bigger. Even with the extra Masses, and Masses being celebrated simultaneously, we cannot accommodate the crowds. We have the ability to broadcast Masses to other gathering spaces on the church grounds. I am told this is not allowed. Is this true? Is there any solution we haven't considered? — G.S., Summit, New Jersey

A: First of all, you should thank God that you have such a blessed problem as an overcrowded church and congratulate both the pastors and the parish community for their fidelity to the mission.

Regarding the possibility of broadcasting the Mass to other gathering spaces, the principal reason why it is not permitted to do so is that the nature of full liturgical participation requires some kind of physical presence in a single assembly.

Thus, from the viewpoint of full liturgical participation there would be little essential difference between a group of faithful following the Mass broadcast to the parish hall and watching midnight Mass transmitted from St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

There would, of course, be some differences as the people gathered in the hall would be more active in attempting to follow and live the Mass. But this would not be enough to make them part of the concrete assembly and therefore would also be insufficient to fulfill the Sunday or holyday obligation.

Visual means may be used, however, to enhance visibility for large assemblies. Thus, giant screens used at papal Masses allow for everybody to be attentive to the celebration while maintaining the unity of the gathered community.

Adding a screen or two to a church vestibule, while hardly ideal, could at least help those who cannot see the altar. In such cases the cameras should preferably remain fixed on the sanctuary and not rove around the assembly so as to avoid causing distractions.

What to do? In the long term the solution is to either expand the present church or build a new one. Not an easy solution but, if possible, the most definitive.

The climate in your state, New Jersey, does not permit for the celebration of outdoor Masses during the major feasts of Christmas or Easter.

One possibility would be, having first received permission from the bishop, to investigate the possibility of renting a suitable venue in the area, such as a large hall or gymnasium, and use it for at least one large celebration on the major feast days so as to ease congestion in the other Masses.

This is far from an ideal solution and is certainly a temporary one. But some of the world's greatest and most beautiful churches have been built as the result of such fortunate difficulties as overcrowding, so there is no need to despair.

* * *

Follow-up: Broadcasting the Parish Mass [12-25-2007]

Related to our reply to a question on broadcasting the Mass to different locales (see Dec. 11), a reader from Auckland, New Zealand, previously asked: "In a new church where the altar is plainly visible to all members of the congregation and the actions of the priest can be observed clearly, is it appropriate to use video projection to image what is happening at the altar on the wall behind to 'improve' the congregation's view of the action at the altar?"

While I am unaware of any official norms relative to this matter, I would consider it pastorally unwise and likely to be counterproductive.

Many Catholics spend countless hours sitting in front of screens of one form or another at home and work. Although Mass is above all an act of worship, it also serves as a break from the mundane and a time to get in touch with the eternal. Thus, the last thing the faithful need at Mass is more television.

By their very nature, television and cinema induce mental passivity and polarize attention and thus are more likely to impede rather than enhance active participation at Mass which consists in much more than merely seeing the action on the altar.

There is also no small danger of the priest, consciously or not, playing to the camera and being overly attentive to how he looks on the big screen.

For these reasons I believe that the use of screens should be limited to cases when they are truly necessary due to overflowing assemblies, and even then be considered as stopgap solutions.

A Buffalo, New York, reader asked: "Is it lawful to celebrate the holy Mass in advance for the purpose of televising that Mass in the future? Basically, a TV channel wants a priest, during Lent, to say the Mass from the Fifth Sunday of Easter, in order to be able to broadcast it later on. Can it be done like that? Is it not just performing something without any connection to time and place?"

The U.S. bishops' conference has issued precise guidelines for televised Masses. Referring to this situation the guidelines say:

"Live vs. Pre-recorded Celebrations

"Whenever possible, the liturgy should be telecast live. When this is not possible, consideration may be given to pre-recording the liturgy. A liturgy that is pre-recorded for delayed telecast should be taped as it is celebrated in a local worshiping community and then be telecast at a later time on the same day. Only when neither of these options is possible, should the liturgy be taped in advance in a setting other than a regularly scheduled liturgy celebrated by a local worshiping community. In order to reflect the integrity of the liturgical year, a pre-recorded liturgy should be taped on a date as close as possible to the date of the actual telecast. In order to preserve the sacred character of the liturgical celebration, only one liturgy should be recorded on a given day with the same group of people.

"Time Constraints

"The celebration of the liturgy should not be rushed, nor should elements of the liturgy be omitted. Those responsible for planning, production, and presiding need to be sensitive to the requirements of the liturgy as well as the time constraints of television. For the integrity of the liturgy, those who produce the televised liturgy should be discouraged from editing out parts of the Mass (e.g., the Gloria, one of the readings). Planning and the careful choice of options can help to keep the celebration within the particular time frame."

The full document which develops the theme more fully may be found in the Web page of the U.S. bishops' conference, at

Follow-up: Televised Masses [1-8-2008]

Another reader wrote in regarding some remarks I made in an earlier reply regarding using screens at Mass: "Like millions of people over the globe I viewed the Pope's midnight Mass taped at Vatican City. I viewed it from 11:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m., Eastern Standard Time in the United States. I believe the first papal midnight Mass I watched was offered by Pope Pius XII. To write '[T]he last thing the faithful need at Mass is more television. By their very nature, television and cinema induce mental passivity and polarize attention and thus are more likely to impede rather than enhance active participation at Mass which consists in much more than merely seeing the action on the altar' — appears to be going against the Pope and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"Personally, I did not substitute the Pope's midnight Mass for attending Mass in my home parish. I was a lector at the children's vigil Mass on Christmas Eve and a minister of holy Communion on Christmas Day. Possibly you could rethink your position."

I sincerely don't believe that I need to rethink my position at all because I was writing about an entirely different situation in which I disagreed with the proposal to use screens during the celebration to enhance visibility even though the altar was clearly visible to the entire assembly.

Watching the Holy Father's midnight Mass or indeed any televised Mass is a commendable spiritual exercise, above all for those unable to attend Mass, but also for any Catholic who desires to unite heart and soul in prayer together with the Pope and the Church.

Most Catholics understand that following a televised Mass cannot, strictly speaking, fulfill the festive obligation. But it is a source of spiritual comfort and growth to those legitimately impeded, and thus dispensed, from attending Mass due to age, infirmity, distance or some other just cause.

It may also be a further source of spiritual nourishment for those who, like our reader, both attend Mass as well as follow the televised Mass.

Even while appreciating the good done by televised Masses, however, I believe there can be no comparison to the actual experience of being physically present at the august Sacrifice.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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