02 April, 2006

Being at Mass vs. watching it

Something I didn't mention before about Austria is that, while I was there, I didn't attend Sunday Mass. There were several reasons, but the biggest was that I didn't want to hear it in German when I could watch it on television and hear it in Italian. It is the only occasion I can remember that I didn't attend Sunday Mass because of convenience. (When in Russia, I attend a Russian-language Mass. My then-fiancee helped me navigate the bus system to get to the cemetery to find the chapel.)

I did in fact watch Mass on television. The first week was broadcast from a very beautiful church where the choir's rendition of Christo, pietà (Lord, have mercy) nearly brought me to tears. The second week was not nearly so awe-inspiring; it struck me as that bland species of Mass that I refer to as "the Easy-Listening Mass". Even less awe-inspiring is the fact that I kept working on the computer through the first five minutes of the Mass...

When I first became Catholic, I used to rise at 6am and walk twenty minutes through the snow to attend daily Mass. I didn't have to do that in Linz; I could have hopped onto the neraby tram and ridden downtown to attend Sunday mass in one of the beautiful, historic churches. Instead, I chose to watch from the comfort of my hotel room, in a format convenient to me. Something about this comfort made me distinctly uncomfortable...

I brought this matter to a priest. He confirmed my unease, pointing out that the Vatican's Congregation for the Sacraments (?) has said that any sacramental activity loses its sacramental nature when transmitted over an electronic medium. Just as I cannot call up a priest or fax in my confession to receive absolution, I cannot fulfill the Sunday obligation by watching television. (I hope I'm remembering this correctly. I was aware of the prohibition on electronic confession, but I conveniently decided not to think about it in relation to watching it on television.)

There are theological reasons for this. He may have mentioned them, but it doesn't matter. I realized during the experience that watching television didn't give me the real effect. This is certainly the cause of my discomfort, and my decision to bring it up during confession.

I want to explain this with an example, not for you so much as for myself, so forgive me for belaboring the point. The fact that I found one Mass inspiring and moving, whereas I likely would have found the German-language mass tedious, is immaterial. The question about the right thing to do is never whether one feels comfortable and uplifted. This is a fundamental premise in much of my religious thinking; it is one of the view matters of which I can say that I am convinced unto certainty. Questions of truth and morality never hinge on what makes us most comfortable.

The fact is that I wasn't present at Mass.

Why does this matter? An example might be the presidential inauguration of 2000. I could have read about it in the paper, or watched it on television. I could have read about the cold rain; the crowds of protestors holding signs that read, "No honor in no count"; the barricades staffed by officers who searched your bags; and my good friend of two decades startling me by muttering in front of one of these officers, Fascists. I could have read about it from the comfort of my apartment, just as I read two of today's newspapers from the comfort of my apartment, with a cool breeze blowing in from the balcony.

In reality, I rode up that morning with two friends, one of them whom I've known for twenty years. We visited a few monuments, walked through the barricades, and saw the protestors. My friend really did startle me by muttering, Fascists in front of the officer searching his bag. I should qualify this with the caveat that my memory isn't as accurate as I would like it to be, but I'm pretty sure he said that then, and not at a safe distance from the barricade like a lot of other people would do.

Being there was vastly different from reading about it, and from watching it on TV. It's a completely different experience. If that's the case for a presidential inauguration, it's just as true for Holy Mass.

Some years ago, I considered my presence at daily Mass serious enough that I was willing to walk through the snow at 6am to be there. I imposed on my then-fiancee to help me find an out-of-the-way Catholic chapel so that I could attend Mass.

Now I don't even consider my presence at Sunday Mass important enough to walk on shoveled sidewalks and ride a tram to be there. This despite the fact that I need to be present at Mass no less today than I did then.

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