Long Distance Eucharist?

As the coronavirus pandemic that has raged across the world for the last eight months continues with no clear end in sight, massive changes have been wrought in our society.  Not least among these has been the complete or partial closure of many churches.  Some have suspended services altogether; others have shifted to services streamed over the Internet; and others have provided drive-in services.  Many churches have been reopened for public services with restrictions (social distancing and use of masks) since the beginning of June; but many continue broadcasts of services for the benefit of those who prefer not to risk in-person attendance.

This unprecedented situation has been the source of much discussion, much of it political, but some theological.  I’m not interested in the political aspects of the situation at all.  On the other hand, in a discussion in the comments section of a blog I frequent, a very interesting theological issue came up.  This was in the specific context of Catholic services, to wit, the Eucharist at Sunday Mass.  The question was this:  When the priest says the words of consecration of the bread and wine to make them the Body and Blood of Christ, why would it not be possible for those watching at home to have their own portions of bread and wine, and for the priest to include the bread and wine of all home-bound parishioners in his prayers?  Could not everyone then receive Communion, even without having to come to Church?

Even to attempt an answer to this question will necessitate a little bit of groundwork on sacramental theology. The first important thing to note is that all the Sacraments are both provided to us by God and “confected”–that is to say, accomplished or brought into being–by Him.  The priest does not forgive a penitent’s sins in Confession, or remove a person’s sins by baptizing her, or transform the bread and wine of the Eucharist into the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, of Christ.  God does all these things, merely working through the words and actions of the priest.  God, being God, has sovereign freedom and can do anything He wants, in any way, any context, any time.  Thus, God quite easily could consecrate the bread and wine of people at home during a Mass.  Did He so choose, he could do so even without a priest being involved at all.  In fact, according to the child visionaries of Fátima, during one of their visions, an angel gave them the Eucharist directly.  What we’re discussing here, though, is not what God could or might do (let alone in such miraculous cases as the one of Fátima!).  Rather, we want to consider what, in light of Catholic sacramental theology (I am not discussing Orthodox or Protestant theology in this post), might be plausible.  God, after all, normally restricts His actions to the sacramental norms, not because He has to, but for our benefit, so that we will have confidence that we truly receive valid Sacraments.

As I’ve discussed at much greater length before, there are four basic requirements for a sacrament to be valid:

  1. Matter–this is what is used in the sacrament.  Examples would be water for baptism, bread and wine for the Eucharist, and so on.
  2. Form–this is what the minister says.  For the Eucharist, the priest must minimally say, “This is my body” over the bread and “This is my blood” over the wine.
  3. Minister–this is who performs or confects the sacrament.  With the exception of baptism, which in an emergency may be conferred by anyone, even a non-Christian, and Matrimony, which is conferred by the spouses themselves, all the Sacraments must be conferred by a priest or a bishop (Ordination may be performed only by a bishop, and a priest may confer Confirmation only if delegated by the bishop).
  4. Intention–the minister must intend to do what the Church intends to do.  In short, if a person or persons goes through the actions of a baptism or wedding for a movie he/she is making, then even if all other criteria are met, there is no valid baptism or marriage, since there is no intention for there to be one (sorry, folks, but this torpedoes Wynona Ryder’s claims that she and Keanu Reeves were actually married on the set of Bram Stoker’s Dracula!).

Having established that, we have to set our scenario.  The idea is that a priest says Mass, while broadcasting it via television, Internet, or whatever, and that the faithful at home provide bread and wine at the moment of consecration, consuming it as the Eucharist afterwards.  Our question, then is whether the bread and wine at home is indeed consecrated, becoming the Real Presence of Christ.  As we noted above, God certainly could do this; but what we want to investigate is whether this would be plausible within the bounds of normal sacramental theology.

Points two and three above are unproblematic.  The minister is a valid priest at the church from which he is broadcasting, and he says the right things.  Points one and four–matter and intention–are the main issues we need to look at.  The requirements for correct matter for the Eucharistic species (“species” here is the technical theological term for the bread and the wine) are more stringent than most realize.  The hosts must be made of bread–obviously–and in the Latin Rite (the vastly predominant rite of the West), they must be unleavened.  Beyond that, though, the bread, according to Canon Law, must be made only of wheat.  This means no other grain (barley, rye, etc.) may be used, nor can any additives be in the bread (except of course for the water used to make the dough from which the bread is baked).  Any of the multitude of additives found in most commercially available bread would therefore invalidate the matter of the sacrament, thus resulting in invalidity.  In short, you can’t hold up a piece of Wonder Bread when the priest says, “This is my body” and have it become the Body of Christ!  The requirements for the hosts are so strict, in fact, that while anyone could make them, most Catholic churches purchase hosts specially made by nuns or monks, whose products are strictly regulated.  Sacramental wine, similarly, must be made solely from grapes and fermenting agents, and has similarly exacting requirements.

This issue is not insuperable, though.  One could obtain the recipe used for making hosts and make one’s own, to proper specification.  Making one’s own sacramental wine would be far more challenging.  Alternately, one could simply buy a box of hosts and a bottle of sacramental wine from a church supply store.  In either case, criterion one above would be fulfilled.  All one would have to do is reserve the hosts and wine until Mass is broadcast, and then bring them out at the moment of Consecration.  That brings us to the stickiest matter, that of intention.

In general, if there is no grave reason to think otherwise, the intention of a sacrament is taken for granted.  A priest does not have to say, in so many words, either aloud or in his mind, “I intend at this Mass for this bread and wine to become the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, of Jesus Christ.”  The very fact that he’s doing it is taken as indicating a habitual intention.  The same applies in general to the Sacraments.  The only case in which intention is frequently analyzed is in the case of Matrimony.  The Church’s teaching is that the potential spouses must give free consent for a wedding to be valid.  A shotgun wedding or a marriage to a child is not valid because there is a threat in the former case and lack of full understanding in the second–thus, in neither case is the consent free, and therefore there is no validity.  The complexities of annulment procedures in the contemporary Church do not concern us here.  Suffice it to say that, aside from the case of Matrimony, proper intention is usually assumed when one of the Sacraments is confected.

What about remote Mass, though?

If we go all the way back to the first Mass–the Last Supper–there was probably only one single piece of bread, most likely something like what we’d call a pita.  Jesus took it in his hands, broke it, said “Take this, all of you, and eat of it–this is my body, which will be given up for you.”  Jesus’ intention was completely clear, as he took hold of the bread, broke it, and distributed the pieces to the Twelve.  It’s likely that in the very earliest Eucharistic celebrations after the Resurrection, the rite was similarly attended by a number small enough that the presider (what we’d now call a priest) could pick up a single large piece of unleavened bread and break it into enough pieces to commune everyone present.

As congregations got bigger, the situation shifted to what is the norm even now.  There is a container (known as a “ciborium”, usually a gold-plated bowl or plate) that holds a number of hosts.  The priest takes only one of them (often, but not always, a larger host which is thus more easily visible when the priest elevates it) when he says the Words of Institution (“this is my body”).  Though he does not touch the other hosts, his intention includes them, so they are consecrated.  Similarly, large parishes may have numerous chalices of wine prepared.  Though the priest picks up only one, the wine in all of them is consecrated.  We see from this that intention to consecrate is not limited to what the priest actually picks up, but can extend at least a short distance to the bread and wine in containers not immediately touched by the priest.

In the case of Papal masses attended by large numbers of people–sometimes in the hundreds of thousands, as in many World Youth Day events–the number of hosts must be far, far greater than that of a typical parish Mass.  In some cases many ciboria full of hosts may be placed on the altar.  As this site explains, though, in many cases that’s not sufficient.  Instead, deacons or priests will stand to the side of the altar, holding ciboria full of unconsecrated Hosts as the Pope says the liturgy.  After the consecration, they disperse into the crowds to distribute what is now the Body of Christ.  For our purposes here, this indicates that the intention of the celebrant need not be limited to hosts physically present on the altar.  Thus, the priest need not touch the bread or wine, or even have it on the altar in order to intend to consecrate it and do so successfully.  The question, then, is what, if any, is the physical limitation on how far a priest’s intention can be effective?

To my knowledge, no Ecumenical Council or papal teaching of any kind has ever addressed this (if I’m wrong on this, please let me know).  Thus, we have no official guidance.  Since even in the most ordinary example of a sacrament it is God acting through the priest, there seems no metaphysical or theological reason that a priest’s intention couldn’t extend to hosts and wine, assuming them to be of proper matter, no matter how far away they might be from him.  He might, in principle, make an intention along the lines of, “I intend to consecrate these hosts and this wine on the altar, and also all that are presented by the faithful at home at this moment, wherever they are.”  What would happen?

Of course any bread or wine not fulfilling the criteria for proper matter, as we noted above, would be unaffected.  If I brought forth a piece of artisanal bread from the bakery and a bottle of champagne, there would be no reason to think they would become consecrated.  It seems to me that even in the case of proper matter–hosts and sacramental wine that I might have–this intention could apply only to that brought forth for the Mass.  In other words, any hosts and wine that I brought to the table as the priest speaks the Words of Consecration would be consecrated, but not other boxes of hosts or bottles of wine in my cabinet.  This seems reasonable–in some cases there may be extra wine that is not used in a Mass, the container being placed back away from the altar; and it is not considered to be consecrated at the Words of Institution.  The same applies to any hosts and wine stored elsewhere in the church, such as the sacristy.

One might object that because the priest’s words are received through the mediation of an electronic medium instead of directly through the air, there is no possible validity in a remote consecration.  There seems to be no clear reason why this should be, though; and priests use microphones in ordinary Masses all the time.  While there may be some considerations I’m missing here, the use of an electronic medium doesn’t seem to pose any a priori problems.

So at this point we can say, very tentatively, that in principle, there is no hypothetical reason a priest could not consecrate the hosts and wine of the faithful at home during a broadcast Mass.

There seem to me to be two problems, one physical and one administrative, that could occur.  Note in the last paragraph I spoke of consecrating the “hosts and wine of the faithful…during…a broadcast of Mass”.  There is a subtlety there.  We take simultaneity–things at the same time–for granted.  There is always a gap, though–the speed of sound, while fast, is finite, and even in a church building, the people in the back pews hear the priest milliseconds after those in the front pews.  They see him microseconds later, since light, too, while far faster than sound, is also finite in its speed.  For ordinary, day-to-day life, such lag is not even perceptible.  But what about broadcasts?  Imagine a colony on Mars, and a Catholic there with hosts and wine.  The Words of Consecration of a priest broadcasting from Earth take about twenty minutes to arrive on Mars.  Are they efficacious then?  What of a distant colony who might receive the transmission only years later, perhaps after the priest has died?

These examples are fanciful, of course; but there must be some limitation.  The minuscule gap between a priest’s speaking and the instant I in the congregation hear him is trivial; a gap of years through interstellar space seems different not just in degree but in kind.  Where, between those two, do we draw the line?  If I’m watching a broadcast from a sufficient distance, the signals bounce from a satellite some twenty thousand miles away in orbit.  Even at the speed of light, that takes slightly over a second from transmission to reception (note the pauses in question and answers with foreign correspondents on news shows).  What about a Mass thus broadcast?  Short of Divine revelation, there seems no way to answer such questions.

I would say, just in terms of what seems reasonable to me, and not out of any particular insight, that a live broadcast on Earth would be valid.  Thus, if I am watching the Pope from Rome, and he intends to consecrate my hosts and wine, if it’s a live broadcast, then the consecration is valid, even though it takes between one and two seconds for the Pope’s words to reach me.  A broadcast beyond Earth, it seems to me, would involve too long a gap between words and reception.  Something pre-recorded, it seems obvious, would be automatically invalid (else, by analogy, one could just flip the pages of a missal over the hosts and wine and consecrate them!).  Of course, in actuality, we’re all on Earth, and we’re using live broadcasts; so there seem to be no insuperable problems yet. 

The second issue is what I’ve chosen to call administrative.  In other words, there would have to be an official Vatican declaration making such a remote consecration permissible, and hence by implication valid.  Given that the Vatican historically moves at a glacial pace, I don’t expect such a declaration any time soon; but it would be conceivable.  I’m somewhat inclined to doubt that that will happen, though.  Protestants have traditionally criticized Catholic sacraments as having a whiff of the magical or mechanical about them.  I dismiss the comparison to magic–“magic” after all, is just what we call supernatural events outside the realm of “official” religion.  From one perspective, “magic” is just unsanctioned sacraments or sacramentals, or from the other perspective, the Sacraments are officially condoned magic.  The “mechanical” criticism is more significant.  The implication is that Christ becomes present or sin is taken away or such in as impersonal a way as a chemical reaction. 

Interestingly, the Catholic suspicion of change, particularly technological change, in the Sacraments, is tied to the criticism of the mechanical, if indirectly.  As impersonal as the Sacraments may have been at some points in history–particularly when spoken in a language impenetrable to the laity–there is always the idea, sometimes latent, but never lost, in the Church’s theology, that Sacraments are not mere mechanical actions, but expressions of relationship.  Every sacrament is a manifestation of a relationship between humankind and God.  No matter how often Mass is said, and no matter how often a person may receive the Eucharist, no matter how pedestrian it may seem to become at times, it is still an encounter with the Living God.  Part of keeping it from becoming pedestrian is the responsibility of the individual.  I must look at my spiritual life and try to keep my faith from becoming a mere routine.  On the other hand, the reason for the vestments, the singing, the “bells and smells”, and all the pomp and formality of the sacraments is exactly to impress on the people that what is  happening is something special, something outside of the ordinary sphere of the secular, of day-to-day life.  It is to remind us that what is happening is not some mechanical action, but something allowing us to touch, if only briefly, something beyond this world.

With that in mind, it’s obvious that anything that tends to undermine that special, numinous, ineffable quality of the Mass and make it more pedestrian, more ordinary, less sublime, is something that should at very least be scrutinized before being implemented.  This doesn’t mean that every Mass has to be a high pontifical Mass with a professional choir and orchestra; but it does mean that a priest saying Mass in khaki shorts and a sport shirt in his office instead of a chapel (something, alas, which I have actually experienced), while theologically valid, is a bad idea.  Between those two extreme poles there is much debate, and that is a rabbit hole I’m not going to go down tonight.  The point is that the argument that remote Masses of the sort we’re discussing here, while perhaps theologically valid, could be seen–not without reason–as cheapening the Mass, making it more mechanical, and perhaps even undermining the motive for the people to come together a community, instead of each family doing their own thing at home.

So, while I don’t claim to have a definitive answer to the question originally posed by this post, I will end with the following–not conclusions, but reasonable suppositions:

  1.  If all the proper qualifications of matter and intention were met, I can’t see any definitive theological reason why remote consecration of the hosts and wine of a layperson at home via broadcast (at least on Earth or in Earth orbit) would not be valid.
  2. Even if valid, such a consecration would arguably be a bad idea in that it could be seen as mechanizing the Sacraments and in discouraging a congregation from actual physical gathering for worship.
  3. For the reasons in the previous point and perhaps others, the Church is highly unlikely to authorize such remote Masses under any likely set of circumstances, or even rule on their validity.

One way or another, though, we will get through the pandemic.  We will just have to use what is available to us and persevere in faith, hope, and love.

Part of the series “Church, Churches, and Church History


Posted on 25/12/2020, in Catholicism, Christianity, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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