Spring 1983, Vol. 35, No. 1, pp. 51-58.

Christopher Kiesling:
      Liturgy via Electronic Communication: Is It Possible?

Electronic communication seems to offer a possibility of closing some of the gap between liturgy and spirituality and realizing an ideal of worship proposed by Vatican Council II, but also seems to hinder authentic liturgy.

Father Kiesling, editor of Spirituality Today, has taught, lectured, and published articles and books in the field of liturgy for twenty-five years.

IN an article which appeared in this journal several years ago, Sandra Schneiders noted and sought to explain a gap between liturgy and people's spirituality.(1) Such a gap is not restricted to post-Vatican II experience. Regis Duffy, in an article appearing in Studies in Formative Spirituality, writes about how Francis of Assisi and Teresa of Avila incorporated into their spiritualities the liturgy of their days, even though that liturgy did not, in itself, particularly express their personal spiritualities.(2) Yet Vatican Council II's Constitution on the Liturgy declared that the liturgy is the source and summit of the Christian life.(3) That is certainly a statement about an ideal, at least if viewed from the perspective of individuals' spiritual lives. Perhaps that claim has more validity in regard to the flow of life in the church as a whole, but even there it often seems somewhat ideal. Can electronic communications close the gap between liturgy and spirituality, both of the individual and the community?

We shall not attempt a complete answer to this question in this article. Our goal will be to note how electronic communications can affect the dynamic and impact of liturgy and, consequently, present further problems to liturgy's being the source and summit of Christian life.

Electronic communications appear to make it possible to make a reality out of an ideal set forth in Vatican II's Constitution on the Liturgy. There it is affirmed that the supreme expression of the liturgy is the celebration of the Eucharist presided over by the bishop of the diocese, surrounded by his priests, in the midst of all the people who are members of that local church.(4) Because of the large populations of dioceses, or the restricted size of locations where the Eucharist might be celebrated, or the distances between the boundaries of the dioceses, or various combinations of these factors, this supreme expression of the liturgy would seem to be never, or, at best, only partially, realizable. With electronic technology, however, it might more frequently occur in a way approximating the ideal.

Let us imagine a diocese well supplied with electronic technology. Every Sunday morning at 10:30 the bishop is principal celebrant and homilist at the Eucharist in the cathedral. The mass is televised to parish churches throughout the diocese. In each church there is equipment to receive the signal and to display the cathedral Eucharist on a very large screen in the sanctuary. Television cameras are also located in various parish churches, so that participating congregations can be televised and pictures of one or another of them displayed at one or two corners of the large screen on which the cathedral Eucharist is shown. Thus congregations throughout the diocese would be aware that they are together with one another, all around the Eucharist presided over by the bishop in the cathedral. Parishioners are encouraged to attend; Holy Communion is provided at the same time that it is distributed at the cathedral in the course of the mass; and the bishop declares that participation in the Eucharist of the cathedral via electronic communication fulfills the Sunday obligation, which is of concern to many of the people of the diocese.

We seem to come close here to realizing that supreme expression of the liturgy. It is not a perfect realization, but it has striking features. The bishop can actually function as preacher, teacher, and priest of a large portion of the people under his care. The people can see, hear, and come to know their bishop as few of them ever would in the way we currently conduct the life of the church. People widely scattered geographically and separated sociologically could be united in thought and aspiration through the bishop's preaching, teaching, and leadership in worship. These dispersed people could be united in the realization that they were worshiping together under the leadership of their common pastor. A weekly communications event of this sort would seem to offer great promise for building up a sense of the local church at the diocesan level and creating a unity among people that could be a significant force for heralding the coming reign of God in a secularist society. But would it work? Could we have authentic liturgical worship via electronic communication in the way we have imagined it here? What problems would we encounter?

PROBLEMS OF PRIVACY AND NONRESPONSE Symbolic of one aspect of electronic communications is the earphoned jogger or cyclist moving along in his or her own world. As authors in this issue of Spirituality Today have noted, electronic communication can be individualized, even privatized. Even when we sit watching TV with family or friends, we may as well be alone, except during the commercials, when conversation may take place. Watching a film in a darkened movie theatre, even though it happens among hundreds of people, is a private experience -- until we can discuss the film with others afterwards. So when the parishioners gather in church for the 10:30 A.M. Sunday mass at the cathedral on the large screen in the sanctuary, they will tend to bring to the experience that aloneness-with-the-screen which is familiar to them in so many other situations.

But participation in the liturgy is not a private experience, for the liturgy is not private, nor an object to be observed alone. The liturgy is an activity of a community, of people in touch with one another and acting together, though different members do diverse things to accomplish the whole. If our imagined realization of the supreme expression of the liturgy is to be authentic liturgical worship, some means of drawing the congregation within any particular parish church together among themselves will have to be developed. An individual could conceivably acquire a bond with the bishop and with other congregations generally throughout the diocese, while remaining a stranger to the people of the parish where he or she participates electronically in the cathedral worship. The exchange of a sign of peace after the Our Father would assume even greater importance than it has now. It seems that similar rituals linking the members of a particular parish congregation to one another would have to be discovered to offset the tendency to private experience in electronic communications.

Another characteristic of liturgy that would have to be provided for is its structure of dialogue. Liturgical worship is a dialogue between God and us: God speaks to us and we respond. That pattern is manifested in the liturgy in various ways. The liturgy of the Word can be seen as God addressing us and the Eucharist as our response. On the other hand, within each of these two parts of the Mass there are God's word and our response. God addresses us in the Scripture readings; we respond in the psalm after the first reading, in the creed and prayers of the faithful after the gospel and homily. The Eucharistic prayer is our thanksgiving for what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, but it includes the kerygma, God's good news announced to us, to which we respond "Amen." Readers and celebrants address us, ministers of God's word; if they are doing it properly, they convey a sense of personal communication, eliciting from us a personal response. Our response psalm or creed is not a recitation into the void, but a personal response to God who has spoken to us in the words of our fellow human beings serving as his messengers.

It would seem necessary for the local parish congregations watching the cathedral celebration of the Eucharist on the giant screens in the sanctuaries to respond even as the congregation in the cathedral does. If they simply watch the cathedral worship in silence, listening but not themselves speaking in response, it is difficult to speak of their participating in the liturgy in an adequate way. It is one thing for a sick or elderly person to worship via electronic communications with minimal, interior participation; it is another thing to accept this sort of participation for a whole congregation as a normal practice. The way the TV camera presents the readers and presiding celebrant would be crucial. They would have to be shown as addressing the congregation. Side views or interspersed scenes of the congregation listening would seem to obscure the communication that is supposed to be going on between the readers or homilist and the people, not simply in the cathedral, but in the outlying churches. The demands here for suitable liturgy may conflict with the aesthetics of standard TV camera work, and rethinking of the latter for liturgy via electronic communication may be called for.

The visual experience of the cathedral liturgy via electronic communications would also be definitely different from that of an ordinary liturgy as we are now familiar with it. Participants would have their vision focused on a framed picture. Their peripheral vision would be of another location than that of the liturgical actions seen on the screen, unless definite steps were taken to make the local parish congregation a visibly active group of worshipers. In ordinary liturgy, our vision fosters a sense of immersion in the liturgical event. Our attention may indeed be directed generally forward toward lectern and altar. But we see companion worshipers out of the corners of our eyes, and we hear them. If we are distracted from our gaze forward to look around, we see fellow worshipers for the most part. For authentic liturgy via electronic communication, it would be necessary to devise visual means of fostering a sense of immersion in a worshiping community.

In the line of visual experience, participants would also see what the operator of the TV camera decides that they should see, at least in regard to that part of the liturgical event which is the Mass in the cathedral church. Thus, the freedom of one's participation in the liturgy is restricted. If, for example, I am moved this particular day by the liturgical choreography against the background of the stained glass windows in the apse of the cathedral as pictured on the screen at the opening of the liturgy, I may never catch another such inspiring sight because the TV camera never again points in that direction. My prayer is thus controlled by someone who stands between me and -- not strictly the liturgy, for our assumption is that I am involved in the liturgy communicated to me electronically -- but another dimension or part of the liturgy in which I am participating. The situation is comparable to being in the nave of the church at the Easter vigil while the celebrant and ministers are out in the front vestibule, except that in the case considered here the distance may be several hundred miles between the parishioners and the bishop in the cathedral. In the present case there is not only the distance but, more importantly here, the limitation put on my participation because of my dependence on someone else as to what I shall see of the event.


The sense of touch is heavily involved in ordinary liturgy, but liturgy via electronic communication stresses the sense of sight and alters some aspects of the sense of touch which might still be involved. Touch is obviously present in anointing of the sick, the newly baptized, the confirmands, and the ordinands. Laying on of hands or signing someone with the sign of the cross is also part of some liturgical rites. The exchange of the sign of peace involves touch. Touch is also entailed, though mediated, in the distribution of the eucharistic bread and wine. We sit in pews together, perhaps packed in so that we touch one another; but even if we are not crowded, the possibility of touching others is very real. The sense of touch, perhaps via imagination, is involved in our perception of the texture of vestments, utensils, furnishings, and walls in the place of worship.

Liturgy via electronic communication reduces all these textures to the one surface of a colored screen. There is no possibility that even by chance we may touch one of our fellow worshipers who appears only on the screen, and we certainly will not shake hands with them before Holy Communion. They will not lay hands on us, or we on them. Without touch coming into play in some measure, a great sense of participation with others, of solidarity, and of communion is missing from the liturgy, reducing its authenticity and power.

Liturgy also includes the functioning of internal touch when one part of the body moves in relationship to another, when, in other words, we sit, then stand, then kneel, walk, bow, turn our heads, and so on. Liturgy that is limited to one position, to sitting, for example, is seriously lacking in bodily movement. Participation in the liturgy of the cathedral by outlying, congregations through electronic communications could not be limited to these congregations' sitting in pews and viewing the events portrayed on the screen in the sanctuary. Even if they were to sing and to respond in dialogue to the word addressed to them, their participation would be deficient without a variety of bodily movement in the course of the liturgy. Liturgical participation -- via a picture projected on screen would have to be markedly different from viewing a film or a TV show.

Liturgy via electronic communications may also lack something of the humanity that liturgy is meant to have. Nathan Mitchell writes: "Sacraments and worship are not glistening shrines that beckon us to withdraw from the world, but spattered landmarks built of human sweat, seed, meat, and eggs that point back to the world itself where God loves to dwell . . . . [Christian worship's] primary symbols are drawn from the messiest activities of human life: giving birth and dying, washing and smearing bodies with oil, eating and drinking, unburdening one's heart in the presence of another."(5) We might add that Christian worship includes rubrical blunders and confused choreography by celebrants and ministers. We may well wonder whether all these messy and clumsy aspects of liturgy would be present, or at least come through, in liturgy via electronic communications. Michael Dempsey mentions in his article in this issue that poorly done, amateurish presentations on electronic media are embarrassing and ineffective. There is, then, a drive for professionalism in the use of electronic communications. Does this mean that what appears of the cathedral liturgy on the big screens in the sanctuaries of outlying churches is always "proper," never the blunder or confusion? Would the camera always quickly be averted from a scene in which human frailty became evident? Even if the camera were not always to present the "perfect" image, could it adequately convey the "spattered landmarks" and "messiest activities" to which Nathan Mitchell refers?

The purpose of these reflections has not been to argue that liturgy via electronic communications is impossible. The aim has been to note characteristics of liturgical worship which electronic communications would certainly eliminate in some cases and, in other cases, might eliminate. Perhaps the loss of one or more of these elements would be more than compensated for by other gains. What would be gained, for example, in terms of people's coming to know their bishop and in terms of diocesan unity might make it worthwhile to tolerate the TV camera's determining what individuals see of the celebrant and ministers. Perhaps youngsters growing up in the era of electronic communications will not even miss what we regard as a serious loss. The analysis we have made, however, suggests that authentic liturgy via electronic communications is by no means easily accomplished, and that professional expertise in electronic communications is, alone, not adequate to insure authentic liturgy.


  1. "Liturgy and Spirituality -- The Widening Gap," Spirituality Today 30 (1978): 196-210.
  2. "Formative Experience and Intentional Liturgy," Studies in Formative Spirituality 3 (1982): 351-62.
  3. No. 10.
  4. Constitution on the Liturgy, no. 41.
  5. "The Spirituality of Christian Worship," Spirituality Today 34 (1982): 9, 11.