Not Ready For Prime Time
ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
20. Transmissions of the sacred rites by radio and television shall be done with discretion and dignity, under the leadership and direction of a suitable person appointed for this office by the bishops. This is especially important when the service to be broadcast is the Mass.
There are 130 paragraphs in Sacrosanctum Concilium, and many of major importance to each of us in the Church. Para. 20 is not one of them. The most noteworthy points in this segment are more matters for Canon Law, that the radiocast/telecast be undertaken with the approval of an appropriate officer of the Chancery, and that the production be done reverently. This is as close to a “mom, flag, and apple pie declaration” as the Church ever makes. Such directives were in force long before Vatican II, and the Council itself would promulgate on the same day as Sacrosanctum Concilium “The Decree on the Means of Social Communications,” December 4, 1963.
“Social Communications” [SC] was such a poor document that even its English translator, Austin Flannery, O.P., devotes two lengthy footnotes to the translating problems involved. Flannery is too much the gentleman to say this, but the general dissatisfaction with this document is the text’s attempt to disseminate Catholic traditional scholastic scholarship in cinema, television, radio, and the newspapers. Para. 4 of SC sums up its agenda neatly: “If the media are to be correctly employed, it is essential that all who use them know the principles of the moral order and apply them faithfully in this domain.”
SC reflects not only the language of a 1920’s Curia, but the mindset as well. SC presupposes a power the Church does not have, to control the content of media—from films to newspapers—by clarifying the moral teachings of the Church. One wonders how the New York Times, CBS, or Warner Brothers would have reacted, had the document received much press. The progressive fathers and theologians understood correctly that SC was a Curial attempt to control “spin” on future Conciliar documents and Vatican statements, and a sizeable number of participants and even U.S. Catholic press outlets including Commonweal (national), Catholic Reporter (Kansas City), and the Boston Pilot united to critique that SC was “not an aggiornamento but a step backward….[and] reflects a hopelessly abstract view of the relationship of the Church and modern culture It deals with a press that exists only in textbooks and is unrecognizable to us.” (Xavier Rynne, p. 249) Rynne, reporting at the time, observes that the document passed a Council vote to clear the decks for more important matters and because of a general sense that the document “would be enforced loosely, if at all.”
That said, there is one interesting recommendation in SC that deserves consideration today: the promulgation of a Catholic press by dioceses (where such did not exist) or individuals. What the curial advocates of SC could not have imagined was the development of an independent Catholic media from the right (Triumph, Twin Circles, National Catholic Register, EWTN), the left (National Catholic Reporter, Commonweal, Orbis Books), and the center (America and other predominantly religious order journals.) To carry forward into another generation of Catholic media, I used my Bing search engine to find “Catholic blog sites” and arrived at 26,500,000 entries this morning.
The subject of the internet as “Wild West Country” in the theological wars of the Church is the gist of many good future entries here, but I need to return to the text of Sacrosanctum Concilium and the manner of celebrating sacraments on television and radio. Given that my own diocese streams its Chrism Mass every Holy Week, I guess it is safe to include live internet streaming into television considerations. The USCCB has an exhaustive set of guidelines for televised Masses for your research library here, updated in 2014. I will comment on several key recommendations.
It is understood that watching Mass on TV is not the norm for full participation. Televised Masses—which date back to the TV boom after World War II—have been understood as a means of providing connectedness to the community liturgy for the sick, the aged, the infirm, and those in special circumstances. My mother, for example, watches Masses from EWTN and the Diocese of Buffalo, and receives the eucharist from a lay minister of her parish church on Sunday (my brother-in-law, as it turns out.) I have to include a funny anecdote here. When I was home a few years ago I happened to visit my mother as she was following the daily noon Mass on TV in Buffalo. Since I had celebrated Mass myself on TV some years back, she asked me an “insider’s” question: why does the celebrant always fuss with his handkerchief just before he gives himself communion? I had to laugh, because many years ago I had one of those ancient microphones with the on-off switch on the belt time. I explained that a priest cuts his mike so his chewing doesn’t go out over the sound system—or in this case, all Western New York. The straight dope.
The USCCB’s preference is for the televising of a live congregational Mass broadcast in real time. Thus, the home participant is engaged with a live celebration of the sacrament and celebrates the feast of the liturgical calendar. Theologically this is the most appropriate way to televise a Mass, but it presents a host of practical problems for celebrant and technicians alike. Not all churches are built for television—some are too dark. Then, there is a time constraint of, say, 57 minutes or thereabouts. TV is a tight medium. Moreover, with the elimination of the community service rules by the FCC, televising religious services on Sunday morning is more expensive because churches now must buy the time.
The Catholic response to this new challenge is the USCCB’s second option, taping a live congregational Mass for rebroadcast later in the same day. If you check your own diocese’s TV Mass listings, you may find that Mass is spread out over the entire Sunday depending upon the cable carrier, available time slots, and commercial rates.
The least desired option permitted by the USCCB is the pre-recorded Mass taped for viewing on Sunday. I offered my diocese’s TV Mass from time to time dating back to the late 1970’s and the 1980’s, and the taping was done on Tuesday nights at WESH in Daytona Beach, in the weather studio. I taped two Masses (for two successive Sundays) back to back, with my guitar music group of teens in attendance and their parents watching from a control room. I have the impression this may still be the custom in many dioceses, though I notice in parish bulletins that the times of EWTN’s congregational Sunday (and daily) Masses are often posted.
The format I worked under left much to be desired. Our taping time—determined by the station—was 27 minutes, sermon included. Of necessity, the Mass was pared down—in my worst days my sermons could easily run 27 minutes in my own parish. And television can be unforgiving. On one occasion, using a host from the diocese’s Mass kit at the station, I was unaware of how stale the bread was. As I broke the host over the chalice at the appropriate time in the Mass, it shattered into countless pieces. I survived somehow with quick thinking, but I never got to see the tape—I was saying Mass in my own parish when my television tape was rolling out over channel 2. I was consoled to learn later that the TV ratings for the diocesan Mass had us in second place, just behind “Josie and the Pussy Cats.”
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