Being in Church is Essential, Governor. Virtual is Not the Same as Real.

Many of us have heard expressed the formulaic regret by someone declining to attend an event: “Though I can’t be there, I’ll be there with you in spirit!” Two reactions usually occur to us who receive such a reply:

1 That’s unfortunate.

2 Whatever the phrase “there in spirit” means, they probably won’t be present in spirit either.

We human beings are body and soul. It is our dignity to combine the two orders of creation: matter and spirit. Angels are pure spirit, animals are matter, but the human person gloriously unites both orders in our one person.

For the human person, physical presence is important because we are not disembodied energy and while absences are sometimes necessary, it is usually thought of as less than ideal when we “phone it in” or go virtual.

Many people forget that the word “virtual” originally meant, “sort of like, but not really.” So, we might say, “He’s virtually a genius.” This is a form of hyperbole where we speak of his qualities that are like a genius though he’s not actually one in the full sense of the word. Lately “virtual” has simply come to mean “electronic” or “online” communication. But we ought not lose the original insight that computer (“zoom”) meetings are sort of like meetings but not really. They lack important aspects and subtleties when people share a room together and are physically present. There’s usually more buy-in in actual meetings. Interaction is livelier and people can’t get away with some of the multitasking going on in the background of virtual meetings. There is also something about being away from your usual desk or location with all its distractions and being in a room that is both neutral and designed for meetings.

To be sure, some meetings work well online, especially those that are brief and to the point. Travel time is often saved as well. Zoom and other platforms have been a great help in this time of plague. But recent studies have shown that online classes are terrible for students, especially the younger ones. Others too are wearied by all the online time that has been asked of us. And while I have given many online talks in recent pandemic months, I miss the dynamic of being in the room with people where I draw energy and get subtle feedback by their postures and expressions. Obviously masks also hinder this feedback greatly.

But of all meetings where physical presence is most required, the Sacred Liturgy is most important. One cannot receive sacraments virtually. You simply have to be there. How discouraging it was to hear the Governor of Virginia seek to school religious leaders and their congregants recently on where and how they should experience God:

Worship outside or worship online is still worship….  You don’t have to sit in the church pew for God to hear your prayers,” ….Is it the worship or the building? For me, God is wherever you are. [*]

It is more than annoying for this radical pro-choice governor to play theologian and liturgist. He certainly shows little knowledge when it comes to Catholic Sacraments, all of which require physical presence to be conferred. You can’t get baptized online, receive Holy Communion online, or even absolution. Physical presence is required. All the sacraments touch the body in some way, whether through the laying on of hands, pouring of water, anointing with oil, or reception of Communion. The Christian faith is incarnational. Christ did not come among us as a ghost, a meme, or a Zoom host. He does not simply livestream and is not merely an idea. The Catholic Mass and Sacraments touch and interact with the body. Presence is crucial.

Even for most Protestants whose belief in sacraments is minimal and whose services are more apt for livestreaming, they still see fellowship as important. You can’t get real fellowship online, you just have to be there for one another.

Christ has a mystical body and it is essential that the members of his Body gather every Sunday: Christ the head, and his members together. In the Catholic Liturgy we experience the presence of Christ in the faithful gathered, and in the priest through whom Christ ministers. We hear his voice in the Word proclaimed and are fed by his Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist.

I do not expect the Governor to know all this. But, all the more reason for him to act with care and not speak so publicly of things he knows not. Catholics and other Christians are not frivolous in our need to gather. Our souls are just as important, if not more so, than our bodies. Sacraments and Sacred worship ARE essential in our lives, despite what some other governors and mayors have asserted. We should be expected to engage in prudent precautions like anyone who goes anywhere else. But government officials should not under-estimate our need to assemble for Sacred Worship even if they do not personally understand or share our beliefs. Our beliefs and practices far outdate this pandemic, this Country, and this culture. We will be here when all these things pass, as worldly things do. But the Word of the Lord remains forever.

19 Replies to “Being in Church is Essential, Governor. Virtual is Not the Same as Real.”

  1. The gall of VA’s governor is beyond the pale. That he thinks its within his authority to teach what constitutes worship or God’s presence not only shows his narrow-minded and ignorant view of religion, it shows further that he either has no understanding or no respect for our Constitutionally-protected Freedom of Religion. This freedom prevents the government from prohibiting the free exercise of religion, and therefore from dictating to us what constitutes the exercise of any given religion. I hope somebody sits this guy down to tell him how absurd he sounds.

  2. Msgr Pope:
    Are you lecturing the laity about virtual attendance? We know we need to be in the Church; we want to attend Mass and receive the Eucharist, but when the bishops lock them down and then limit attendance….what are we supposed to do? Perhaps the bishops should be more vocal and fight against the establishment. It was their decision and not the laity to shutter the Churches. Am I mistaken in this?

    1. Yes, I kept my Church open and our bishop never ordered lockdowns. It was terrible that some bishops did as they did. I am not lecturing you my friend

  3. Yes Msgr Pope we are well advised not to accept theological counseling from Governor Blackface Baby Killer. You call him pro-choice? What choice does the baby have? He is a baby killer and not a virtual one. He is living proof that one can be a neurosurgeon and still be incredibly stupid. May God have Mercy on his soul. May the Holy Spirit during this Christmas tide inspire him with the preciousness of every life God creates. The trouble with people as this addled governor is that they ‘believe’ they are good people – that they shall be as gods.

  4. Then why do you not also address such media as EWTN or other Catholic media sources which livestreams and even videoed Masses for such a long time to the public even before the Covid breakout? Of course people are not going to accept your premise because they are now so use to convenience and not physical presence. It is hypocritical to start now when it should have been addressed long ago when it first began. Then to take it away now, they will complain even more. Why single out the governors who know nothing about Catholic Masses in the first place?

    1. Because he is merely responding to the utterly inane statement of the governor, which could not go unchallenged.

      As for EWTN, that is the only Mass that many shut-ins have ready access to, and they have always maintained that it is no substitute for being physically present for those who can do so. Another benefit is that they present how to do a truly reverent Mass, which can by no means be taken for granted.

      Catholics simply need to re-establish their Mass habits, which in many cases needed work anyway. Either the words “This is My Body” mean what they signify or they don’t. By centuries-old tradition, we take Jesus at His Word, and receive His Body & Blood, Soul & Divinity when we approach the altar at Mass. There is nothing “virtual” about that reality.

  5. Thank you Monsignor,
    Perhaps it’s time to remind the world the difference between talking and listening to God in prayer, and the ultimate worship as He taught us, in which we are required to offer back to God a sacrifice of Thanksgiving for our salvation, to Eat with our family, the Lamb, sacrificed and transformed from bread and wine, on our great exodus to the promised land. Those who do not eat suffer the consequences and die, for they have No Life within them. This is from God himself! Don’t stop us from this, and in fact join us!

  6. Thank you Msgr. Pope for reminding the Governor. Now, who’s going to remind our own Bishop’s that it doesn’t help to give a general dispensation to Catholics from our Sunday Mass obligation as nobody is coming for Sunday Mass even though the Church’s are open. I, myself, wonder why I have to go since I’m not committing a mortal sin since I have a dispensation from my Bishop. But my Bishop doesn’t have the power to dispense me from committing other mortal sins which I’m far more likely to commit having been cut off from the body of Christ in the Eucharist and from the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We are creatures of habit and if they flippantly dispense us from the obligation to keep the Sabbath holy our Bishops are doing us in. You remove the duty and you remove the right.

      1. Hi Mon Pope, I found no hyperlink to the Va Gov re restrictions on in-person attendance of Mass. the gov, notwithstanding his policies on other issues, sets forth limits in three Executive Orders re Mass Attendance. All allow in-person Mass attendance with measures to limit transmission of the Covid, a legitimate governmental response to a public health crisis. Your focus on his “radical, pro-choice position” and “playing theologian and liturgist” detracts from the credibility of your article. Mass is well attended in person in my northern Virginia area of the Arlington Diocese, and the article is misleading to the extent it implies otherwise. Church attendance at mass and other church events has been granted lesser restrictions than other public spaces and entities.

      2. Thank you, I found the link. The information in the article implies that the Va Gov has prohibited in person Mass attendance. That simply isn’t so. Nor has Bishop Burbidge. The “lecture” on theology and liturgy at the end of the article is gratuitous and inconsistent with the Governor’s three executive orders and the Bishops guidelines for in person Mass attendance. Sincerely.

  7. We Jehovah’s Witnesses closed all our places of worship (Kingdom Halls) worldwide early on. This was in response to common sense – the Golden Rule – and governments’ orders. Romans 13.
    Soon we were involved in meetings via Zoom and other electronic means. We find none of the disadvantages you cite. Our meetings are generally two hours long and involve question and answer sessions on the Bible’s teachings. (We have added an 11th Commandment – “Unmute thyself.” 😊) All are encouraged to participate.

    We do miss physical interactions, in everyday life as well. We endure. We do continue to follow the Great Commission – to preach what Jesus taught us, mainly the good news of his father’s kingdom.
    Mt 6:9,10; 24:14; 28:19,20. Business as usual.

    1. Sounds like your worship is essentially preaching. Not so the Catholic Churches and other ancient churches. Sacraments are real and require physical presence.

  8. Mon Pope, to the extent your article emphasizes that Catholic worship necessarily implies and even requires the utter importance of physical participation in the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist, it is an encouragement to those who may be equivocating or substituting virtual participation for physical attendance, physical presence. Virtual is just not the same. Non-Catholics and even many Catholics (according to recent Pew Research Study) may not comprehend this, but it is true nevertheless. Thank you.

  9. Amen, Msgr. Pope! Your writing is so encouraging — thank you for sharing it with us all. I read this when you first posted it, and have returned to it today as my husband and I discuss new Northam proclamations.

    We will be praying for you (in person!) at Holy Transfiguration.

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