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Lustiger vetoes TV Masses, Foley demurs

NCR Staff

If Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris has his way, some aspects of church life will just never be “must-see TV.”

Amid all the enthusiasm for the new media technologies among the bishops assembled in Denver, Lustiger struck a dissenting note, deriding what he called the “cult of pictures.” And specifically, Lustiger voiced reservations about TV broadcasts of Catholicism’s holiest rite, the Mass.

“Many Christians in developed countries satisfy themselves with the televised Sunday Mass. It is sometimes difficult to explain to the faithful, who are fascinated by the power of pictures, why they must be physically present to the Eucharistic Body,” Lustiger said.

“They feel mentally and materially more comfortable at home in front of their TV sets than in a church they have to go to, where they will not see or hear as well, where they may not like the homily, where the heating is poor. ... And yet, their physical participation is required at the altar of the Sacrifice and at the eucharistic table.

“Of course it is possible to broadcast Mass live on television, as is often the case with eucharistic gatherings around the Holy Father all over the world. ... It is also a blessing for the handicapped, old or sick people,” Lustiger said. “Yet the pictures of a sacrament do not convey its reality. A live broadcast makes no difference. The physical, concrete celebration, offering and communion at a given place and time cannot be reduced into transmissible pictures, however respectful they are. Forgetting this amounts to yielding to the seductions of abstraction, to allowing oneself to be overwhelmed by mere images, to taking the risk of concealing the cost of the Sacrifice, to retreating into the cheap comfort of home.

“I have often been asked to allow the television or radio broadcasting of prerecorded eucharistic celebrations,” Lustiger continued. “My answer has always been resolutely negative because that would have been proffering a fiction and cheating the spectators into taking virtual for real action. Those who meant not only to watch but also to participate would be deceived, as they would not really get what was presented to their sight and hearing.

“ ‘This is My Body. Take it and eat it,’ these words give a concrete significance to the here and now. They are the immemorial counterpoint, the everlasting remedy to the presumptuous disintegration into the instant.”

Lustiger’s remarks brought a quick response from Archbishop John Foley, the president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, the man responsible for many of the Holy Father’s televised liturgies and an enthusiastic proponent of getting the church on the air.

“Certainly I believe that a televised Mass never fulfills the obligation. It never completely realizes the idea of unity in Christ in the Eucharist for which we should be physically present,” Foley told NCR in an interview following Lustiger’s address.

“At the same time, however, I think a televised liturgy can bring about an expression of unity of faith, unity with others in prayer. It can bring consolation, it can bring inspiration, it can bring a hunger for the Eucharist which will later have people go to Mass, participate in the eucharistic liturgy.

“I also think that a recorded liturgy is quite possible for the same reason. It’s not a virtual reality. It is the recording of a Mass which is actually celebrated. If that is able to bring spiritual enrichment, consolation, edification, if that is able to strengthen people spiritually and give them the desire to participate in their flesh and blood, as the body and blood is made present on the altar by the priest, then that I think is a great advantage,” Foley said.

“It is certainly better than not having that presence in broadcasting, having broadcasting or telecasting completely secularized, completely divorced from spiritual reality. ... There are so many reasons for having it.”

National Catholic Reporter, April 17, 1998