A Concrete Church in a Virtual World


“We just had not dared to imagine what He could do.”


Matter matters

For an incarnational faith, one that is rooted deeply in a sacramental worldview with bodies, bread, wine, and water, this time of social distancing and isolation presents some unique difficulties. As Catholics, our relationship with God is not merely spiritual but is lived out in tangible, material ways. Our encounters with Christ are personal and physical. We are not a virtual community.

Some non-Catholic Christians will probably retain a lot of their practices they’ve adopted during this time even after public life resumes. After all, brick and mortar buildings are expensive. Many large communities already stream messages from pastors to satellite campuses; why not just do that into people’s homes? Why not make that the norm?

What might work for other communities will not work for the Catholic Church. Why? Because the sacraments are tangible, personal encounters with Christ. Mass isn’t about a particularly moving homily or music that brings us into prayer. These things are good, but they are not what the sacraments are about.

The sacraments are the visible manifestations of invisible realities. They are outward, material signs of invisible realties: that a personal God is entering into an intimate relationship with a person. Matter matters. Your body matters. The material “stuff” of the sacraments matter. It’s why Jesus didn’t become some sort of ghost or hologram. Jesus isn’t a vision of God or some sort of way God appears among us just giving the impression that he has a body. (That’s a heresy called Docetism.)

So when this is all over, we are going back to the public worship of God in a church building. We are going back to kneeling in front of a priest and confessing our sins. We are going back to having hands laid on us and oil on our foreheads. We are not a virtual Church.

A Virtual World

I think this is to what Pope Francis was referring in a homily last week when he spoke about the “danger of this moment.” We should not think that this “virtual participation” is a substitute for actual participation. He said watching Mass online “is not the church.” “The church, the sacraments and the people of God,” he said, “are concrete.”

I do not disagree, of course. We aren’t a virtual church. But I think we should be careful not to ignore or dismiss what is happening in the midst of this difficult situation. Pope Francis acknowledged that this isn’t an ideal situation. So I think we also have to acknowledge that perhaps what our theological studies, canon law studies, liturgical studies have told us are proper manifestations of “the church” might be challenged and stretched by real experiences of what is happening virtually today, when Catholics across the globe are not able to physically participate in the sacraments.

I was part of an incredible grace-filled weekend that never would have happened under “ideal” circumstances, and I must say … it was one of the most profound moments of the “church” that I’ve had in years.

A small group of volunteers put together a “Virtual 40 Hours” over Palm Sunday weekend. Forty Hours is a nearly 500-year-old devotion where the Blessed Sacrament is exposed for forty straight hours of adoration. Virtual 40 Hours sounds exactly what it was – continuous prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament, but live-streamed from forty different bishops and priests all over the United States and Ireland. A single Facebook account, Virtual 40 Hours, hosted one live session after another, with priests preaching homilies and leading the faithful in the rosary, silent prayer, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, and praise and worship music.

Our team did not know what to expect. We certainly didn’t expect what was experienced over the weekend. The stories of healing and graces that poured in throughout the weekend and after were overwhelming. People who had never prayed in front of the exposed Blessed Sacrament were experiencing the peace of Adoration for the first time. We began hearing stories of spiritual healings and answered prayers. Most of all, we heard from people who had felt detached from the Church – not just because of the inability to attend Mass or the isolation of the pandemic, but because of the abuse crisis, the scandals in the episcopacy, and the hesitation to trust authority. They were feeling united and comforted by bishops and priests in ways they never thought would be possible again.

It was as if we took our little project to Jesus, hoping for some consolation during the pandemic, and He smiled at our small vision. He had much, much greater healing in store for His Church. We just had not dared to imagine what He could do.

A God without Limits

Is praying in my house looking at Jesus in the monstrance on my computer the same as sitting in a church in His presence? No. Is watching a live-streamed Mass remotely the same as going to Mass? Of course not. Would Virtual 40 Hours make much sense if I could go into a church and fall on my knees in front of a monstrance? No.

But should we close the door to the possibility that God is working through these efforts? Can we ignore what is happening in response to these creative attempts to bring Christ to a world fasting from the Eucharist?

The Pope warned last week that our social distancing and isolation could lead to living “detached from the people of God,” a faith separated from the church and focused on ourselves. While that danger is present, I think it’s important for us to broaden the conversation and ask if that’s really happening. Speak to people who are taking advantage of the virtual opportunities for Mass, pious devotions, and education. Are they necessarily turning us inward? Or are these opportunities having the opposite effect? Virtual 40 Hours seemed to do the exact opposite. It united us as the people of God, albeit in very unique circumstances.

If any priest is reading this, please don’t take Pope Francis’ warning as a reason not to provide these opportunities. Your parishioners need to feel connected to the Church in this time of isolation. While streaming Masses and virtual adoration are not ideal, they are all we have right now. We need you to be present for us. We know you are celebrating Mass and praying for us every day. We know the sacraments have not stopped. But we long to be with you.

We are not a virtual Church. But until we can come together as the body of Christ, let us not dismiss the fact that God is ready to pour out His real grace in creative ways – ways we cannot even imagine.


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About the Author

Joannie Watson

Joan Watson was born and raised in Lafayette, Indiana, but college and graduate school took her to Virginia, Ohio, and Rome. After graduating from Christendom College with a B.A. in History and Franciscan University with a M.A. in Theology, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee to be part of the explosion of Catholic culture in the middle of the Bible Belt.

She has been blessed to work for Dr. Scott Hahn at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia at Aquinas College. She is presently the Director of Adult Formation for the Diocese of Nashville. She also serves as the Associate Editor of Integrated Catholic Life.

When she’s not testing the culinary exploits of new restaurants or catching up on the latest BBC miniseries, she’s FaceTiming with her eight nephews and nieces and enjoying her role as coolest aunt. She likes gelato, bourbon, and the color orange.

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