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Religious ceremonies online: The salvation and destruction of today’s faith


Pascal Deloche | Godong

Silvia Costantini - published on 08/31/20

A new study finds that the popularity of online Masses threatens the life of the Church.

The offering of virtual religious services online and on television—ranging from Masses and rosaries to moments of spiritual recollection live on social networks—has been center-stage during the lockdown due to the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Today, many regions of the world are in a phase of reopening public activities. Amidst fears of new closures and the desire to restart a normal life, including community and parish activities, one wonders what path we should choose and what the possible repercussions could be in the way we live our faith.

Two Italian institutions of higher education, The Lumsa University (Rome) and the School of Civil Economics (Florence), have carried out a poll entitled “Worship and spirituality online during times of physical distancing,” with the aim of trying to understand this new phenomenon.

The researchers involved in the study were Alessandra Smerilli, Dalila Di Rosa, Paolo Santori, Vittorio Pelligra, Matteo Rizzolli, Tommaso Reggiani, and Luigino Bruni.

We talked about the results with Luigino Bruni, ordinary professor of Political Economy at the Lumsa University of Rome, scientific director of the event “The Economy of Francesco,” coordinator of the Economy of Communion project of the Focolare Movement, co-founder and president of the School of Civil Economics, columnist for Catholic daily newspaper Avvenire, and the main author of the initiative.

How did this study come about?

Professor Bruni: Starting at the beginning of March, we found ourselves in front of what social science scholars call “the ideal experiment,” because there was a before and an after, and we took the opportunity to understand in particular how people lived their faith with priests connected to social media, or with Masses online, during that time of total closure.

The analysis, which covered a statistical sample involving a total of 2,000 people divided equally between Italy and the United States, with an average age of 47, was aimed not only at Catholics, but also at Protestants, Jews and Muslims, thus also bringing to light aspects that would have been difficult to predict.

How did Catholics, Protestants and Jews experience the transition from offline to online celebrations?

Professor Bruni: Catholics have suffered less than Protestants in this transition.

This discovery surprised us, because Catholics are more connected than Protestants to the community dimension of faith, which is also physical, of contact, of hands … Just think that the sacrament of the Eucharist passes through physical contact. 

At the same time, and it seemed to us a paradox, we know that the Protestant world was born as a criticism of the world of the Church, of the hierarchy, to highlight the individual (sola fide). But going deeper, we realized that Protestants were more affected by online celebrations essentially because of the lack of community life, not so much from a sacramental point of view, but from the perspective of a social gathering. 

For Jews there were no particular differences between online and synagogue worship. This, in my opinion, is because the Jewish religion is very abstract: a religion without images, without statues, without a temple. They have experienced exile and have been accustomed to a much more abstract idea of God. This has made them less sensitive to place and to worship, to the temple. 

Their faith is very family-centered. One need only think of Passover, the most important Jewish feast, which is celebrated in the family. Since the lockdown, family life has been strengthened. and that’s why the Jews have suffered less from this online-offline transition.

What would be the “typical” Catholic who has been least affected by the change from celebrating Mass in presence to online?

Professor Bruni: The Catholics who were least affected by the substitution of Mass in person with Mass online one are those who attended church infrequently anyway. For them there was almost no difference, and that is what is called the “Gnostic” effect. It is that due to which Pope Francis, in Santa Marta, drew attention to the risk of a faith without community and real human contacts. It is the heresy according to which the body counts for nothing and the Mass becomes a sort of cognitive mental act no longer linked to coming into contact with others. 

It’s different for those who are engaged with the Church. If, for example, we add all the data of the nuns that we have collected separately, a few hundred or so, Catholics become like Protestants: in other words, the lack of being able to live the celebrations in person is felt more intensely when there was a strong experience of religious practice.

The problem that emerges, however, is that if, even now that the lockdown phase is over, the Church continues to give ample space to Masses online, there’s a serious risk that some Catholics may continue to choose them because they are less demanding, in what is called “activation costs,” with the effect that they will not return to the Churches. 

What do you think is a possible solution to get the faithful back to Mass in person?

Professor Bruni: I would invite [churches] to take greater care of the liturgical side of things, because with impoverished Masses people don’t feel motivated to participate; rather, they follow them on television. 

The question is therefore how the Mass can become more involving, more an asset of experience and less an activity for spectators. Even today in Italy people say “I’m going to listen to” or  “to hear” the Mass, whereas it should be “lived.”

It would take a liturgical reform which would make going to Mass necessary.

It’s also necessary to reflect on why the Catholic world gives so little importance to the community aspect.  

At the level of institutional choices, if I were a leader in the Catholic Church I would avoid increasing the offer of Masses online, so as not to risk having a world of Mass “spectators,” which would mean the end of the Church itself. 

An interesting fact, however, is that during the lockdown a demand for the sacred on television emerged, even from those who never went to Mass before.

The study in numbers

• Total number of people interviewed: 1,000 in Italy; 1,000 in the United States

• Average age: 47. Young people under 35 are 20% of the sample, while people over 65 are 10% of the sample. In fact, we had a lot in the group between 35-65; not by chance; the average age is around 50.

• 40% of the total sample (including atheists, Catholics, Protestants, etc.) from the USA and Italy reported a high level of satisfaction with religious services on TV and social media. There are no gender differences.

• 1,082 people in the sample declare themselves Catholic, divided between Italy (402) and the United States (680).

• Of those 1,082, 40% go regularly or assiduously to church, and 60% do not. Of those who go to Mass regularly and assiduously, 22% (233) and 17% (180) respectively have reported a high level of agreement with the idea that the Mass on TV is equivalent to physical attendance.

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