From a reader:
I was chatting with someone and she told me the priest in the parish
where she is a member gave her permission, due to her ill health and thus difficulty in attending Mass on Sunday, to “attend Mass by
watching on TV” to fulfill her Sunday Obligation.
This is normally not a fulfillment of the Sunday Obligation but does a priest have the authority to replace the physical attendance at Mass with a TV viewing in a case such as ill health?
She was so sincerely convinced that he did have that authority and
that it was a marvelous solution that before I say anything more, I
need to know if such an exemption is possible. Thank you!
Look, friend,… if someone cannot go to Mass, truly cannot, then that person’s obligation is suspended.
You don’t, can’t, fulfill your Sunday obligation, by watching Mass on TV.
If you can go, you go. If you can’t you can’t. God doesn’t ask the impossible.
If you are sick, you don’t have to fulfill the obligation. If you are old and afraid to go out alone, or that you might slip on the ice, you don’t have to fulfill the obligation. If you are far from a church while travelling and don’t know where to go or can’t get to a church, you don’t have to fulfill the obligation.
You don’t fulfill the obligation by watching TV and priests shouldn’t tell you you can. That response is not compassionate, which is what they intend it to be. It is better to tell them the truth: you don’t have to fulfill the obligation.
Of course, if a person really can go to Mass, and doesn’t… well… don’t get hit by a truck.
And while watching Mass on TV doesn’t fulfill the obligation, it can nevertheless be good and edifying (depending on the Mass, of course) and even consoling. I am not saying don’t watch TV Masses. I am saying that they don’t fulfill an obligation.
Finally, and this is a point in favor of the priest in the question at the top, while watching Mass on TV does not fulfill one’s Sunday obligation, the 1983 Code of Canon Law, in can. 1245 gives to pastors (in England “the parish priest”) the right to grant a dispensation from the obligation in individual cases or else he can commute the obligation into other pious works. You can debate whether or not watching Mass on TV counts as a “pious work”. However, the priest in the story above, if the person’s pastor, might have been dealing with a person wrestling with scruples.
What this question brings out is the great flexibility provided by the Church’s Law, based on Christian doctrine and the practical experience of centuries, as well as how serious our obligation is to seek Holy Mass on days of precept.