QUAERITUR: Sunday obligation and TV Masses

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.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Imrahil says:

    What the priest did was that he authoritatively ascertained that the health is sufficiently ill to take away the obligation, plus advised her to watch a TV mass instead. I personally think that “For your Sunday obligation, watch TV” is an understandable form of this in popular language, nor untruthful.

    There is a state of illness where a priest can do decisions of this kind. I mean, 39.5 degrees centigrade of fever, stationary in hospital, etc. take away the obligation. But what about just a chronic bad state of health, as apparently here, perhaps primarily due to old age? What about 37.8 degrees centigrade of temperature? Ask the pastor, I’d say; and though the word “dispensation” is probably canonically incorrect, it pretty much describes the procedure.

  2. Phil_NL says:


    I can imagine that the very scrupulous among us might feel the need to consult a priest about this, but as a general rule? I think father would be a lot happier without every somewhat sick parishoner asking if he/she is sick enough to be excused the obligation, that could easily run into a few dozen phone-calls each Sunday in a big parish, especially during flue-season.

    I’d like to think that most people are capable of making such a decision for themselves, especially since they know the state of their minds and body a whole lot better than the poor parish priest. God knows our hearts anyway, and will keep tabs.

  3. JP Borberg says:

    I thought that by God’s law we are obliged to keep holy the Sabbath day, and by the Church’s law we are obliged to keep it holy specifically by attending a valid Eucharistic Liturgy.

    If one genuinely cannot make it to Mass (or whatever your Liturgy is called) one is excused from that obligation, but one is still obliged to somehow show reverence to the Lord to mark His day.

    Is that how it goes? I’ve picked that idea up from somewhere. Somebody please correct me if I’m wrong.

    Anyway, if that’s right and if one cannot make Mass, taking the time to watch a Mass on TV seems a fairly concrete way to take the time to honour God. In the past I’ve taken a Missal and read through the Mass on Sundays I’ve not been able to attend. I’d imagine watching a recording of a Mass would be much the same thing.

  4. FrCharles says:

    When I was a parish priest, I used to approach this question along these lines: First, I would try to explain that the Sunday obligation only applies to those who are able to make it. Second, I would try to say that the Mass on TV was a way to strengthen one’s spiritual connection with the Mass the sick or older person devoutly wished to attend. In this sense, the TV Mass is not a substitute, but a means to continue to pray with the community that was missed.

  5. More good sense and clear answers. And, man, FrZ does it for free. ps: Re the phrase “that person’s obligation is suspended” the canonist would more likely say “excused” than “suspended”, but hey, quid nobis. [Thanks for that distinction. I chose suspended with the view that the person’s conditions might change. It is good to know how a real canonist might put it!]

  6. Beyond merely viewing a Mass on TV, just watching and listening for personal edification . . . One who cannot attend physically can participate by praying the prayers of the Mass and allying himself with the actions of the priest as he would when physically present (perhaps using a missal to follow a TLM). At communion time, he can make a spiritual communion–for instance, using the Act of Spiritual Communion by St. Alphonsus Liguori. Some traditional authors have indicated that such a spiritual communion can be as efficacious for one person as an actual sacramental communion for another person (depending on the dispositions of both).

  7. Regarding televised Mass, from an announcement today by Fr. James Fryar, FSSP regarding the 9 am ET daily TLM videocast at livemass.net, regarding their new automated multiple camera system:

    We actually have three cameras now, and are hoping to install another, however in auto mode we are limited to how many cameras the system will accept. In manual mode all the cameras can be used. But even when only one camera is used, the image is far crisper and the shot is taken from a closer angle so that our viewers may be able to see more of the Mass and find it easier to unite their hearts and prayers to the Holy Sacrifice.

    Our traffic has almost doubled since the new camera installation, which was something that we had suspected and one of the main reasons to embrace the undertaking!

    We now have more than 3,000 frequent users of the iMass app on iPhone and iPad, and about 400 active users of the iMass for Android app. This is quite phenomenal considering that nobody would have ever dreamed of watching the Mass on their mobile device a couple years ago! Now with the new camera system iMass has become the best app for viewing Mass, a feat that is truly appropriate for the Extraordinary Form!

    Everything is pretty much ready for the Mass to be broadcast on St Michael’s Broadcasting television station in the Twin Cities. We will let you know when the Mass begins to air. It will be broadcast on a daily basis.
    If you have not updated your iMass app to iMass 2.1, please do so. The stream will no longer load onto version 2.0 of the app. Go to the App Store and check the updates tab.

  8. DeaconPaul says:

    I have an elderly aunt in Ireland who is too frail to get to Mass. The local parish broadcast the Mass on CB radio (don’t ask me if that’s legal!) which she follows at home. The lovely thing is that when the EM brings her Holy Communion after Mass she can feel a real sense of connection and inclusion in the celebration.

  9. tealady24 says:

    My mother-in-law is 86 yrs old, lives alone, does not drive, (and who would want her on the road, anyway,) and occasionly goes to mass when my brother-in-law drives over to take her, otherwise, watches on TV. She lives a few blocks from the church, yet, she is too frail to even walk up the hill to get there. She has no other recourse, so how can this be a sin?

  10. KAS says:

    So, because the obligation for attending Mass in person is suspended for those who due to ill health simply cannot do it, this priest was encouraging his parishioner to do what she CAN do which is participate with the TV viewing of Mass for the spiritual benefits that, while they do not replace a physically attended Mass, are none-the-less good.

    Makes perfect sense!

  11. irishgirl says:

    My godmother, in the last years of her life, wasn’t able to go to Mass due to ill health. So her son, daughter-in-law, and three granddaughters got cable TV for her, so she could watch the Mass on EWTN.
    She had an EMHC from her son and daughter-in-law’s parish bring Communion to her.

  12. Elizabeth R says:

    It may well be that the priest originally explained the situation correctly, but the parishioner either misunderstood what was said, or didn’t repeat it accurately.

  13. I wonder whether a couple of generations of Catholics are unfamiliar with the concept and efficacy of an act of spiritual communion when sacramental communion is impossible–for physical reasons or otherwise–at the same time when virtually universal sacramental communion may have cheapened it for many.

  14. ContraMundum says:

    In a TV Mass, only the accidents are present. Unfortunately, the accidents are only those of bread and wine.

    Frankly, this is also why I have ambivalent feelings about representations of the Consecrated Host even in religious art.

  15. James Joseph says:

    I like to watch homilies of Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate on YouTube. More folks should listen to them. I find listening to homilies from different priests on the same day helps round out understanding. I find Fr. Pacwa on EWTN to be riveting when he preaches within the confines of the holy Mass.

    The Internet is a boon in this regard. It is clear to me now that there is a great need for parish priests and their deacons (and sub-deacons) to mine the Saints, the Doctors, the Popes, the Fathers, and the Blessed Mother with greater thoroughness. Today, it seems, there is no ordinary reason why someone should not be able to acquire the treatises neccessary for such investigation.

  16. John Nolan says:

    Some years ago JP II offered an indulgence to those watching a papal celebration on TV. [… and…?]

  17. Imrahil says:

    Dear @Phil_NL, well, you may call me scrupulous in this regard. The thing is that disability to go for health reasons apparently depends on that one “genuinely cannot make it to Mass”, as commentators here explained. If I don’t go I generally don’t know whether I could have gone if I had tried, really heavy diseases excepted.

    However, maybe moral theologians teach a lesser threshold for obligation. Maybe when I’ve time I’ll look it up…

  18. Maria says:

    I have just read your post and thought it rather sad that there is nobody in the Congregation who can give your Mother in Law a lift to and from Mass.
    How sad, when we are not only obliged to attend Mass, but also Jesus said we are to ‘serve one another in love’.
    Very sad.

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