THE FIRST COVID-19 lockdowns in Italy began around February 21, 2020, covering some municipalities in Lombardy and one in the Province of Padua. Two weeks later, after a significant rise in the number of cases and deaths from the pandemic, the quarantine measures were expanded to the entire country, affecting the health, the mood, the needs, the work… and the faith of about 60 million people. All Church services had to be cancelled and the Lenten season, which had just begun, morphed into a long quarantine.

Thank God the Basilica of Saint Anthony was allowed to remain open to the public, but the faithful could enter the Shrine only in limited numbers, and had to respect strict social distancing norms during their individual prayers.

In the evenings at 6pm, when the Basilica was closed, we friars celebrated our community Mass around the Altar-Tomb of St Anthony, fervently praying to the Lord for all those who had been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. However, in order to help the many faithful feel connected with the Lord and his servant St Anthony, we decided not only to stream our Masses through the Internet, but also to broadcast them through a local TV station that had offered to do so free of charge.

It was an instant success; every evening Mass was watched on TV by over 120 thousand people in north-eastern Italy, and many more, from all over the world saw it streaming on their smart phones or PCs. And how grateful they were! During those 70 days of isolation and distance, they sent us many messages of appreciation for our daily Masses and prayers, saying that these helped them to understand that God loved and cared for them, and that they had a friend in heaven, St Anthony, who was always ready to come to their aid.

The lockdown has now been loosened here in Italy and, from May 18, the faithful may once again participate physically at the Mass, though with some minor limitations. What a relief this is; people can finally unite with Christ present at the Holy Mass!

As we all know the Liturgy of the Holy Mass is composed of both words and actions, or better, words and gestures that are pronounced and made by the priests and the faithful. Of course we can always listen to the Word of God through the media and feel its power in our hearts, but through the TV and the internet we can never physically unite with the Lord. Sacramentality requires the complementary presence of gestures and words; that is, it requires physical participation in the sacrament. In particular, in Holy Communion we receive Christ’s living and risen flesh and blood, and obviously we cannot do this through a computer or TV, just like we certainly cannot kneel in front of a TV screen or a PC monitor: that would be idolatry.

So would it be better for you to stop watching televised or live-streamed Masses? And would it be better for us friars to forget the technology which has enabled all of us to overcome the isolation imposed by the lockdown, and which for many years now has become an invaluable and dear household presence for so many people who, for medical reasons or through old age, can no longer go to church? Of course not; it would be madness. The media has a very important role to play because it allows the faithful to hear the Word of God more easily, to join themselves to the Eucharist by making an act of spiritual communion and, at times, even to have a strong experience of faith with a Saint to whom they feel close.

However, we have to keep in mind that the media performs the same type of service it performs for two lovers who are obliged to live far away from each other. Of course Zoom or Skype video meetings can do a great deal in making them feel closer, in bridging those many miles separating them, but at the same time they also enhance the desire for physical intimacy, to unite in a real, tangible, physical embrace.

And this real and physical union with Christ happens when we take part in the Eucharistic celebration because, as St Maria Goretti said, “The Holy Eucharist is the perfect expression of the love of Jesus Christ for us.”

Updated on September 01 2020