Getting a good seat to see Pope Francis matters. 

St. Matthew's Church in northeast Philadelphia has reminded parishioners that watching Pope Francis celebrate mass on the television does not relieve Catholics of their obligation to attend weekly services. 

“Viewing Mass from a separate location on the Parkway, while spiritually beneficial, does not satisfy your Sunday obligations,” the church tells parishioners.

Translation: If you have to watch the Mass on a jumbotron, it doesn’t count as going to Mass. 

Which begs the question: if Catholics cannot celebrate Mass via television, why are they televised? 

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in its guidelines for televised worship, notes that televised worship benefits the sick and the elderly — but does not alleviate the responsibilities of the faithful to care for the sick and the elderly. Televised masses also help connect people to the church’s teachings. 

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For Rutgers-Camden English professor William FitzGerald, the reminder that TV Mass is a poor substitute for attending in person highlights the fact that this is something Catholics of earlier generations wouldn’t need to be reminded of.

“No Catholic thinks you can virtually attend Mass,” FitzGerald said. “The people who are faithful watchers of (televised Mass) know it’s no substitute,” Fitzgerald says.

Skipping Mass is technically a mortal sin, but the church hopes people see it less as an obligation and more as a celebration.

FitzGerald, whose scholarship focuses on the language of prayer, says that Catholic worship has a physical dimension.

“The body of Christ is present in the believers gathered together,” he said. “And we also receive the Body of Christ in physical form,” he said. 

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But he remembers being on the Ben Franklin Parkway for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Philadelphia in 1979 — standing so far away he couldn’t see the pontiff. 

“I was thinking to myself, ‘We’re so far away. Are we really at Mass, or are we standing on a street corner?”