Jean Baudrillard (1929 – 2007) was a French Sociologist and Cultural Theorist who critiqued the workings of Modern Society. For him, modern societies are organised around the production and consumption of commodities, while postmodern societies are organised around simulation and the play of images and signs, denoting a situation in which codes, models, and signs are the organising forms of a new social order where simulation rules. In the society of simulation, identities are constructed by the appropriation of images, and codes and models determine how individuals perceive themselves and relate to other people. Economics, politics, social life, and culture are all governed by the mode of simulation, whereby codes and models determine how goods are consumed and used, politics unfold, culture is produced and consumed, and everyday life is lived (Simulation and Simulacra, 1994)
Baudrillard cites the Borges’ fable: The cartographers of the empire created a map so drawn-to-scale and uncannily accurate that it covers the entire territory of the empire. Over time, the presence of the map takes over the real territory, so much so the people over time, eventually forgot the real physical landscape that lay hidden under the map, and took for real, the map that was covering the space. In the end, the real physical space erodes away into desert land, leaving only the map frayed at its edges. The simulation precedes the territory and has in fact outlasted the territory.
According to Baudrillard, the postmodern world is one of hyperreality in which entertainment, information, and communication technologies provide experiences more intense and involving than the scenes of banal everyday life, as well as the codes and models that structure everyday life. The realm of the hyperreal (e.g., media simulations of reality, Disneyland and amusement parks, malls and consumer fantasylands, TV sports, virtual reality games, social networking sites, and other excursions into ideal worlds) is more real than real, whereby the models, images, and codes of the hyperreal come to control thought and behaviour. Individuals flee from the “desert of the real” for the ecstasies of hyperreality and the new realm of computer, media, and technological experience.(Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy)
On the 15 February 2020, 12pm, due to the measures needed to curb the exponential spread of COVID-19, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore, put into place a country-wide suspension of all Eucharistic Celebration and religious activities. For the first time in History, the Catholic Churches were empty in Singapore, as 300,000 Catholics stayed away from the physical compounds of the Church and tuned in to the live-stream/ pre-recorded broadcast of the Mass online.
Across Social Media, the Faithful of Singapore shared how they managed to make the spiritual communion meaningful, and how it brought the family together as children were now closer to the family “altar” around which the virtual Mass took place.
Disconcertingly, was the feedback, that many enjoyed the virtual Mass more.
Some feedback from the Faithful included:
“I managed to attend Mass at 12.40am this morning (yesterday’s Mass of course). There is no way I could have ‘attended’ Mass on a normal day as the timing is really just off for me. I am quite happily adapting to this now.” – Parishioner from the East District
Another person referring to the set of display toys under the television, “I like how your have deployed the Transformers to be your altar servers.” – Parishioner from the West district
Yet another, “I like how comfortable we all are. We can sit in our shorts on the family couch and watch the Mass.” – Parishioner of the North District
“Finding it so difficult to attend Masses. But now I can attend Mass in my car on the way to pick up my children from their CCA.” – Parishioner from the East District
“The Online Mass is very boring. I end up sleeping.” – Youth from the East District
Of course, there was positive feedback about how it turned a bad situation around, and was a laudable measure in how it led people to draw closer to God. Admittedly, the online screenings faced new challenges of substituting for actual presence, and even to engage cinematically.
However, the feedback that exalted the “convenience of the situation”; or even how people enjoyed the virtual Mass more rather than the real one, makes one wonder if people are missing the woods for the trees.
Matthew 23: 16 – 22 comes to mind: “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So he who swears by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it; and he who swears by the temple, swears by it and by him who dwells in it; and he who swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God, and by him who sits on it.”
If people are drawn more to the simulation of the Eucharistic Sacrifice in the online screening, rather than the actual, living presence of Christ in the Eucharist at Mass, what does it say about our faith?
Also, what does it say that we can now fit the viewing of Mass into any time we like rather than placing the schedule of Eucharistic Celebration into our day as priority and weaving all our other activities around it?
The screening of the Eucharistic Celebration is useful as a means of virus containment, and its reach far surpasses that of physical and geographic constraints, but it cannot take the place of the actual partaking of Christ.
Fast Forward to the end of August, post -Circuit Breaker Period. Catholic Churches have steadily and gradually re-opened since the beginning of July, in alignment with the guidelines proposed by the authorities, and can allow up to a maximum capacity of 50 persons at any one time for the Eucharistic Celebrations. Yet parishes are grappling with further challenges: For one, the people who have registered officially as parishioners and the people who have made bookings for attending the Eucharistic Celebrations are not tallying. We are seeing the 50 persons at the Eucharistic Celebrations, and the youth continue to stay away. Out of an original count of 2500 parishioners, only about 1000 have signed up officially and are reflected on the Mass Registration System, then out of these 1000 parishioners, only 10% have been showing up. The Church has moved on from Maintenance mode into a state of decline. Unless something urgent is done with how the Church has always been run, how outreach is done, we will continue to lose more parishioners.
There are no easy answers as Man grapples with the gift and the reach of modern technologies and novel ways of understanding the reality of the world. However it may be possible to take a leaf from Gaudium et spes – Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World: “Sacred Scripture teaches the human family what the experience of the ages confirms: that while human progress is a great advantage to man, it brings with it a strong temptation. For when the order of values is jumbled and bad is mixed with the good, individuals and groups pay heed solely to their own interests, and not to those of others. Thus it happens that the world ceases to be a place of true brotherhood. In our own day, the magnified power of humanity threatens to destroy the race itself…
That is why Christ’s Church, trusting in the design of the Creator, acknowledges that human progress can serve man’s true happiness, yet she cannot help echoing the Apostle’s warning: “Be not conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2). Here by the world is meant that spirit of vanity and malice which transforms into an instrument of sin those human energies intended for the service of God and man.”
Technology and advancement are gifts, but in this time when the virtual reality of the televised Mass is inevitable to protect our very selves, let us not be so complacent as to prefer the vicarious simulation to the real thing, and allow ourselves to be conformed to the world.
We will never know the wondrous plan of God. The Lord is working behind the scenes, and we hold on in Faith to his glorious plan in this time of recalibration, purification, preparation, pruning and humbling.
By the Grace of God,
Brian Bartholomew Tan
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulation and Simulacra, 1994
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy