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Ask an Apostle: Magic tricks at Mass?

J. Peter Nixon answers your questions this month.
Catholic Voices

Got a burning question? Click here to Ask an Apostle.


Q: My pastor often performs magic tricks during his homily to illustrate the message of the day’s readings. I think this is fine and an interesting way to keep people’s attention, but my father thinks it’s irreverent and maybe even sacrilegious. Who’s right?

—Trick or Teach?

A: St. Don Bosco, the 19th century Italian priest, used magic tricks to explain the faith to children. So your pastor is arguably in good company. As a homilist myself, I know it’s not easy to keep people’s attention. Homilists employ lots of different strategies—jokes, stories, even a little song now and then—to get listeners to focus on the biblical message.

Having said that, I often find that these approaches aren’t terribly effective. Most of the jokes you hear in homilies have been told over and over for years. Visuals like props and magic tricks can sometimes be attention-getters, but at the risk of being the only thing people remember. If used without skill, they can indeed distract from the experience of the Mass. So I understand why your father feels the way he does.

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We would all benefit from approaching our differences about the liturgy with greater charity. Enduring the occasional magic trick during a homily is not a terrible penance. At the same time, those with a fondness for such things need to appreciate that they can make it harder for others to enter into an experience of worship. A wise pastor appreciates this diversity and works hard to ensure that, as much as possible, the celebration of the Mass is a unifying experience.


Q: I have been livestreaming Mass at home on Sundays. I’m confused about how much I’m supposed to participate. Should I stand? Kneel? I feel weird doing this at home.

—Liturgical Logistics

A: I felt weird too! In the early days of the pandemic, when we were completely locked down on Sundays, I sat in a chair in front of the computer not quite knowing what to do. It took awhile for it to feel, if not normal, then at least a bit more comfortable.

Catholicism is a very “bodily” religion. Our worship uses all of our senses: the smell of incense, the sound of hymns, the feel of holy water on our foreheads. We sit, we stand, we kneel. It’s a workout! But it also reflects a sacramental understanding of reality, in which the presence of God is mediated through physical things. When it comes to worship, Catholics put our bodies in motion.

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So it’s not a bad idea to do what you can to put your body in motion at home. To create a sacred space for the livestream, I usually light a candle on each side of the computer and have a cross off to one side. I do sit, stand and kneel where appropriate, although if you only have hardwood floors, I think it’s OK to stand! I don’t always sing on my own, though, since I usually depend on the rest of the congregation to carry me up to the high notes.

We all are longing for the day when we can celebrate Mass together again in our parishes. Until then, do the best you can and remember that you’re not alone in feeling a bit weird right now.


Q: I’m a communion minister, and my divorced and remarried aunt often attends Mass at my parish and comes up for communion. Is it wrong that I give it to her? I would feel awful turning her away.

—Communion Conflict

A: Thank you for your service to the church and for taking your ministry seriously enough to have posed this question. I want to put your mind at ease.

An Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion (EMHC) is not expected to make judgments about whether it is appropriate for a specific individual to receive communion. Even if you think you have knowledge of the individual person’s situation, it is not appropriate for you to turn them away if they come forward to receive. The only exception to this would be if you had received explicit instructions from your pastor about a particular case. In the absence of such instruction, you have done nothing wrong if you give communion to anyone who presents themselves to you at Mass.  

It is true, as you are clearly aware, that the church holds that those who remarry without their previous marriage being annulled are objectively in a state of grave sin and should ordinarily not be admitted to communion. Even here, however, there are nuances. Pope Francis, in his 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) suggested that there may be situations where an individual living in a situation that is objectively sinful may lack the subjective intent that would make them guilty of mortal sin. Discerning whether this is the case is the responsibility of the couple, their pastor, and their bishop.

It is precisely because of the complexity of these and similar situations that EMHCs are not asked to make judgments in individual cases. So please do continue to offer communion to all those who come forward to you.

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Q: My fiancée and I are moving to a new state before our wedding. Rent is expensive where we will live, and in both of our opinions, it would be a waste of money to live separately just for a few months. Is it OK to move in together now?

—Frugal Fiancé

A: Congratulations on your engagement! I certainly do understand how expensive rents are these days and your desire to economize. Having said that, I would encourage you to prayerfully think about this choice. One of the tasks you and your fiancée are engaged in right now is discerning whether God is, in fact, calling you to the lifelong vocation of marriage. Discernment requires freedom. You need to be free to imagine what it would be like to be married to this person but also what it would be like to not be married to them.

There is also something to be said for the wedding day being a real moment of transition. Celebrating the Sacrament of Marriage will mark a momentous change in your lives. You will receive the graces to truly become “one flesh,” a new creation that did not exist before. But as Catholics like to say, “grace builds on nature,” so why not do everything possible to make the day after your wedding feel as different as possible from the day before?