The Deacon's Bench

Some of us of a certain age know it as the “mass for shut-ins.” But tens of thousands see it pop up early Sunday morning on TV: a 30-minutes mass taped in a small studio that can give the viewer almost everything the regular mass offers — with the notable exception of communion. For the homebound, it can be a godsend. Literally.

Now, The Tidings newspaper in Los Angeles has decided to profile the company behind this unique form of evangelization:

While evangelical TV shows have the lion’s share of air time in the competitive L.A. market, the Heart of the Nation Sunday TV Mass — which debuted locally on Holy Saturday in 1984 — steadfastly continues its evangelizing television ministry to Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

According to Bruno John, executive director of the Milwaukee-based Heart of the Nation, approximately 60,000 Los Angeles area viewers weekly watch the 9 a.m. Sunday Mass broadcast on KDOC-TV.

Though many of its viewing audience members are senior shut-ins suffering from illness or disabilities, others include church-going and fallen-away Catholics from all ages as well as non-Catholics who find spiritual inspiration in the televised Mass.

“The hundreds of letters that arrive at my office each month demonstrate the impact the TV Mass is having on people’s lives,” said John, who joined the non-profit television ministry in 1994 originally started by his late father, Catholic philanthropist Harry John. “I even receive letters from Catholics in prison who watch from their jail cells.”

In the 1980s, Heart of the Nation produced several Catholic television shows in Los Angeles with local hosts that included the late Jesuit Father Frank Parrish; Msgr. Liam Kidney, pastor of Corpus Christi in Pacific Palisades; and Father Dave Heney, pastor of St. Paschal Baylon in Thousand Oaks.

A few years before selling its Burbank production studio in the mid-’90s, the company entered into a partnership with the Passionists, who have been televising the Sunday Mass from the New York area for 37 years. Since 1991, the Sunday TV Mass broadcasted by Heart of the Nation has been produced by the Passionists who tape the liturgy in front of a live congregation in a basement chapel at St. Frances of Rome Church in the Bronx.

“We’ve developed a unique model where we can provide a local broadcast Mass at a decent time in the morning,” said John. While a few Catholic churches across the country produce videos of the Sunday Mass for community programming time slots, John notes that many of them are aired very early on Sunday or later in the week.

Locally, Holy Family in South Pasadena videotapes its Sunday Mass which is aired later in the week on three cable companies. The Mass is broadcast in South Pasadena and San Marino on Time Warner Channel 6 (Wednesday, 5 p.m.); in Alhambra, San Gabriel and Monterey Park on Charter Communications Channel 56 (Thursday, 5 p.m.); and one week later in Pasadena on Charter Communications Channel 56 (Sunday, 10 p.m.). Since the cable channels air the Mass as a public service, Holy Family Church doesn’t have to pay for air time.

Air time on commercial channels doesn’t come cheap, with Heart of the Nation paying approximately $3,500 per TV Mass airing on KDOC-TV Ch. 56, according to John.

“Catholic producers are not used to paying for air time,” he said. “Protestant televangelists take a different approach and are more than willing to pay and rely on viewers to support programs.”

“We’ve had tremendous interest and passion from viewers for this ministry,” added John. Aside from grants from a few philanthropic foundations, the TV Mass is solely supported from viewer donations. Success of the Sunday TV Mass in Los Angeles has led the ministry to “take a leap of faith” and enter the Houston TV market with a 9 a.m. broadcast of the Sunday Mass on KNWS-TV Channel 51.

“We never advertise ourselves as a substitute for a parish Mass,” declared John. The ministry sends informational mailings to L.A. and Houston parishes once a year advising churches of televised Mass times. Eucharistic ministers taking Holy Communion to the homebound often find shut-ins appreciative of the information about the TV Mass and the ministry’s free leaflet missals.

Jo Cina, from Holy Angels Church in Arcadia, said her deceased sister looked forward to the Heart of the Nation Masses “without fail.” She noted residents at a local rest home she visits really look forward to the televised Mass. “I think we brought back to church some who had pulled away,” observed Cina.

You can learn more about the production company, and even make a donation, at its website, right here.

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