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Colleen DulleMarch 11, 2021

Even though there is no congregation at Sunday Mass, the community at St. Benedict the African Parish in Chicago has never been so close.

As Chicago entered a strict lockdown in March 2020, young members of the community helped the parish transition to broadcasting its liturgies and some of its weekly offerings, like Bible studies, on Zoom. One young man even visited the home of an elderly parishioner to help her connect to the parish’s livestream.

When the pastor of the historically Black Catholic church, the Rev. David Jones, saw how the Zoom liturgies and Bible studies were helping older members of the community overcome their isolation, he challenged the parish team to come up with online programming for every day of the week.

“The beauty that I witnessed was the community that was formed,” said Father Jones. Around 20 people, or 10 percent of the parish’s virtual Sunday Massgoers, tune in every day at noon for discussion groups or weekly to pray the rosary. They also have special events like a highlighting of local entrepreneurs, holding Bible studies, a speaker series or a hush harbor, a service featuring spirituals and speeches that dates to slave gatherings in antebellum America.

Parishioner at St. Benedict the African
Susan Rashad, a parishioner at St. Benedict the African Parish in Chicago, waves to other parishioners on Zoom during the Sign of Peace.

The daily Zoom group is made up of parishioners who were not well acquainted before the pandemic, but who have become close thanks to daily conversations. Now, when one person is unable to call in by Zoom, as happened recently when a member was sick, the group works together to make sure the missing member is all right. “They’ve gone from not knowing each other’s names to knowing each other’s medical histories,” Father Jones joked.

The parish, like many I contacted for this article, has not seen a significant decrease in Sunday attendance since switching to online liturgies. In fact, at St. Benedict, some Massgoers who previously attended occasionally now attend online every Sunday, Father Jones said. The parish also sees new possibilities in using online connections not just for evangelization but for fostering greater involvement of young people, stabilizing parish finances with online giving and creating accessible communities for isolated parishioners.

In dioceses where the coronavirus pandemic forced the suspension of in-person Masses, livestreamed Masses became the de facto replacement for many parishes. Although no comprehensive data exists on the number of churches that have adopted livestreaming, Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found that almost nine in every 10 dioceses in the United States have helped their churches set up online giving during the pandemic. This could indicate that churches understand the need to reach out virtually now—both in terms of donations and community-building to keep their doors open in the future. And Catholics are seeking out spiritual resources. Google search traffic for “Catholic Mass livestream” and similar terms skyrocketed in mid-March 2020, reaching a peak last Easter. In Italy, Pope Francis’ televised daily Masses reached a million viewers on cable TV.

Google search traffic for “Catholic Mass livestream” and similar terms skyrocketed in mid-March 2020, reaching a peak last Easter.

In the early days of the pandemic, the widespread embrace of streaming liturgies led theologians to publicly debate a number of questions. Among them were: Do livestreamed Masses really allow for the active participation of the laity? Does filming Masses hurt decorum? Is it clericalist for only priests to be receiving Communion during the pandemic? Considering the shortcomings, should we be livestreaming Masses at all?

These were and still are questions worth asking, but one year later, the vast majority of more than 70 Catholics I spoke with by phone, email and social media agreed that they had benefited from the experience of worshiping through a livestream Mass—and hoped to continue to do so. In particular, individuals who are homebound, have a disability or are immunocompromised, along with their families, expressed gratitude for the services. Most people I spoke to expressed a deep desire to return to in-person Mass but hoped that online offerings would continue indefinitely for those who are unable to attend even in normal times. Others found solace in watching livestreamed liturgies from parishes around the country or from organizing their own liturgies of the word in their homes or online.

These Catholics’ stories of resilience are a testament to what Archbishop Arthur Roche, secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, told me in a podcast interview during Holy Week last year. When I asked what he had learned about worship during the pandemic, he said, “Our Catholics are as creative as our priests are, and they won’t let this time pass without celebrating what is the certainty of their faith.”

Talking Tech

Early in the pandemic, in those last weeks of March 2020, the parish livestream landscape was fairly barren. A handful of tech-savvy priests set up Facebook Live broadcasts, but most parishes went dark, assuming the suspension on public Masses would soon be lifted. As Easter drew closer, more and more churches hurried to implement livestream Mass in time for the most important day of the church year.

Many of those parishes ran into two main challenges: the cost of the equipment required for livestreaming and a lack of technical expertise. Nicole Bazis, director of parish services at St. Margaret of Antioch Parish in Narberth, Pa., said her parish was lucky to have adequate funding and a young staff member to help with the parish’s new online Masses. Nearby parishes, she said, had not been so lucky. Some set up GoFundMe pages to raise money for livestreaming equipment.

At wealthier parishes, the transition was seamless, according to those with whom I spoke. But parishes operating on shoestring budgets exacerbated by the pandemic—many of whom could not afford to extend the range of internet coverage in order to reach their church buildings, much less purchase cameras or broadcasting equipment—settled for streaming private Masses from the rectory on the priest’s smartphone.

Many parishes struggled to find someone who could run their livestream.

Financial issues aside, many parishes struggled to find someone who could run their livestream. Bill Trentel, a parishioner at St. Clement and St. James Parishes in Lakewood, Ohio, learned quickly how to set up a livestream with almost no previous experience. Each Sunday, he alternates between the two parishes, which share a pastor. He is one of four people working on the broadcasts. “I embraced the challenge of helping bring our parish Mass to our entire community,” Mr. Trentel said. “It has given me purpose during these difficult times.”

Parishioner at St. Benedict the African
Phillip Armstrong serves as a music minister during a livestreamed Mass at St. Benedict the African Parish in Chicago.

One important consideration for parishes setting up livestream Masses is whether to create a videoconference, in which parishioners can see one another, or only show the sanctuary area. At St. Benedict the African in Chicago, choosing the former helped lead to a strong sense of community among those in attendance. The Catholics I spoke to for this story generally agreed that the Zoom format was more intimate, even if they typically attended the more usual livestream.

Marcus Mescher, a professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, and a parishioner at Bellarmine Chapel on the university campus, said his family switched from their parish’s livestream to a Zoom Mass on Christmas. “I felt more like a participant than a spectator and felt more solidarity with all those gathered (because I could see their faces) than seeing the viewer count on YouTube if it had been a Bellarmine Mass,” Dr. Mescher wrote in an email. But a Zoom Pro account, which is required for video conferences over 40 minutes long, costs $150 per year for calls with up to 100 participants and more for larger crowds. That can be cost-prohibitive for some parishes.

Leaving No One Out

The group that perhaps has benefited most from livestreamed Masses is made up of those who had difficulty going to Mass in person even in pre-pandemic times: the homebound, those with disabilities or disabled family members and those whose work schedules prevent them from attending Mass regularly. Now many of them find themselves connected to parish communities in ways that previously were impossible.

Ashley Ann Red, a parishioner at St. Thomas à Becket in Montreal, Canada, said her mother had been immobile for a year awaiting a hip surgery and could not come to Mass. “When Covid started, our parish started to stream Mass,” Ms. Red said. “It was very comforting.”

Katie Corkern, a parishioner at St. Helena Catholic Church in Amite, La., said her sons were also comforted by livestreamed Masses. Her middle son, Connor, 14, is blind, nonverbal, uses a wheelchair and has a weak immune system. Connor loved going to Mass in pre-pandemic days, she said, and now enjoys listening to it on television. Ms. Corkern’s other sons “thought Mass on TV was awesome and so cool” at first, Ms. Corkern said, but now they feel left out seeing their friends go back to Mass in person. The Corkerns will not be able to go back to Sunday Mass until they can be certain it is safe for Connor, which may take months, as some people at her parish do not wear masks. In the meantime, Ms. Corkern said she hopes her parish will continue livestreaming, but she is not sure if they will.

Like Ms. Corkern, Donnie Smith of St. Joseph’s parish in Marietta, Ga., is concerned about the safety of going back to Mass. He converted to Catholicism on Easter 2019 but has rarely been able to go to Mass in the last year because he suffers from a heart condition that puts him at high risk of complications from the coronavirus. In the meantime, he has been following his parish’s livestream.

“I can’t wait for my first week back at Mass.”

“I can’t wait for my first week back at Mass,” Mr. Smith said, although he is also nervous that other parishioners will judge him for not coming to Mass during the pandemic. “There are just a lot of Catholics out there who think if you aren’t going to Mass every week, risking your life or others’ around you, then you must not have real faith. But with my condition, I would have gone straight to the I.C.U. if I’d caught Covid. I don’t know what else I could have done.”

Risk assessments like Mr. Smith’s and Ms. Corkern’s are common even for Catholics with strong immune systems. Many people I spoke to who live in areas where Masses have reopened said they have observed that the majority of people returning to in-person Mass are elderly, which has led some young Catholics to avoid returning to Mass so as not to inadvertently infect the elderly.

For Catholics who are permanently homebound or disabled, livestreamed Masses are only one part of the outreach they need, especially as home visits have been suspended in many places.

Parishioner at St. Benedict the African
Eric Rutherford serves as music a minister during a livestreamed Mass at St. Benedict the African Parish in Chicago.

Laurie Mehta, a parishioner at All Saints in Cincinnati, is blind and has been advocating for Catholics with disabilities in her diocese for years. Ms. Mehta hopes that Catholic churches will continue livestreaming for the sake of the homebound and disabled, but she has set her expectations even higher: She hopes parishes will begin organizing a ministry to give people with disabilities rides to Mass when the pandemic is under control.

“I truly hope and pray that bishops and local priests take the blind more into account when they make plans for the future,” she said. “We often are left out and simply cannot get to church. Mass online is a blessing; a ministry to get us to church would be even better!”

The Road Ahead

For some Catholics looking for a sense of community in a time of isolation, the wide array of livestreamed Masses available has provided an opportunity to reconnect with old parishes or explore new ones.

Priests and parishioners at Xavier University’s Bellarmine Chapel, St. Benedict the African in Chicago and Dolores Mission in Los Angeles all said people who lived far away from their parishes had begun joining their online communities. Adrienne Alexander, a parishioner at St. Benedict the African in Chicago, said one woman from Seattle joins her parish’s Zoom group daily. “She’s never been to our church, just found us on the internet and loves it,”she said. “She’s part of the community now.”

For others, though, the dispensation from Sunday Mass has been a chance to gather in small “house churches” with one or two families or to organize online liturgies of the word with other lay people.

The dispensation from Sunday Mass has been a chance to gather in small “house churches.”

Andrew Staron, a theology teacher at Regis Jesuit High School in Denver, has a small liturgy each Sunday with his wife and children. Dr. Staron and his wife had been worried that a livestreamed Mass would be “more passive than anything else, just like watching TV.”

Instead, the family lights candles and sits in the living room, prays an opening prayer and has “some kind of penitential moment.” They take turns reading that Sunday’s Scriptures, then reflect on them together. Dr. Staron said his children told him they liked being able to ask their questions during the liturgy instead of waiting until after Mass.

Next comes the prayers of the faithful (“My youngest often just prays ‘for everything and everyone,’” Dr. Staron said with a laugh), an “Our Father” and a prayer of spiritual Communion that is usually made up on the spot.

While Dr. Staron hopes to return to Mass soon, he wants to keep some parts of his family’s new tradition going. “I’ve seen my kids grow in confidence and enjoyment in participating, asking questions, getting to say things like ‘That’s weird, what is that about?’ and seeing their faces when they see the connections between the prophet Isaiah and John the Baptist.... I think it would be beneficial to set aside a little time for that conversation” later on, he said.

Indeed, the innovation begun during this time of the pandemic is, as Ms. Mehta said, only the beginning of the creativity needed for the church to reach people who are often overlooked. Emily Strand, a parishioner at Immaculate Conception in Columbus, Ohio, said, “Our parish very painfully learned to livestream, and now the plan is to continue as a means of evangelization.” What began out of tragic necessity might well play a key role in the church’s growth and development in the future.

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