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Keara HanlonJune 24, 2022
A man bows his head in prayer before a computer screen showing nine people doing the same(MarcosMartinezSanchez/iStock)

Kathleen Friel is a dedicated and involved parishioner at the Church of St. Francis Xavier in New York City. She is also one of seven million immunocompromised people in the United States. Able to attend less than five Masses in-person since March of 2020, how does Ms. Friel stay connected to the parish community she loves so much?

Like many parishes, St. Francis Xavier began offering virtual ministries, including a livestreamed Mass, in March 2020. When the church was forced to close its doors for some time in the early days of the pandemic due to governmental restrictions around large gatherings, worship became fully remote for all parishioners. Even as restrictions have loosened and many churchgoers have returned to the pews as vaccines have become available, the virtual options remain in place at St. Francis Xavier. These virtual offerings, which were developed out of necessity for everyone, remain a necessary and important force for inclusion for parishioners like Ms. Friel who are still unable to attend in-person services.

“Even after they opened again, I didn’t feel like it was wise for me to go down there because I have breast cancer, and I’m on medications that lower my immune function,” Ms. Friel explained. “Now masks are optional even though they’re encouraged.

“And for my own body, I don’t feel like it’s wise to be there in-person,” she added.

Thankfully, Ms. Friel says, “there are so many things that go on on Zoom.” Not only does her parish livestream Masses, they also offer a virtual discussion of Sunday’s readings (which takes place online on Saturdays) among other virtual events. In a time defined by isolation, St. Francis Xavier has found ways to build community in a safe way that includes all of their members, even those who cannot take the risk of showing up to church in person.

In a time defined by isolation, St. Francis Xavier has found ways to build community in a safe way that includes all of their members, even those who cannot take the risk of showing up to church in person.

There have long been virtual options for attending Mass. The oldest Catholic television network in the United States, CatholicTV, has been broadcasting religious services since 1955, over 65 years. And as far back as 1931, Catholics could tune their radios to Vatican Radio to hear such things as Pope Pius XI’s “Omni Creaturae” message. But the new virtual offerings created since the pandemic, many of which continue to the present, offer something different: a local element.

Although Ms. Friel occasionally tunes into a virtual Mass in Boston when an old friend is preaching, “usually I stick with Xavier because even though it’s on my TV it still feels like home,” she said. “They’ll show the congregation at times, and I’ll be like, ‘Oh look, I know all those people,’ so then I’ll take pictures and text them like ‘Hey I see you at church!’” she tells me with a smile. While it can be exciting about the opportunity to watch Pope Francis celebrate a Mass, sometimes the best service is the one at your own parish, the place that you love where the pews are filled with friends and acquaintances.

Ms. Friel admits that livestreamed Mass is not the same as speaking to her fellow parishioners in person, but it is certainly better than nothing. Her 2018 cancer diagnosis and corresponding medication side effects sometimes left her feeling too unwell to make the trip to her church even before Covid-19 was a risk. But now, “with Zoom it’s so easy to be part of a community,” she said. “Even if I don’t feel well or if I’m having nausea or pain I can still be part of the community.” These options, which were not available before March 2020, have become an essential part of Ms. Friel’s faith life.

While it can be exciting about the opportunity to watch Pope Francis celebrate a Mass, sometimes the best service is the one at your own parish, the place that you love where the pews are filled with friends and acquaintances.

Prior to the pandemic, many immunocompromised people remained connected to their parishes through the important work of Ministers of Care who prayed with those who could not attend Mass and brought the gift of the Eucharist to their homes. However, virtual offerings allow the homebound to be a part of so much more. “I can do more virtually than I was able to do in person before the pandemic started,” Ms. Friel said. Experiences like Ms. Friel’s are a testament to the value and ongoing need for virtual options, even as the risks of Covid decrease and eventually disappear (God willing). There will always be dedicated parishioners who will not be able to be physically present in the church, and we are called to ensure that they continue to be included.

As for St. Francis Xavier, Ms. Friel said the parish has conducted surveys on their experience of the church during the pandemic, and that those who take part in the livestream Masses and Zoom events have been able to make their voices heard. “A lot of us really enjoy the option of being together even when we can’t be in the same room,” she said.

Luckily, the virtual offerings at St. Francis Xavier do not seem to be going anywhere. These virtual ministries are so well loved that even Catholics from far outside of the local area often choose to join in on their virtual events. Ms. Friel pointed out that St. Francis Xavier’s livestream and Zoom community have expanded to include folks from as far away as Louisiana and even Canada. “They just found us,” she said, “so that’s also really cool.” In this way, the virtual ministries are “catholic” in the “universal” sense of the word: They have expanded the reach of the community, inviting in more of God’s people.

A lot of us really enjoy the option of being together even when we can’t be in the same room.

It is my hope that many other parishes will make the same decision as St. Francis Xavier to keep virtual services in place even after the threat of the pandemic subsides. So many aspects of the pandemic have been isolating and deeply sad, but we have stumbled upon one nugget of goodness. It is a silver-lining in a painful period that should not be forgotten.

And St. Francis Xavier in New York is far from the only parish that continues to livestream Masses for their parishioners. From St. Cecilia Parish in Boston to Christ Cathedral in Orange County, Calif., Catholics from coast to coast are almost certain to find a livestream within their local diocese, even if their particular parish no longer offers virtual services.

You may not be able to shake hands with virtual attendees at the sign of peace or pass by their pew on the way to Communion, but during a livestreamed Mass, you can still pray with them. And that is beautiful.

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