The powerful, prayerful experience of being a remote parishioner
Editors’ note: This fall, America Media released the groundbreaking documentary “People of God: How Catholic parish life is changing in the United States” with the aim of sparking a national conversation about the diverse ways the Catholic faith is lived out across the country. This is one story from that narrative.
It is 9 a.m. on Sunday. I make my coffee and get ready to attend Mass, but I am not rushing out the door to get to a church. Instead, I make myself comfortable in my home and sit in front of my TV. For about a year and a half I have been attending the liturgy at St. Cecilia Catholic Church in Boston, Mass., over livestream on YouTube. But this is not just a casual viewing; I am actively involved with this parish. In fact, I have become a registered remote parishioner. Although I split my time between New York and Florida, St. Cecilia is my parish.
It was not always this way. I was in Florida in January 2020 when news of Covid-19 began to spread. At that time, I was a weekly Massgoer, but the church I attended closed overnight. Participating in the liturgy is an important part of my life, so I was very grateful when I learned from friends that I could attend Mass live on TV or the internet.
In the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, I sat and listened to the Mass and tried to pay attention. I bemoaned the fact I could not receive the Eucharist and did my best to stay focused on prayer. But about a month into the lockdown, my experience of Mass changed again. A friend of mine shared that online there was a particularly engaging, welcoming, energetic and down-to-earth priest at a parish that celebrated the liturgy live each Sunday on YouTube. The church was St. Cecilia in Boston, the priest was the Rev. John Unni.
Finding a parish that is alive, welcoming, committed to the equality of all regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality or creed was, for me, a gift.
The first time I attended Mass at St. Cecilia by livestream, my whole world opened up. The warmth, the spirit, the love, the sense of community and the embracing nature of Father John and his homilies ignited a new flame in me. I became an unofficial worshiper at St. Cecilia Church. As the months and the pandemic progressed, I returned to my home in New York, but I continued to spend my Sunday mornings participating in Mass at St. Cecilia through my screen.
Each Sunday’s liturgy became the leaven for more prayer. It sparked discussion with friends and a greater understanding of my faith and a deeper connection to a God who loves me and everyone. I could hardly contain the enthusiasm and excitement I felt at having found such an incredible church where all are welcome. By the summer of 2021, I decided to officially register as a parishioner at the parish—something I had never done, even at a local parish.
Some people might wonder how I felt so connected to others from afar, but there are many ways that I connected with my parish. First, the experience allowed me to feel like I really belonged, even though I was far away. Finding a parish that is alive, welcoming, committed to the equality of all regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality or creed was, for me, a gift.
I also supported the church in traditional ways: with my time and treasure. I donated to the parish and I volunteered. My role as a volunteer monitor of the chat function on the virtual Mass has helped me to build and maintain connections. The chat feature allows people watching the liturgy to greet one another before and after Mass and offer their love, support and gratitude in one place, though we are apart. I am touched by the tender, loving tone that permeates the comments from my fellow parishioners. We have formed a true community of virtual attendees within the larger community of the parish. Our virtual attendees include people from all over the globe.
My faith has been enriched and deepened as remote participants have shared their gratitude for finding such a welcoming, nonjudgmental group of people of God.
My experience has not been perfect, but no parish experience is. As the pandemic progressed and vaccines became available, Covid-19 precautions were scaled back and churches began to reopen. I faced a number of questions: Should I go back to Mass in person at a local parish? Where would I go? Would Mass at St. Cecilia continue to be livestreamed? What about reception of Communion?
This last question has been the hardest for me. As I watched people receive holy Communion, I felt left out. I felt the loss of the sacrament of the Eucharist. Still, I decided my spiritual nourishment and the deepening and sharing of my faith were best served by remaining a part of the St. Cecilia community. I chose to continue to meet remotely with others and attend the liturgy by livestream. But I also make a point to go to a local church during the week, where I attend Mass and receive the Eucharist.
My virtual parish has in some ways strengthened my local, in-person relationships. I am eager to share my excitement about my virtual parish, and so it has become known to many friends, including those with no religious affiliation. They often ask me, “So how was Father John today?” Two or three friends now even tune in to the Mass or listen to Father John’s homilies from time to time. No one could have predicted this impact. It is safe to say that in my experience, remote livestream liturgy has brought many people back to the church and to God!
Now that Masses have largely returned to the way they were before the pandemic, St. Cecilia remains committed to continuing its livestream liturgy each Sunday. As a member of what now has affectionately become known as the “Far-Flung Flock,” I have had a chance to interact with my fellow Catholics in new ways. Communicating with other remote churchgoers before the liturgy by the livestream chat has enabled people who have never met each other to greet one another, pray for one another and have a connection that is unique. My faith has been enriched and deepened as remote participants have shared their gratitude for finding such a welcoming, nonjudgmental group of people of God.
We are living during a time of criticism, questioning and reflecting on the role of the Catholic Church in our world and its importance in people’s lives. Many parishes are struggling to remain open. But on any given Sunday, well over 1,000 people are attending the liturgy over livestream at St. Cecilia. I truly believe that remote participation at Mass has the potential to continue to bring more people back into the church.
Being a remote parishioner has filled a void for me. I do not fear judgment because I am not physically in church. I feel blessed. I feel at home. I feel grateful to be part of the far-flung flock, knowing that as we gather around to watch the liturgy, the Good Shepherd watches over us all.