After Covid, Mass will never be the same. Maybe that’s a good thing.

livestream mass

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 highlighting of local entrepreneurs, holding Bible studies, a speaker series or a hush harbour, a service featuring spirituals and speeches that dates to slave gatherings in antebellum America.

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, live-streamed Masses became the de facto replacement for many parishes.

Although no comprehensive data exists on the number of churches that have adopted live streaming, 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 live stream” 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.

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 live-streamed 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 live-streamed 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 live streaming 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 live streaming 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.

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.”

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 live-streamed 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. Continue reading

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