Technology vital to parishes in midst of COVID-19

Vera Mercalde, 98, grandmother of Father Anthony Ferguson, watches the livestream of his ordination Mass from her nursing home on Saturday, July 11. The Mass also commemorated the bicentennial of the founding of the Diocese of Richmond. The livestream reached 13,942 people through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. (Photo provided)

Livestreaming, new ways of using social media keep parishioners connected


“Necessity is the mother of invention.” – Plato

For parishes in the Diocese of Richmond, one of the “inventions” to surface as a result of COVID-19 was the use of technology in order to stay connected with parishioners once Bishop Barry C. Knestout suspended the celebration of public Masses on March 16.

Since March, the Catholic Community Foundation has been with parishes “every step of the way,” according to Alex Previtera, director of development and operations, in helping them get comfortable with technology and in utilizing social media.

“We wanted to show parishes how to connect with parishioners at this time,” he said. “We helped them with offertory support, but it was more than offertory. It was really important to have livestreaming of Masses and utilization of social media to connect with people through live Sunday Mass. Getting people to feel connected has been our big focus.”

According to executive director Margaret Keightley, CCF knew prior to COVID-19 that it was “vital that we get more digitally savvy” in parishes and the diocese. 

“This just made it more important and set up the timeline, and it probably made people who were leery of the need or their ability to optimize their digital tools,” she said. “It made them have to use it.”

Previtera added, “COVID has forced us to use technology more effectively. Many parishes will be utilizing social media more in the future now that they have more comfort with it.”

‘Extremely positive’ response

Livestreaming Sunday Masses was among the first projects the diocese and its parishes undertook when the public celebration of Masses was suspended.

Beginning Sunday, March 22, the Mass during which Bishop Knestout consecrated the Diocese of Richmond to the Sacred Heart of Jesus was livestreamed from the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. It received 6,304 views on YouTube. Bishop Knestout’s livestreamed Holy Week liturgies — including Palm Sunday and the Sacred Triduum — and Easter Sunday reached a combined 37,435 screens across Facebook and YouTube. The diocese has since begun streaming via Twitter as well. A virtual Holy Week mission, April 6-8, combined to reach nearly 24,000 screens. Livestreaming Masses — one inEnglish, one in Spanish — at Sacred Heart, Danville, elicited an “extremely positive” response from parishioners, according to Father Jonathan Goertz, pastor.

“It meant a lot to folks in the midst of so much uncertainty to know that they could still — on Sunday morning, at the same time — go to Mass in their own church,” he said. “(It was) a little bit of a different experience in pajamas in your kitchen, but still, to know that Father is there, he’s celebrating Mass, blood and wine are becoming Jesus Christ, and I know that other people are participating in that, too.”

Each of the Masses gets 250 views, according to Cecilia Yeager, parish communications coordinator. Masses livestreamed on Tuesday-Friday get 100 views each.

Father Goertz was pleased with something he hadn’t anticipated. “Sometimes folks would offer a Mass intention, maybe for a relative who had passed away, and all the other family members from wherever they are could come and log into that Mass together,” he said. “So even folks who are scattered all over the country could in a sense worship together in a Mass offered for their late grandmother.”

‘We can do this’

At Star of the Sea, Virginia Beach, with 600-800 active families, Father Esteban “Steve” DeLeon credits Jessica Kwiatkowski, business manager, and Grace Jones, secretary, for encouraging him to use technology.

He recalled that when they learned celebration of Masses was suspended, “They said, ‘Father, we can do it.’ ‘What can we do?’ ‘We can livestream Mass.’ And we did — just on an iPhone.” Although some parishioners have returned to the celebration of Mass in church, Father DeLeon continues to livestream Mass.

“People are starting to come back, but some are still being very careful,” he said. “They say, ‘Please continue to do this, Father. We are not ready to go back.’”

The Sunday Mass gets 200-250 live views, according to the priest, but when it is posted to YouTube, there are as many as 800 views. Daily Mass has 300-350 views.

‘All over the place’

In planning the livestream of Mass at St. Thomas More, Lynchburg, Msgr. Michael McCarron, pastor, and the staff wanted to “try to do the Mass as we would do the Mass.”

“We intentionally set up in the nave because it was familiar to most people rather than the small chapel,” he said. “We intentionally used parishioners who aren’t actually staff people, but they’re people that people know, to do the readings and things like that.”

Msgr. McCarron wanted the video to be as similar as possible to what worshipers would experience in-person.

“I addressed the issue homiletically, and that helped because it was on a livestream. And that began to spread,” he said. “We get about, by the time it’s all over, up to 1,000 hits on our Mass at given times and days from all over the place.”

He learned where “all over the place” was when he mentioned that the parish wanted to continue livestreaming but that it needed help in buying equipment.

“We got donations from California, Missouri, New Hampshire and all sorts of places,” Msgr. McCarron said. “I was very grateful. We now have the cameras mounted in the nave and we’ll have another one mounted in the chapel later on.”

Doing what is possible

While more than 90% of the parishes are livestreaming Masses, according to Keightley, some are using the technology in ways they hadn’t prior to COVID-19 and the suspension of public Masses.

Father Nick Redmond, parochial vicar at St. Joseph, Petersburg, looked at the disconnection be- tween parishioners and the parish caused by the coronavirus and asked, “What can we do to keep them connected? We can’t be physically connected, but what can we do? My mindset is always, ‘What is possible?’”

He was on his own at the parish from mid-March to mid-May while the pastor, Father Brian Capuano, the diocesan vicar for vocations, was providing formation to seminarians at a retreat center.

In addition to livestreaming daily and Sunday Masses, Father Redmond did a series called “Exploring St. Joseph.” In one segment of the series, he spoke about the church’s bell tower as he climbed steps and a ladder to get into it right around noon.

“As soon as that bell rang, I started praying the Angelus,” he said. “So it was kind of an adventure with a prayerful element. I don’t want adventure for adventure’s sake. I want it to prayerful or theological. The goal is not just to draw people together like we’re just another community organization, but rather to draw people together so we can then be drawn closer to God.”

With help from a parish historian, he did other series about the church’s stained glass windows, St. Joseph Cemetery and the garden he planted behind the rectory.

Although the primary focus of anything the parish posted to social media, e.g., Father Capuano’s Sunday catechesis, was St. Joseph parishioners and staying connected with them, Father Redmond recognized the potential for evangelization — “reaching outside of our community.”

“On Good Friday I realized our views were in the thousands. I don’t know how many, maybe 4,000. I was like, ‘Wow.’ We’d been getting at most maybe 1,000, at most 500 or 1000, and now all of a sudden, we have like 4,000,” he said. “And I realized we had a bunch of viewers in Brazil! People had shared it, and that’s the nice thing about it, it can be an exponential expansion. But if people in Brazil are watching it, then we can be pretty sure that people in Petersburg are also watching it, and Richmond and around the country. … And to me, that’s really, really cool.”

Despite the opportunities technology offers, Father Redmond sees a greater need.

“While all this technology is helpful and we make the best of it and we see what’s possible, at the end of the day, we need each other, and we need to be with each other,” he said. “We need Christ in us, and so there’s something of a hole in our heart until we can be back together again.”

Parishioners speak about faith

In looking for “new opportunities” to use social media, Father Goertz and his staff developed “A Few Minutes of Faith” in which he recorded Zoom interviews with parishioners about the importance of faith and how it helped them during the pandemic.

“It became something very special for folks to be able to see other folks speaking about their faith. We really don’t have a forum for that in a lot of other places — society and even kind of the practice of the Church is not really built for folks to share that sort of testimony,” he said. “That meant a lot for folks just to see one another. First of all, to see a familiar face, and then to hear something about their own faith journey and own experience of faith.”

With the technology, according to Father Goertz, the parish “could take advantage of some things that we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.”

Among them was livestreaming its May crowning and a novena to Our Lady of Fatima, as well as an online vacation Bible school that involved children talking about specific saints and which included an at-home activity.

“We really got people involved in a way that could have been hard, with people’s schedules, to do otherwise,” he said.

Staying connected

Thanks to Zoom meetings, parishioners at Star of the Sea have remained connected through faith-sharing groups, the mothers’ prayer group, and parish and fi- nance council meetings, according to Father DeLeon. They also did a virtual vacation Bible school.

“It was amazing! The kids and their parents loved it. It was really amazing. They were able to pull it through,” he said. “Nancy (Liette, religious education coordinator) had this wonderful group of volunteers, teenagers, because she is also the one in charge of Life Team, and she got this very good, active group of volunteers. They did video, they set up the whole thing.”

On Wednesday afternoons, Father DeLeon does a Facebook “check-in” with parishioners to bring them up to date on guidelines from the diocese, things happening in the parish, etc.

“That’s how we got connected with the parishioners,” he said.

Msgr. Joseph Lehman III, pastor of St. Bede, Williamsburg, and Fathers John Baab and Cassidy Stinson, parochial vicars, did what Father Stinson called “the easiest thing in the world.”

The three of us would get together every week and, especially early on in the pandemic, we would just do a livestreamed question and answer session from the rectory,” he said. “It helped keep communication open at a time when a lot of people were really isolated. And we constantly were having people come up to us in the grocery store and in the parish and the office and say how much that in particular really helped.”

Here to stay

Beyond livestreaming Mass, which Msgr. McCarron termed “the greatest of the catechetical sessions we have,” St. Thomas More parishioners will be the beneficiaries of continued livestreams.

“Our outreach beyond the parish has been so successful that I can’t see not livestreaming. And we certainly now like the capability of livestreaming special events and when I do my RCIA talks, for example, we’ll be able to livestream those and things like that,” he said. “It’s now just part of the fabric of what we do.” Msgr. McCarron advised his brother priests not to fear technology.

“Just go out there and do what you normally do,” he said. “(Parishioners) need someone to say, ‘You’re not isolated. We’re still here. We haven’t forgotten you.’ That’s all they need. Don’t worry about whether or not that’s your talent.

It’s everybody’s talent. Everybody who’s been ordained is called to proclaim the Gospel, so just do it.”

As for what he learned from the using technology as a way of staying connected with parishioners, Father Goertz spoke of it as “incarnational.”

“Jesus became incarnate at a certain time and place and needed to speak to people in the places where they were, in a manner that they could understand. In that sense, we’re doing exactly the same thing now because people live in a digital world, and we need to take the message of the Church there. There are lots of other voices competing in that space, and we need to make sure that ours is one of them.”

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