From his years in church confessionals, Bishop of Raphoe Alan McGuckian is used to talking to people that he cannot see yet holding on to faith that they heed his message.
However, he is less used to relying on an internet connection to do so. From the altar of Letterkenny’s St Eunan’s Cathedral, Fr McGuckian celebrated St Patrick’s Day Mass in front of empty pews.
Down the aisle, a webcam broadcast the Donegal Mass to thousands: “As I was looking out over the empty, empty expanse of the cathedral, I had the sense that people were there with me, praying,” Fr McGuckian says.
“One woman later said to me, ‘It’s great for us all to be together.’ She was talking about a reality where she was in her house and she knew that everybody else was in theirs, but that was how she described it.”
Figures for Mass viewership on television and online have skyrocketed since most churches opted to close their doors in the face of the risks posed by the cornonavirus outbreak.
Many churches put their own services online themselves, but, increasingly, some are calling on professional help from companies such as MCN Media, Parish Websites or Church Services TV.
“Literally, we haven’t been off the phone and email since Friday morning,” says Tony Bolger, director of Church Services TV. “We never really expected to be where we are.”
Bolger’s company has long had a relationship with RTÉ, with its online streams available on RTÉ’s website. This week, however, it began to broadcast the Letterkenny Mass on TV daily, which will continue until March 29th,
RTÉ said that it was showing these livestreams because the coronavirus precautions stopped their teams from filming Mass services at the Donnybrook studios, as well as in churches elsewhere.
“The Mass will be the same, the community will be just bigger,” Fr McGuckian says. “There are hundreds of thousands of people who would just love daily Mass, but who haven’t access to the internet.”
Roger Childs, head of religious content at RTÉ, says the daily broadcasts will greatly serve those unable to attend Mass, especially during Lent. A five-minute reflection representing other faiths plays after the Mass ends.
The daily broadcasts will be needed after March 29th, Mr Childs fears. “All of the signs are that this is going to be an ongoing situation, and I’m fully expecting us to have to do this on a more lasting basis,” he says.
However, many elderly viewers are not dependent on RTÉ, since they are fully comfortable with technology: “You’d be amazed how many of them are digitised,” says Letterkenny’s Msgr Kevin Gillespie.
“They have the internet. They are using technology. They’re connected through their smart TVs or iPads. Many are not, but we have a local radio system as well, so a lot of our older parishioners use that.”
The effects will last long after coronavirus, also known as Covid-19, becomes a memory: “I think like everything else, when you are determined to learn something and you have somebody to help you, you’ll find a way.
“It actually presents an opportunity for our older parishioners to become acquainted with modern technologies that give them a great window on to the world and allow them to remain connected in a very real way.”
The virtual connection has already proven to be “a huge consolation”, he says: “They’re saying that it’s taken away their sense of anxiety. It’s given them comfort and a sense of togetherness.
“We have a very strong parish identity, so it’s a huge suffering for people not to be together. But, we’re in early days. It’s in the next few weeks that we’ll have to keep up that sense of solidarity and connection.”
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