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Faithful flock to online Masses, diocesan livestreaming numbers show

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When the Arlington diocese suspended public Masses March 16 to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Catholic churches across the area knew they had to do something to keep parishioners connected — so they jumped into livestreaming, ready or not.

Many priests, as well as church staff and volunteers, found themselves learning on the fly how to use video and social media tools such as Facebook Live, YouTube, Restream and others, mostly to livestream Masses, but also to share spiritual reflections with followers or to offer informal chat sessions.

“At first, it was just Father on his iPhone, and then it expanded,” said Lisa Anthony-Price, director of business and development at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Winchester, where the pastor, Father Bjorn Lundberg, got national media attention for his early and creative outreach, including weekly “fireside chats” beside a fake fireplace in the rectory.

mass by the numbers graficEven though Masses are available on TV, in the beginning, nobody knew how the faithful, many older and not particularly tech-savvy, would respond to “going to church” on their computer screens. But livestreaming numbers from the past three months suggest that parishioners have embraced the new technologies, which offer a safe and convenient way to stay connected to church, with no masks or social distancing required. And now, as public Masses have begun to resume, many parishioners seem hesitant to unplug just yet.

“Even now that people are coming back, we’re still seeing a lot” of parishioners watching online, said Anthony-Price. “Older people are telling me how much they appreciate it; you wouldn’t think they would stream, but they are. And they say they’re also connecting with the priests in a way they had not before, sitting and chatting with them and seeing them joke around.”

Online viewers have flocked to Bishop Michael F. Burbidge’s Sunday and other Masses livestreamed from the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington, which was rewired in March to add high-speed Ethernet cables inside the sanctuary’s pillars to accommodate the digital crowds expected during Holy Week.

The Easter Triduum livestreams did bring some of the highest online traffic, from 3,000 to 5,000 live views per service, with two to three times that number watching the recordings later. Viewers have continued to tune in for livestreamed Sunday Masses, and numbers have remained strong even as churches return to offering public Masses, according to  Multimedia Producer Matt Riedl, one of three staffers who runs diocesan livestreams.

Pentecost (May 31) marked the beginning of the return to public Masses in Northern Virginia; the Mass at the cathedral that day still garnered 2,754 live online views. Adding those who watched the recording after the livestream ended, the total came to 7,746.

Masses marking special events also have seen large online numbers. The Mass with the most live views between March 27 and June 23 was the ordination of five men to the priesthood June 6. Even though many family members and friends were present in the cathedral for the Saturday event, even more watched online, said Riedl, including a large contingent following one of the ordained, Father Guillermo J. González, from his native El Salvador. The video attracted 7,381 live views, with many more watching the recording, adding up to 17,804 total views. The numbers show the interest in such events and the potential to include many more participants online than could have attended in person even before social distancing, given the cathedral’s seating capacity of 1,200.

Riedl pointed out that the number of views refers not to people but to each internet-connected device tuning in to the livestream; the number of people who watched is likely higher, because two or more people often gather at home to watch on the same screen, he said.

Other special Masses that drew big numbers included a Mass for diocesan Catholic schools May 6 with 3,194 live views and 8,657 total views, including those who watched the recording. The ordinations to the diaconate June 13 drew 2,365 live views, with total views of 5,721 including the recording. The final Mass at St. Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax June 7 and the Mass for the dedication of the chapel on the new Paul VI campus in Chantilly June 23 also drew high numbers, with total views for the live events and recordings together drawing more than 5,000 views for each event. 

Over the spring and early summer, “we’ve typically added hundreds of subscribers with each Sunday Mass,” said Riedl. Livestream views for all 26 diocesan Masses from March 27 through June totaled 158,609 views, with 54,100 of those watching live. More than half of the Masses counted 5,000-plus total views each. Overall, YouTube gets the most views, followed closely by Facebook, which makes sharing links easier, he said. The diocese has more than 19,636 Facebook followers.

Not every church in the diocese has been able to livestream; “it’s too much for some parishes,” Riedl acknowledged. Many point parishioners to the diocesan website, which may be one reason for the cathedral’s high numbers. Riedl also noted that the cathedral’s livestreams have two camera operators on broadcast-quality cameras to enable closeups and a producer, usually him, directing the shots.

“There’s an art to producing a livestream that captures the feeling of attending Mass,” he said. “There’s so much that goes into it to make people feel like they’re actively participating instead of just watching.” That includes displaying words and music on the screen so viewers can sing at home. 

The attention the diocese has received for its livestreaming has increased its following across social media, Riedl noted.  As of June 23, the diocese counted 10,758 subscribers to its YouTube channel, up from 3,716 in March, he said, adding that the diocese now has more YouTube subscribers than many large archdioceses around the country. 

In his pastoral letter on the “Fundamental Lessons from the 2020 Coronavirus,” released June 11, Bishop Burbidge lauded priests across the diocese for responding to the pandemic in new and creative ways.  “Through social media and livestreaming, they strived to bring the Mass to the faithful. While never a replacement for full participation in Mass, prayerfully uniting to the celebration of Mass with the help of media is a beautiful gift,” Bishop Burbidge wrote. 

He also pointed out that “Jesus, although fully present in the Blessed Sacrament, is not bound by the Eucharist. In times when the Sacrament is impossible to receive sacramentally, we know with the certainty of faith that through the outpouring of the Spirit in abundance, we remain one Body in Christ. Jesus transcends the obstacles in our way and unites us in himself.” 

Bishop Burbidge is continuing the dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation until further notice. Those 65 or older, as well as those with underlying health conditions, are still encouraged to avoid public liturgies. 

Riedl noted that in addition to the safety considerations, scheduling family activities has become more complicated and stressful during the pandemic. When studying the data, he said he was particularly struck by the large numbers of those who watched the recorded Masses after the livestream concluded, which often doubled or tripled the total number of online views. 

“I think the beauty of livestreaming and having video saved is that you don’t have to be there, you can start Mass when it’s convenient for you,” he said. He added that livestreaming might be an easy re-entry point for those who haven’t attended in a while. Watching online “may be the spark somebody needed to decide to start coming back to Mass again. You never know what effect that could have on somebody,” he said.

The diocese and many parishes, including Sacred Heart in Winchester, say they plan to continue livestreaming Masses, at least for now. 

But Anthony-Price doesn’t want that to come across as sounding like the convenience of “watching a livestream is just as good as coming to Mass in person,” she said. 

“Parishioners really miss the Eucharist. There is no substitute for the Eucharist, especially in these difficult times.” 

Find out more

Read Bishop Burbidge’s pastoral letter on the “Fundamental Lessons from the 2020 Coronavirus,” released June 11: 

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020