ST. PAUL, Minnesota — YouTube, Facebook, parish websites — all now offer livestream Masses from parishes across the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
But before COVID-19 hit Minnesota in March 2020, most of those parishes had never livestreamed a single Sunday Mass.
With in-person Masses suspended for two months to help prevent spread of the virus, parishes suddenly scrambled to gather or purchase cameras, computers, soundboards, expertise and volunteers. They were anxious to continue offering the sacrament of the Eucharist to their parishioners — at least remotely.
Now that a 15-month suspension of the obligation to attend Sunday Mass has ended, as of July 1, pastors, parish staff and parishioners are weighing the costs and benefits of continuing to livestream their daily or weekly Masses.
Questions include whether livestreaming makes staying home and away from in-person Mass too easy, whether the monetary investment is “paying off” in terms of reaching people and evangelizing, and how best to invite people back to in-person Mass while offering an online alternative.
While the novel coronavirus has waned, concerns have arisen about the Delta variant of the virus, which could lead some to still prefer the livestreamed Masses.
In a July 28 memo to parishes and institutions in the archdiocese, Father Tom Margevicius, director of the Office of Worship, acknowledged the variant remains a threat, but said because each parish has “unique demographics,” pastors can determine their own best practices for minimizing the virus’ spread.
Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Medina decided to offer its last online Mass the weekend of June 27, said Michelle Hudlow, director of information technology and communications.
After an initial investment for software and other needs, it cost about $500 a week to hire someone and devote the necessary staff time to record, produce and share Sunday Mass via Facebook, YouTube and the parish website.
The cost and a desire to emphasize in-person Mass prompted the parish to end livestreams.
“The Eucharist is just too important, and people are better connected to God and each other when they are in the building together,” Hudlow told The Catholic Spirit, the archdiocesan newspaper. “Our focus is really on connecting with people.”
For other parishes, connecting people and evangelization are two reasons they plan to continue offering Mass online.
“We have discovered some real and ongoing needs,” said Father Tom Wilson, pastor of All Saints Parish in Lakeville, which increased its online presence when the pandemic hit by expanding its video uploads from only the homily to the entire Sunday Mass. The parish also purchased several more cameras.
“People who are homebound or confined to care centers, even without the pandemic, for them, it is a way to stay connected to their parish, and not just a regional or national broadcast,” Wilson said.
The parish also offers the Mass with an interpreter for the deaf on the second weekend of each month, and many people in the deaf community have learned of it and participate online, he said.
Livestreaming weddings and funerals during the pandemic also has been helpful, Wilson said. Still, the parish is considering its options going forward, as it weighs licensing requirements and other factors in offering the Mass online, he said.
St. Jerome in Maplewood has offered the Saturday vigil Mass live via YouTube since March 2020, and that will continue, said Mary Beth Hess, music director and the effort’s chief organizer, who learned how to livestream on the fly. Hess also livestreams daily Mass, a project she undertook on her own just to learn the ropes, which she’s grown to love. It’s been particularly helpful to seniors, the sick and disabled, she said.
“They could view Mass on TV, or other churches that were streaming Mass,” she said of those participating. “But they were so thankful to be able to see their dear St. Jerome church. To see Father Victor (Valencia, the pastor), the crucifix in front of the church, the statutes, the red carpeting … all of these things gave them comfort.”
The Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis plans to continue livestreaming the Mass, which began with the pandemic and will be expanded from the main church to include daily Mass in a smaller chapel downstairs, said Mae Desaire, director of marketing and communications.
“We have found it a great outreach and growth tool” with people who are homebound, in nursing homes, former parishioners, and others around the country and even the world able to participate via livestream, she said.
Johan von Parys, the basilica’s director of liturgy and the sacred arts, said the sacraments need to be celebrated in person and attendance at in-person Mass is growing and encouraged, even while livestreaming will continue to be offered.
“It was with great pain (during the pandemic) that I embraced the fact that the only way to reach people was by livestream,” he said.
But Christ is present in several ways at the Mass, including in the Scriptures, and that has been a consolation, he said.
“We could at least listen to the word of God proclaimed,” he said. “I know that Christ is present in the word.”
Some people turn to the online Mass because they are ill or they’ve moved away, von Parys said. “For those who can’t join us, there is at least this,” he said.
Livestreaming also has been an avenue for evangelization, he said, particularly for people who are curious about the church but uncomfortable with an in-person visit, or have fallen away from attending Mass but are contemplating a return.
Last March, Our Lady of Peace Parish in Minneapolis began recording its Saturday evening Mass and posting it at 7 a.m. each Sunday on YouTube. James Pike, the parish’s office manager, said the practice will continue as a tool for evangelization.
“A couple of people have watched, not been parishioners before, but have started to attend Mass in person,” Pike said. “One person was registered at another parish but had stopped attending there.”
Some people have expressed concern that livestreaming Mass makes it too easy to stay, and many parishes have discussed that possibility. But no one interviewed by The Catholic Spirit actually know that to have happened, and parish representatives believe that generally, people who participate in livestream Mass either have no other option or they are curious about the faith or a parish community.
“People taking time to watch online innately know that Mass is intended to be celebrated in person,” Pike said. “We’ve seen a lot of people come back” to in-person Mass, he said.
Wilson said he has yet to see “any evidence of people staying home and just eating breakfast. I know people worry about that, but so far, I have not experienced that directly.”
If people don’t realize that Mass needs to be celebrated in person, von Parys said, then the church has failed in its teaching of the faith.
“We need to have beautiful, dignified celebrations of the Eucharist, and we need good catechism,” he said.
Ruff is news editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.