People who watch Sunday religious services streamed on webcams instead of attending their local church will need active encouragement to return in future, said a parish priest.
ut switching off webcam systems to pressure people into returning to churches when the pandemic recedes would not be welcomed by most Irish people, said Fr Diarmuid Hogan, based in Oranmore, Co Galway.
Priests in several dioceses said the explosion in webcam streaming of religious services will prove to be a positive legacy of the pandemic that will endure in the years ahead.
“I think priests may have an anxiety that if we continue using webcams, the numbers of people won’t come back into the churches. I don’t think it’s an issue,” said Fr Hogan.
“Anybody watching on the webcam is not watching it for convenience but for necessity. The people we notice who haven’t come back as much are the elderly. Even with vaccination, older people are more cautious about where they go.
“Covid has taken the confidence from a lot of older people. When Covid is gone, they may need to be encouraged to come back.
“The work of churches over the next 18 months must be to mount a welcome back campaign and to make the church as attractive and as welcoming and hospitable and open-armed as possible rather than turning off webcams.
“While parishioners tell me they hope I won’t close down the webcam, people will also need to recognise that the experience of being present in church with the community of faith and prayer is like the difference between full-fat milk and diet milk.
“The ‘full-fat’ experience of liturgy has to be actually being in the church and being able to receive Holy Communion, being able to meet your friends and neighbours.
“Theologically, participation at mass requires presence because fundamental to the celebration of the Eucharist is receiving Holy Communion. While watching on a webcam is still valid and valuable, it’s not the same as being there.”
He said the importance of keeping webcam streaming into the future is to keep the sense of parish alive. People now have a choice of watching religious services from churches worldwide, including cathedrals with extraordinary choirs.
“There’s competition. If a parish webcam is switched off, all those who were watching will not arrive back into the church the following Sunday. All they have to do is ask Mister Google and they can get mass in the next parish. You may never get them back,” he said.
Fr Michael O’Kelly, co-parish priest of the Most Holy Redeemer church in Bray, Co Wicklow, expressed reservations about the ongoing widespread webcam viewing of religious services into the future.
“The whole point of the celebration of the Eucharist is a gathering of community around the Lord in the Eucharist. When you have the camera available like that, you can miss out on all that. It weakens that dimension of taking part,” he said.
Fr John Carroll, parish priest in Barntown, Co Wexford, believes webcams are a positive legacy of the pandemic, saying: “It’s not an ‘either-or’ situation. In the end we will be encouraging people to come back into churches but keeping the cameras switched on.
“The cameras made us priests a bit more self-conscious for a while, but hopefully it improved us because we can actually see what we look like and what we sound like. On Facebook pages, the streamed masses are there forever.
“Sometimes people tell me they can hear more clearly and see more clearly than being in the church. And it reaches some people who might never come but they may see the mass because someone else at home is watching. People are used to webcams now and I don’t think switching them off will be part of any strategy.”
Several versions of transmitting religious services are in use countrywide. In Longford town, parish administrator Fr James MacKiernan told this newspaper of the popularity of a system which enabled parishioners to watch local masses on their home televisions.
Fr Padraig Walsh, parish priest of Our Lady and St Brendan’s church in Tralee, Co Kerry, said : “I think webcams are here to stay. People are used to it and it would be hard to be without it.
“We used the webcam system for years for the housebound but it became a lifeline during Covid. It would be very difficult to stop it now. If we decided to switch it off, housebound people are going to tune in to another church.
“Tablets and iPads became part of people’s lives around 2014, and people bought them for parents to allow them to watch masses on their tablets or smartphones.
“Numbers coming into the church have improved and those who have come back really want to be there. They missed being at mass and all that went with it — the routine, the familiar faces. All the webcams in the world aren’t going to keep these people away, although caution has crept in again in the past two weeks,” he said.
Several priests spoke of the enormous value of webcams for funerals to people living in different parts of the world. Being able to refer to absent loved ones or relatives, who were unable to attend, during a streamed funeral was of immense comfort to family members in the church and elsewhere, they said.