Sunday, December 27, 2020

20 for 2020: Number Six—A Case for Online Mass

In San Francisco where I live, in person attendance for Mass has been largely forbidden since March. Because of my workplace, I have been able to receive the Eucharist a few times. For example, the 2020-2021 school year began with an all faculty mass outdoors, socially distanced with the option for teachers to sit in their cars. And, the fall semester concluded with a "Class Mass on the grass" for junior and senior students. I am grateful I was able to pray with a few of them "en vivo." The reality of such restrictions and limitations on the public call to worship hasn't been lost on me. I can easily name what I have missed and what I long for when we can gather again. But, number six on my 20 for 2020 is a reflection on what I have found: a virtual parish, this COVID family of faith.

In March, my friend Mike invited me to attend the Zoom mass offered by our mutual friend, a Holy Cross priest Father Tom Doyle, C.S.C. What started as a gathering of his large family and number of friends from Notre Dame has become much more—so much so that I gave a talk at the beginning of the school year entitled "Seven things I have learned from online Mass." 

My colleague invited and encouraged me to share my findings in a professional development seminar. Thank you Meighan! We teachers also lead our students in prayer, we call them to reflect on the Word and selected readings in person and now on Zoom. Even in the virtual classroom, we invite young people to offer their own prayers, we tell our own stories, and we too have rituals and traditions. Class was different and yet it was the same. This realization is something that will stay with me as a characteristic of teaching during COVID.

From attending online mass, I came to understand how and why this virtual parish has been working. For one, most attendees hear the sound of their own name, either before, during or after the mass. What that we all received a personalized greeting, kiss of peace or farewell in our own parishes?! It makes a huge difference to be recognized and welcomed; one feels connected. Best practices 101 for the re-opening of churches, right here. Please note, when/if one would prefer to be anonymous, screen off is totally acceptable. Perhaps that is the equivalent of sitting in the back pew, corner seat at church? 

In this parish, I am reminded—and need to be— that though life in a pandemic is different, it's also the same. The joys and challenges, struggles and gifts of the human experience haven't vanished. In fact, they're not even on pause. For example, we were with Father Tom in the weeks and days leading up to his own father's death and we prayed with and for him when he died. Today, we celebrated the wedding anniversary of a couple who has been married but one year. This is what a community of faith does.

But what I find most remarkable about this Sunday Zoom mass is that it is a testament to the power of sports and spirituality. Father Tom lived with a member of the Notre Dame swim team as an undergraduate, and through that roommate he became friends with several other swimmers. These athletes had an experience so meaningful and significant that they have remained friends with one another, as well as their coach, Tim Welsh over 30 years later. They still call him "Coach" and we pray for him every week as he continues his treatment for cancer. If I were to determine what a successful program looks like—and I am asked to do that working in the athletic department—I would have to say, this Sunday gathering is one notable answer.

The power and significance of the relationships among those people who show up every Sunday is not lost on me: coach to athlete, uncle to nephew, roommate to roommate, old friend to old friend, new friend to new. We are appreciative, grateful for the leadership of those who work to make Sunday mass go. I don't know that this virtual parish will ever gather in the way I will once again with  my fellow members of Saint Vincent de Paul.....but I hope in some way, in some capacity we will. Not all has been, much has been found.

Photo Credits
Tom Doyle, CSC
Faith during COVID


  1. How can this closeness translate into our city churches? Most of us are not fortunate enough to be in our priest's inner circle. We go to mass and see friends, give and receive hugs, sometimes we see someone there every week who we don't know but it's comforting to know they are there every week with you. How can we stay connected through youtube mass?

    1. Anonymous, I hear you - we all miss seeing friends and giving hugs, and the comfort of offering the sign of peace to a fellow parishioner who, perhaps you don't know, but you see each week at mass, and now miss their smile. But these communities don't just appear on their own, they are require preparation and effort. It's not about being in a priest's "inner circle," it's about building those relationships all along - not just when a pandemic hits and we need to find alternative ways to connect. I would recommend reaching out to your inner circle, or to others in your parish. Start a virtual community that meets regularly. It can be a very meaningful experience, even if you haven't met the person before. Again, these things don't just happen; we have to make them happen.

  2. You're asking good questions. Thank you! I came to this virtual parish through the invitation of a friend. I kept showing up and created a goal of inviting another person each/week. That might help! I DO take comfort in seeing people every week in my regular parish. This means I see children grow up and families change, grow and lose members. I am anxious to return to worshiping in person, together. Nativity Parish in Timonium, MD has done great job of implementing a ministry of hospitality—esp in the virtual setting. Their chat is open and welcomes folks as they log in. I think it's important to have folks feel welcome....and hope we can extend that to our city churches, too!