The way we as Catholics are consuming media has changed. Here are our thoughts on the changes and how they may still stay on even after MCO is lifted.
At least for another month, we will continue to walk from the bedroom to the screen in the living room for masses like how we’ve been doing since the Movement Control Order started in March 18. We continue to see which of the hundreds of masses, novenas and prayers from all around the world we want to attend. And we will continue to say “Peace be to you” to a priest on the screen.
By the time June 9 comes, we would have forgotten what it was like when the minister held up the Holy Communion, looked you in the eye and said “The Body of Christ”. We went through the Holy Week in isolation and our Easter celebration was muted.
We will definitely never be the same again, especially after 84 days of MCO. It is not just the isolation but also the way we consume media and social media in the absence of corporate worship and the support of a physical community.
Opting for Online
We are no longer strangers to online masses. It has become the norm and because of that a habit has been formed. This habit is likely to continue to some extent because of a pull-factor – it is, after all, a hassle-free and convenient option. With online masses available almost 24/7 in so many parts of the world, it is easy to pick one that suits our timing and even after the MCO has been lifted there are likely to be some of us who would opt for this. It is the ideal option for those who are tied to their homes because of an immobile family member, for families with small children, and it also serves as a back-up for the days when you just do not feel like driving and scouring church grounds and surrounding areas for a spot to park only to find yourself having to sit outside an overcrowded church. The online mass serves as a convenient option.
All this despite the caution by Pope Francis not to regard online masses as being equal to masses with human interaction and the Holy Communion.
It is not just our church-going habits that have become virtual, we have also become used to seeking comfort and counselling. When priests and nuns announced they were offering online and phone counselling, there was an overwhelming number of people who contacted them. Sure, after MCO, the numbers would not be as great because the stress of isolation would not be there and face-to-face counselling will be available. But the fact is people who probably would not have otherwise talked to someone about their problems over the phone, though email and WhatsApp, have done so. It is no longer an unnatural thing to do.
And then there are the virtual choirs where parishioners of a particular church individually record themselves singing and piece them all together. And the virtual BECs. These are all expressions of a community that is using technology to connect and seek comfort and has become successful at that. For some all this may continue. Online habits, like this and many others, acquired in the three months may not go away.
Mass Shopping and the rise of Celebrity Priest
Fr Clarence Devadass used the term “mass shopping” in one of the Catholics@Home podcasts to refer to the act of browsing for an online mass to attend the same way someone would scour through the online shopping platforms for products. Already there are some favourite online masses among parishioners and a good number of these favourites are masses in parishes that are overseas. Would local parishes be losing their flock to those overseas?
Then there is the issue of celebrity priest worship. Similar to the celebrity chefs, celebrity sportsmen and celebrities themselves, a celebrity priest would be one with charisma and strong camera presence and who has hordes of admirers and worshippers. Ensuring that this does not happen can be tricky. Do we tell a priest, who pulls thousands of viewers to his podcasts because he is a natural in front of the camera, to tone it down because we’re not sure if parishioners know how to differentiate between worshipping God and worshipping man? Or do we know how to use his personality to draw many others and not risk a celebrity priest situation?
Mass shopping and celebrity priest worship are some of the issues parishes and arch/dioceses may need to look into.
For the longest time we have been fed with info on church activities, formations and ministries. The parish priest would announce at the end of weekly masses, it would be carried in the bulletins and parish websites or Facebook pages, and BEC leaders would cascade the info to their members. There were multiple dissemination channels and the info came to us.
Since March 18, we took on a more active role, we became hunter-gatherers of info. We went to the arch/diocese sites, looking for mass and prayer times and ferociously shared them in social media. The fact that the MCO coincided with Lent and Holy Week when the parish is usually at its busiest and bursting with prayers, masses, novenas and such, made the info gathering and sharing all the more important. We shared the info far and wide, we were actively participating in the communication process because there was a need.
And so we acquired a new role. From people who hardly ever went to the parish or arch/diocese website, we became an active component in the communication process from the Church leadership to the common Catholic. We have added their YouTube channels in our favourites list, posted their announcements and info on our Facebook pages and shared them through WhatsApp. We have become partners in their info dissemination role. We were not like this before.
Something happens within us the moment our communication and media consumption patterns change. We will find it hard to forget all that has happened and reverting to our old self will not be easy. One day we will go back to our parishes, sit in the pews and listen to homilies, attend funerals at the parlours, join formation classes. But we cannot undo the fact that we have tasted online masses and learnt to build our faith through screens, and been part of the online communication network in the Catholic community.
We are no longer spectators but participants. We no longer “go to one particular parish” but to many. We have learnt to find comfort and meet our needs through online. We have become more independent and pro-active. And this is something that cannot be undone.
Here are some suggestions.
- Meet the needs
On each first Friday of the month, many Malaysians flock to attend the online mass in Perth because it’s a healing service. This is classic Users Gratification Theory which says that people use media to gratify a need or a combination of needs within them. The Singapore Archdiocese has recently started its healing service. It could be a coincidence or it could be a response to a need.
The arch/dioceses can study the needs of their communities through their media usage and content demand and use this intel to serve Catholics better. Maybe virtual choirs can be used to bring those in the peripherals closer to the church community, or online BEC and formations to those who are homebound. The arch/dioceses and parishes need to do a needs analysis and see how they can meet these needs.
2. Point of reference
The arch/dioceses need to understand that they have now become the point of reference for many Catholics. They need to embrace this new role that they have been accorded, not by design, but as a natural development due to circumstances. They have to take the lead role in info dissemination. Believers are starting to go to the arch/diocese websites if they need to find out something or confirm a news or a rumour. Previously, they would call each other up or their BEC leader and not think of the arch/dioceses as their point of reference.
So it’s time to give attention to these websites and not regard them as just ornamental. These are now the go-to sites for online mass times, updates, feast days and such. These online/ social media channels will not take away the role played by the parishes in info dissemination, in fact they will complement. This is the right time for the arch/dioceses to see how else they can serve the people through their websites which means the websites are to disseminate info from the Church to believers and at the same time the info put out needs to meet a need.
Actually, it’s the communication policies as a whole that the arch/dioceses need to review, and it is the same with other dioceses around the world. The Church has to keep up with changes especially when so much as happened in such a short space of time. The question to ask is how should the arch/dioceses use online/ social media to bring the now-more-online-savvy Catholics closer to God.