Viewership, attendance numbers jump once Masses go ‘private’

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The Mass that once drew the faithful together in body is now doing so in spirit.

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted suspended all public Masses in the Diocese of Phoenix late March 16. The unprecedented move was largely in response to U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s recommendation to limit public gatherings to 10 people.

Via a video message posted March 18 at dphx.org/stayhealthy, Bishop Olmsted encouraged the faithful to not lose hope, but “use this opportunity to unite more closely with Him and with others around the world.”

Catholics across the diocese have responded. Most churches remain open for private prayer while following “social distancing” guidelines, but Mass “attendance” has moved online, particularly at parishes that didn’t previously offer it. The result: a shorter commute, spiritual instead of physical Communion, worshipers from across the globe tuning in and, so far, an uptick in the number of daily Mass “goers.”

“Already I’m sensing from the faithful this desire for the Lord. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, and maybe people aren’t even going to the chapel or to Mass, but just the idea that they can’t, makes them really want to,” Fr. Matt Lowry, chaplain at Holy Trinity Newman Center at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff said.

His comment was part of a recorded conversation with Fr. Will Schmid, longtime friend, roommate — even prior to priesthood and seminary — and pastor of nearby San Francisco de Asís. They premiered the “Northern Fathers” podcast less than 24 hours after the announcement of public Masses being canceled. A parish family donated money for the equipment last year and the priests had previous test runs. God finally gave them the greenlight they yearned for to launch it.

“This is how we are going to be able to reach our people and keep them connected,” Fr. Schmid said. The podcast will air daily for now. Fr. Lowry uploads it to the Catholic Jacks’ SoundCloud channel that has served NAU students for two years.

Streaming ventures

Virtual Mass options

Fr. Schmid also began livestreaming daily Mass via his Instagram account. Each of the three Masses he offered privately by the time The Catholic Sun spoke to him March 19, had 160-170 viewers. San Francisco de Asis’ 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass will move to the parish’s Facebook page. It’s important to note that viewers do not have to be Facebook users to stream the videos.

“People are very grateful to not only be able to watch the Mass, but to see their particular priests celebrating the Mass,” Fr. Schmid said. The daily livestream from Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Chapel in Flagstaff offers “the closest view of the Eucharist you will ever have. The angle we use gives you an amazing close-up with some nice glances of a beautiful gothic chapel.”

Though she’s a St. Thomas the Apostle parishioner now, Sarah White was once a Flagstaff Catholic and loved being able to participate in Fr. Schmid’s daily Mass via Instagram feed this week. She was moved by the closeness that she felt whether that meant a familiar presider, or the new perspective via a lens on the altar itself.

“It gave me a lot of peace. I still say the payers out loud, make the home as quiet as possible and go about the Mass with as much reverence as I can,” White said. She hopes viewership steadily grows as long as the Masses remain private.

Down in the Valley of the Sun, Fr. Kilian McCaffrey and his staff at St. Elizabeth Seton in Sun City livestreamed its first Mass March 17. All it took was a cell phone, parish Facebook page, power cords and a microphone stand. That first Mass drew in some 300 views on the parish page, easily three times an in-person daily Mass attendance count.

Viewers aren’t always from Arizona either. Fr. McCaffrey has seen viewers tune in from overseas and Canada. When livestreams are earlier in the day, reactions and comments also come from the East coast and Europe. The later daily Masses draw more from Arizona.

A man in Italy is among the hundreds, and often thousands, of viewers who tune in to the Franciscan Friars of the Holy Spirit Mass. It’s livestreamed on Facebook too, but offered Ad Orientem. The friars committed to broadcasting Mass and other devotions daily.

Other parishes that launched daily live Masses on Facebook this week include Corpus Christi in Phoenix and Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Scottsdale. Tuning in to the latter will take viewers to the parish’s Old Adobe Mission where the private Mass is celebrated. St. Timothy in Mesa streams Masses on its YouTube channel.

Priests and parish leaders at Our Lady of Lourdes in Sun City West — which also includes Prince of Peace Church — will make a recorded weekend Mass available via YouTube and shared on Facebook and Flocknote.

Streaming veterans

While Masses livestreamed across the diocese are new to many parish staff, it’s a weekly routine at St. Mary in Chandler. A partnership with Catholic Media Ministry has been airing the Sunday liturgy via the parish website, TV and/or social media for roughly seven years. That includes in Spanish, too.

Fr. Elario Zambakari, parochial vicar of St. Mary’s Parish in Chandler, celebrates a livestreamed private Mass for the Solemnity of St. Joseph March 19. (youtube.com/phoenixdiocese)

The ministry switched to a daily livestream March 17. The Masses are available at youtube.com/PhoenixDiocese and Catholic Media Ministry’s YouTube and Facebook pages. Viewership across individual channels and languages has not been lower than 700 for daily Mass and as high as 5,300. A regular weekend for a public Mass would be lucky to get a few thousand views in either language on Facebook. The minimum on YouTube is about 215 in English and 400 in Spanish.

“I knew we had the equipment there and it’s a way to keep people connected when there’s no daily Mass to go to,” said Fr. Dan McBride, pastor. “I’ve had tons of people who were so grateful. They’re grateful that they can see that their priests care about them and that they have some connection to the Church.”

Fortunately for those who attend St. Joseph Maronite in Phoenix, Catholic Media Ministry helped set up its livestream capabilities about a month ago and walked a small Phoenix parish through setting up a YouTube livestream this week.

Weekend Mass options

Praying beyond Mass

Now that Bishop Olmsted invited those across the diocese to pray the Angelus at noon daily, many parishes are streaming that via Facebook or other social media outlets as well. Some parishes are inviting its virtual followers to join its priests in morning or evening prayer. Since there are two more weeks of Lent before Holy Week, parishes are looking to livestream the Stations of the Cross too.

A parishioner at St. Anthony of Padua in Wickenburg offered a call-in number to allow for group Rosary March 19. It was offered in union with Pope Francis, Italy and the world for protection from coronavirus. OLPH in Scottsdale promised to post a Rosary on its Facebook page by 6 p.m. daily.

Fr. Don Kline, pastor of St. Bernadette in Scottsdale, is sharing the daily Gospel reading and a short homily on his parish’s website. He is working on a parish livestream, but directed parishioners to the regular diocesan livestream from Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral Sundays at 9 a.m.

“Mass is the greatest act of worship in which the church on earth is united to the Church in heaven. It is the holy Mass in which we bring all of our hopes and our struggles and our work and our love,” Fr. Kline said in a heartfelt “Words of Hope” video greeting to parishioners March 18.

He encouraged parishioners to make a spiritual Communion and offered a wealth practical of tips for still preparing to “go” to Mass. He also reflected on the future for which so many yearn: “I pray that you will enter into Mass with the best of your ability and long for that moment when we all come together again in God’s house and give thanks for the many blessings He has given us.”