By Fr. Tony Bidgood, C.Ss.R.
Here in Newfoundland, like most of the country, we are in a lockdown situation after a sudden spike of COVID19 cases, this time of the new UK variant B117. For us on RAFFT, we quickly pivoted back to doing some of the work we could do, online. For example, during the first lockdown in the spring, we moved centring prayer online, and saw an increase in participants! We have done the same now during this second lockdown.
The biggest adjustment however, was moving an entire Lenten Mission online! In January we offered to the Archdiocese, a Lenten Mission to be held at the Basilica of St. John the Baptist, which could also be livestreamed throughout the Archdiocese. This idea was warmly received by the Archbishop and Presbyteral Council and the dates were set for February 21-24. The theme was “Led Through the Desert” and each night we looked at the desert from different perspectives: Sunday night was “Led Into the Desert”, Monday was “The Desert: A Place of Trial”, Tuesday was “The Desert: A Place to Encounter God”, and Wednesday was “The Desert: A Place to be Renewed.” The first three would include a ritual of candle lighting and using a bowl of incense as a means of intercessory prayer, in addition to the sermon, prayers and music. The last night, of course, was the celebration of the Eucharist. It was advertised extensively and preparations were made for people to pre-register for each night as per COVID19 contact tracing protocols. We set to work preparing our homilies and making preparations with the pastor of the Basilica and his team.
Then came the COVID19 variant B117. Suddenly, all of the province went into Level 5 (the highest level) of lockdown and we knew that no one could physically gather in the Basilica for the mission. According to the lockdown protocols, only 5 people could gather in a church for a funeral or a wedding. With all churches moving their weekday and Sunday Masses online, we asked ourselves would we cancel the mission? It was decided that at this time of heightened anxiety perhaps people were hungering for spiritual support so we decided to move the mission online. It was not hard to do of course, but it meant that in a church that can comfortably seat about 1500 people there would be only five of us: David, Anne, the cantor, accompanist and me!
With no congregation in the church, how could a mission happen? How could a Redemptorist mission happen, knowing the energy and dynamic that we often enjoy with a congregation? What would it be like for people to attend the mission through their monitors and not in person? I think I can speak for all of us when I say we found it strange to look out onto empty pews! Nevertheless, we forged ahead and did our mission program as planned.
As the mission unfolded, we received daily updates from the Basilica’s technical support people about the numbers of people who watched it live and then watched it recorded on the Basilica website. We were pleasantly surprised that the numbers grew into the high hundreds, and by the end of it, it was in the thousands of people who ‘clicked’ on the link. Yes, it was an adjustment to be sure, and it required a letting go of past experience and expectations in order to enter into the mission. But I noticed in myself, early on in the mission, a settling into this “new way”. Knowing people were online, meant people were participating, it was just in a (very) different way. Our preaching was the same, and our rituals of candle lighting, incense and prayer did not lose any of their impact. In fact, its impact may have been enhanced because the cameras could zoom in on those symbols and fill a person’s monitor, whereas if they were seated in the church, their view would be obscured by the distance. We asked people, in their homes as they watched, to offer their own intercessory prayers as the candle was lit and the incense rose. I hope that made it more personal and meaningful for them.
The mission, for me, and for the other four who were in the church, took on an intimacy and quiet reverence that I was not expecting. I did feel as if we were joined with those watching. We were blessed with emails and website comments that told us people were appreciative of the mission, so we knew our efforts were making an impact and, most importantly, God was at work!
The COVID19 pandemic is changing us all, and changing our Church. I am growing in my realization that “ministering through a monitor” is not just an accommodation to these times. Nor is it a substitution brought on by present circumstances. There is a meaningfulness to this experience of ministry that the Church will have to accept and come to embrace. Yes, gathering in person can never be replaced, nor should it. But likewise gathering online has an inherent dignity and a capacity to reach and spiritually nourish many more people who may never enter the doors of our Church, but are seeking and hungering nonetheless. I think we as a Church, and as Redemptorists are both challenged and invited to reconsider how we do what we do and step into new ways and means of being present to people. Further to that, I think existentially, we are being challenged and invited to reconsider how we are as Church.
If you wish to view the mission, it can be accessed online by clicking here and then scrolling down to Lenten Mission 1&2 and Mission 3&4.