PANDEMIC USHERS IN NEW ERA OF TECHNOLOGY FOR DIOCESAN PARISHES
Melanie Sisinni and Bill Murray
NORTHWEST PA — When St. Boniface parishioners built their church in 1893, many donated their labor to create a house of worship in the heart of Elk County.
A similar spirit took hold in March 2020 in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when members of the Kersey parish could not gather for public Mass. Facebook, Instagram and YouTube became tools in a New Evangelization that enabled parishioners and others to access livestreamed Masses, including funerals and weddings.
Father Ross Miceli, who was pastor of St. Boniface at the start of the pandemic in 2020, and his parishioners quickly realized they would need to get creative in order to keep some semblance of community. One parishioner volunteered his time wiring the church for high-speed Internet access while five others volunteered to assist by livestreaming Masses.
The parish uses other technology tools to stay in touch, such as Flocknote, which can enable pastors and parish staff to communicate with parishioners through email and texting.
“We can be separated by miles but be very close,” Father Miceli said.
Father Miceli and his parishioners decided to rebrand their parish website as Boniface Live. They used Vimeo as a platform for hosting their social media and video content, which costs about $1,000 for a year’s service.
“Quite a few St. Boniface parishioners are elderly, and some are immuno-compromised,” said Father Miceli, “so they appreciated the opportunity to view Mass online.”
Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, St. Boniface has ended its livestreaming of daily Mass, as part of an effort to encourage parishioners and visitors to attend church in person. The parish continues to livestream its Saturday Vigil Mass.
“Just because I feel safe to attend in-person events doesn’t mean that you do,” Father Miceli commented. Given that Elk County has twice the concentration of Catholics as other parts of the diocese, he sees podcasting as a potential follow-on activity for online Catholic evangelization.
Father Larry Richards has immersed himself into the world of social media and technology through The Reason for Our Hope Foundation, incorporated in 2004. As the pastor of St. Joseph/Bread of Life Community Parish, he uses multimedia resources to spread the word about Jesus Christ. Father Richards tweets in the morning and evening, using Gospel verses, in addition to livestreaming Mass, which generated 14,000 viewers at the peak of the pandemic. His weekly podcast, Anchored in Hope, has more than four million downloads.
“I used to say that I couldn’t do it,” Father Richards said about his initial aversion to social
media. As a priest, he was used to being able to feed off the response of the congregation at parish missions, Mass and other occasions. The COVID-19 pandemic changed his reluctance, particularly given the lack of in-person engagement options.
The Reason for Our Hope is launching an app this summer, and it is free, just like the foundation’s other content. The foundation’s outreach, which has included using Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn, has become so time-consuming that Father Richards plans to hire a full-time social media manager so outreach can continue to grow through other channels, like TikTok.
His advice to fellow priests who want to get started using technology or social media?
“Make sure it’s God, not you,” Father Richards said. He also does not read comments about his homilies and other reflections. He advises other priests to do the same because of the number of people unnecessarily wanting to provoke conflict on the Internet.
Father Miceli advises, “We don’t all need to do everything.” He recommends that pastors survey the needs of their parishioners in determining the appropriate level of technological engagement they should develop.
No matter what approach a parish takes, now that new tools to strengthen ties in parishes have been introduced, they are here to stay.