From a “nice-to-have,” the idea of a digital Church is now a “must-have,” an undeniable reality, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to lock down entire populations and prevent the flock from going to their parish churches.
Pope Francis delivering his “Urbi et Orbi” in front of an empty Vatican square, and presiding over a Palm Sunday Mass at the back of the main altar of St. Peter’s were sights nobody thought would ever happen.
But they’ve happened. For good or bad, the Church has gone digital, with the Holy Father himself reaching out via the power of the internet to everyone who has a decent data connection.
This is replicated hundreds or thousands of times over in livestreams of Holy Masses by other local bishops and priests all over the world. And they would again do so in the coming days for the ceremonies marking the most solemn days of Christendom.
The Church cannot rely on the pope alone or even on the bishops for online presence. There’s still no substitute to hearing the homilies from parish priests who could relate the Gospel with a community’s specific circumstances. The challenge now is for all parishes to go online, and bring the Holy Mass to its flock via livestream.
In the Philippines, more and more parishes have quickly adjusted to the new situation by announcing the schedules of the streamed Holy Masses. With no small help from the laity, they have been able to acquire camera, computers, and connections necessary for live streaming.
It is thus only a matter of time until all parishes go online, and make live streaming the Holy Mass a regular part of their work even after the end of the pandemic.
Some would argue that there’s no need to make parish-level live streaming permanent, because there have always been Holy Mass celebrations on television and on cable TV. But these Masses lack the localization needed to make the Gospel more relevant to Catholics wherever they may be.
The phenomenon of the Catholic Church going digital and online is good news to migrant peoples who long for connections to the communities they originally come from. They would surely appreciate better hearing Holy Mass together with their neighbors, live from the church they grew up in.
Besides, the Catholic Church must always strive to be universal through and through. The initial steps have been taken by Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and now Pope Francis.
The Holy See has a deep website, the pontiff regularly tweets. By the power of example, Pope Francis is showing to bishops and priests that the pandemic should not stop the Church from reaching out to the flock.
The Church must not be limited to the parish church or the cathedral: It must go online and reach out to its people.
Outside of the Church, this phenomenon is called digital transformation. Many have tried to proselytize to governments and business the merits of going online and digital. Little did we know that it would take a pandemic to reach this near-total transformation at the highest levels of Church, business, and government.
There are other opportunities for the Church now that it is claiming its space online: We hope Pope Francis would support the cause of making internet access a right, and not a privilege; support protections for the right to privacy against surveillance; and endorse both freedom of expression and freedom of belief not just offline, but online as well.
One thing going for the Catholic church is that it is the world’s biggest provider of healthcare and education outside state governments. It has the brains trust to make such digitalization work at many levels. And may I reiterate, it also has many scientific and medical experts who could raise public awareness and even offer solutions to the pandemic.
Meantime, there are practical matters at hand. People now expect to participate in the rites of Holy Week online. But many would not be able to avail of the sacrament of confession, due to the lockdowns and quarantines in many countries.
Are we going to confessions done online as well, given that the Church has considered as valid obedience to obligations the attendance in an online Holy Mass? Or would the Church for the first time in memory grant blanket absolution to all those who seek confession but are unable to physically meet with a priest?
Would the Church authorize virtual blessings of the mortal remains of Catholics who died from COVID-19 prior to their cremation or other form of disposition as provided by local laws?
We do not know the answers to these questions for now, but I am certain these concerns have reached the priests, bishops and the pope.
Tonyo Cruz is a Filipino blogger, newspaper columnist, and convener of the media and arts alliance Let’s Organize for Democracy and Integrity. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of LiCAS.news.