Despite all the misgivings coming up to Christmas, we ended up having a lovely one. I think what made it very special was that it was very focused on family rather than the usual razzmatazz that has been increasingly associated with Christmas. In our own case, we have five children and 11 grandchildren and over the two days of Christmas we were able to interact with all of them either physically or online. Up until this year, many people were very negatively disposed towards social media and the damage it was doing to society but thank God for it this year.
I think that one of the few good things that have come out of the Covid pandemic has been an increasing awareness of how important our social contacts are in general with a particular focus on family. Again, in our own case, I am one of a family of 13 with 12 of us still surviving. Earlier this year, we set up a family group on Messenger, where we chat about life in general, sometimes by text, sometimes by video, often reflecting back on times past and how different life was growing up in Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s. The sort of things that families chat about when they occasionally get together but using social media has allowed us to engage on a regular basis instead of, like most large families, ending up depending on weddings and funerals!
It is not, however, just our immediate families or our extended families. As Catholics, we are part of a much larger church family and especially our local parish family. Again, the importance of that family has been reinforced during lockdowns with the very high numbers of people who have engaged with Mass and other parish services online. Again, thank God for things like Facebook and YouTube!
So what can we learn from all this?
I suspect that many parishes were taken aback by the level of demand for tickets for Christmas Masses this year – and a special word of thanks and appreciation is due to the priests who worked so hard at providing extra Masses along with all those who put so much effort into making sure that everyone could attend in a safe environment. What the demand showed is that people’s needs far exceed sitting watching Mass on Facebook or YouTube – there is an unrelenting desire for people to gather as a family in the presence of the Lord.
Pope Francis has declared 2021 as a special year for family and I think within our parishes and especially through our Pastoral Councils, we need to look at ways in which we can recapture some of the aspects of the parish-as-family that we may have lost in recent years. It looks like on-and-off lockdowns are a feature of our lives for some time ahead and even when the lockdowns eventually do end, it is likely that elderly and vulnerable people may be reluctant to physically return to Mass. Providing online Mass through webcams or Facebook or YouTube has been wonderful in enabling people to participate in some limited way, but I think we should use our imagination to explore how we can extend this further. Schools, especially third level, have developed ways of delivering education online; many businesses are now largely operating with staff based at home using online communication using video conferencing for their communications. Is there any reason why we as a church cannot make more use of this approach in various ways? Adult faith formation is one obvious candidate where existing materials could possibly be tweaked for delivery to a home base, just as has happened in education.
There are other less formal areas that can be considered. We have been exploring this in my own parish of Urney and Castlefinn. We set up an online facility similar to Zoom and other conferencing software but operating within a religious environment rather than a secular one. We successfully used it for a small group who prayed the Rosary daily during October and we also used it to enable a number of people to contribute from home to the Remembrance of the Dead and Prayer for the Bereaved service in November; the Legion of Mary have also used it for their weekly meetings during lockdown. This year, we would like to look at ways of extending that further.
Webcams or Facebook or YouTube can never replace the wonder of physically being present at Mass and receiving Christ into our hearts and souls through the Eucharist. Physical attendance must always be our ultimate target but that should not stop us exploring ways we can supplement that. By focusing on parish-as-family and working on a range of ways to achieve that, I think we really can turn 2021 into the special year for family that Pope Francis has called for.
(Anyone who would like to know more about online prayer is welcome to contact Martin by email – email@example.com)