Sacred space on the web

 

Religious leaders are using websites to reach out to their followers, particularly those who can’t make it to church services, writes ALANNAH GALLAGHER

AS OUR lives get busier and busier there is less and less time for quiet spiritual contemplation. The idea of nine-to-five working is a thing of the past, and many of us no longer have time to drop into the local church for a moment of prayer, something which provided generations with their daily spiritual bread.

This, coupled with the fact that few churches open late these days, means more people are turning to the web for their spiritual fix. It’s private, open 24/7 and offers a range of services to suit every creed. You can attend baptisms, weddings and funerals. Even Cardinal Cahal Daly recognises its potential, recently urging social networkers to start sending daily prayers by text, Twitter or e-mail.

The Catholic Church is embracing the web with gusto. The Vatican has its own YouTube channel. In Britain, Westminister Abbey uses Twitter and podcasts to spread the word.

In Ireland, the website Catholicireland.net lists every Mass time and service in every Catholic Church in the country. Diocesan and parish sites have almost doubled their number of users since last December. Figures are up from 36,271 in December 2008 to 70,892 in April 2009.

Sacredspace.ie, the Jesuit prayer site, was set up 10 years ago by Fr Alan McGuckian. It asks you to find “sacred space”, 10 minutes for prayer, in your day. This avenue to the soul has users responding with delight, as a recent American post reads: “What a wonderful, inspirational site. To be able to break off from work and reflect is such a gift.” Its success lies in the fact that you don’t have to move physically to engage spiritually.

FAITH HAS MOVED online. Rita Murphy (not her real name), who is in her 60s, banks, shop and plays solitare online. She also worships online. “Thanks to the live mass feed from Mountargusparish.ie I go to Mass every day, virtually. It makes you still feel part of the community.”

Mount Argus is one of seven Catholic churches that have signed up to Churchservices.tv which broadcasts its Masses. The Mount Argus cameras are operated manually during big ceremonies, explains Fr Kenneth Brady, curate at the church. “It means for instance, if you’re doing a funeral, that mourners abroad can participate in the service. This is of great consolation to mourners who can’t attend in person.”

Eighty-four year old Patrick Bennett has been an active member of Mount Argus parish since he was a boy. Infirm, he is no longer able to attend daily Mass. But since his family clubbed together and bought him a laptop with wireless broadband internet access he’s been tuning into 11am Sunday Mass online. “It’s brilliant for people who can’t get out to church,” he smiles from the comfort of his sitting room armchair.

Staugustinescork.ie broadcasts each of its daily services, says Fr Pat Moran, prior of the Cork city church. The first anniversary Mass for showband legend, Brendan O’Brien, lead singer with the Dixies, recently took place in the church. Five of his six children, unable to attend, watched online from Canada, he says. “It brought tears to their eyes to see fellow band members Steve Lynch and Joe Mac there.”

The potential of the web is limitless, he continues. “It opens the church up to all sorts of new possibilities, from church services, to the stations of the cross, novenas, the rosary and ecumenical and prayer services.”

Online services offer an immediate connection for those who want to experience a sense of community in their faith, says Cliodhna Doyle, a member of St Augustine’s online congregation. Doyle lives in Brixton in London. She began to follow the 11am Mass on Fridays, primarily because her two parents are Ministers of the Eucharist there. “It was nice to be able to see them in a live stream. It’s really lovely to be able to tune in to a familiar place and enjoy a similar sense of togetherness, even though I’m not physically there.”

It’s the sense of community that draws her in. “People very often lead solitary and lonely lives and this offers a sense that no matter where in the world you are, there is a Mass streaming live, which you can be part of. This can be hugely comforting and grounding for a lot of people.”

“We’re trying to provide an authentic insight into the life of the church, which is more vibrant than some people understand,” adds Fr Bill Kenny, chancellor of the diocese of Kildare and Leighlin and webmaster of the parish site, Kandle.ie. The site offers podcasts of its sermons which feature in the Christian category of iTunes. They’ve even got to number one on several occasions.

The Christian Church has always been a worldwide web on the ground, reasons Fr McGuckian, who is also chairman of the board of Catholicireland.net. “Both the church and the web build community, share ideas and create an enthusiasm for life.”

Catholicireland.net helps enhance diocese and parish sites by providing a news content feed to many of them. It has several other sticky pieces of content including a “Talk to God” section. It operates through word-of-mouth and now services more than 70,000 people. “I don’t think it’ll replace Mass but there is a case to be made for examining isolation,” says Tony Bolger, chief executive of the site. With the convergence of technology Catholicireland.net will be on television within a year, Bolger estimates.

THE CHURCH OF Ireland also has a significant online presence. Nothing replaces human contact but the internet offers another dimension to church ministry, explains Ian Poulton, rector of Ballybrack. His blog, forthefainthearted.com, attracts 1,000 unique visitors per month. The web is both the medium and the message, says the rector. “In times gone by clergy used to write huge diaries. This is simply keeping up with the times.”

Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological Institution. He trains people for ordination and is also Canon at Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin.

“Everyone in ministry should have a blog or be on Facebook,” he believes. “It’s about availability in ministry and communicating in a number of ways.

“Imagine a church with no cobwebs, leaking roof or even church building. That’s where you are right now. Welcome to St Pixel’s.” This is the opening statement of an online church initiated by founding member, Stephen Goddard, which received sponsorship from the Methodist Church in Britain.

It was created as an experiment in online worship, says Goddard. “We do everything else online as a community, except worship.”

It’s a good point and it seems to be working. “From feedback there is definite evidence that people who lost interest in physically going to church have found a place for themselves online,” explains David Webster, their internet communications co-ordinator

“The web can be used to build up the human experience of prayer and community online,” adds Fr McGuckian.

And it means you can shop around to find what inspires you. Cliodhna Doyle is just back from a trip to Chicago where she went to a very inspiring service. “Attending a service online means you’re not restricted by bricks and mortar or poor sermons by priests. When you find a service which inspires your faith, you can attend it virtually.”

We all have a spiritual centre, whether we acknowledge it or not, even if don’t go near a physical church, admits another woman who declined to be named. “The potential for the web to help you commune is wonderful.” Be not afraid, she says, of technology.