Breda O’Brien: The church has been catapulted online

Rather than being in opposition to real community, virtual experience fosters it

An online pilgrimage seems like a contradiction in terms. The essence of pilgrimage for thousands of years has been to travel, to leave ordinary life behind and to make a literal as well as a spiritual journey.

It is at the heart of many world religions, whether it be the 40 million people immersing themselves in the waters of the Ganges for Kumbh Mela, the 2.5 million who travel to Mecca for Hajj, or the innumerable Irish parish sites of pilgrimage known only to a few dozen locals.

The idea of taking the pilgrimage experience online is somewhat audacious. It is also probably in the spirit of St Patrick, who allowed recently converted Christians to continue to visit local wells and shrines but re-dedicated the sites to Christianity.

Last Sunday, the annual Dublin Diocesan Pilgrimage to Knock, including a Youth pilgrimage, took place with people staying at home – 11,257 of them. Some 6,500 online viewers watched Easter Sunday Mass from Knock while 8,500 watched the Divine Mercy celebrations. This Sunday, it will be the turn of Tuam and Waterford dioceses. Over 1.5 million people have watched online services in Knock since March 1st.


In normal times, one-and-a-half million visitors pass through Knock every year. The Shrine is a significant employer, just as the Benedictine nuns of Kylemore Abbey in Co Galway are one of the most important employers in their area. Could this online success be, to use a bad pun, a mixed blessing?

Piling on to a coach

The majority of pilgrims to Knock are older people. Once the lockdown ends, will they have got used to watching from the comfort of their homes, and will the prospect of piling on to a coach with 50 fellow parishioners and travelling for four hours to Knock appear far less attractive?

And what about online and broadcast Mass on Sunday? Astonishing figures are tuning in to RTÉ’s broadcast services. Easter audiences peaked at 248,200 (representing 36.6 per cent of the available audience share) on Good Friday for the Solemn Liturgy from Christ the King Cathedral, Mullingar.

Last Sunday's Mass broadcast by RTÉ was an interesting hybrid because rather than sending out an RTÉ television crew, it was live-streamed by ChurchServicesTV from Glencomeragh Holy Family Mission.

Figures from Knock and RTÉ make the news, but a parish near me, Dundrum in Dublin, has more than a thousand people watching Sunday Mass. Parishes all over the country are not just streaming Mass, but morning and evening prayer and the rosary. Many of them are reporting high levels of engagement.

Solitary sharing

However, Michael Commane raised a good question in his Thinking Anew column about webcasting the Mass. Should it even be done? He and a fellow priest had discussed it and agreed that the answer was probably not. They felt that "Mass is an experience of sharing in the word and the communion of the bread and wine. In the virtual world, it is only a solitary sharing of the word."

Strangely, that is not the experience of laypeople that I have spoken to. For people who choose to attend Mass regularly, being unable to celebrate Mass with others leaves a great void.

I imagine for a priest celebrating Mass in an empty church, it must be a very strange experience, and that it feels very solitary. However, I think the people at home experience it very differently. I don’t think any of us think that it in any way replaces the experience of joining a community in real life, much less receiving the eucharist, but we are very, very grateful that it exists.

And far from being a solitary experience, the fact that so many people are searching out online or broadcast experiences is strangely bonding. Parish priests have described virtual communities forming that chat with each other once the webcast service is over. People deprived of the opportunity to stand in solidarity with neighbours, families or friends at a time of bereavement tune in to the funeral service instead.


Ironically, a church which often talked vaguely about engaging with the modern-day version of the Areopagus (the Athenian centre of culture where Saint Paul argued for Christianity) has been catapulted online by the Covid-19 crisis.

The Iona Institute, of which I am a patron, discovered through Amarach Research that one in five people are praying more often. Curiously, 24 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds say they are praying more than usual, the same number as over 55s. The middle generation is the one which was most affected by the scandals and the number is far lower.

But that younger generation is also the one which spends the most time online. Perhaps the online and the real-world experience should not be seen in opposition to each other, but as complementary and valuable.

We all long to emerge from our enforced and necessary separation. For those of us who are believers, that emergence includes the eventual freedom to worship shoulder to shoulder. However, it would be a shame to lose the creativity and solidarity online experiences can offer. Rather than being in opposition to real community, it fosters it.