Virtual Church-Going

While much has been written about the many ways in which COVID-19 has changed our lives over the past few months, little has been said about how those who are regular church-goers have been affected as a result of being deprived of the spiritual support of weekly attendance at Mass.

Far be it from me to pose as an expert on the topic, but I was reading about the standoff between the Italian government and the country’s Roman Catholic bishops over reopening the churches (they’ve reached an agreement to do so “under strict conditions” as of May 18). There have been no Masses since early March in Italy, where the virus erupted early, infecting large numbers of citizens and resulting in many deaths. The government’s “gradual end” to the lock-down initially allowed for funerals after May 4, limited to 15 people and held outdoors “if possible,” but made no mention of allowing Masses to resume. While I firmly believe that, perhaps especially in Italy, going very cautiously back to life as it was before the virus is absolutely necessary, it got me to wondering what effect depriving people of weekly Mass or any Church service might have on the faithful in our area.

Rev. Bob Lyle, Bethyl Presbyterian Church, celebrates mass online.

Rev. Bob Lyle, Bethyl Presbyterian Church, celebrates mass online.

In fact, the Most Rev. Wayne Kirkpatrick, newly-minted Bishop of Antigonish Diocese, has issued various statements on the changes required in worship practices beginning as far back as March 6, when Premier Stephen McNeil and Dr. Robert Strang set out the regulations to be followed to safeguard public health.

Parishes throughout the diocese were advised to make sure all those distributing communion washed their hands before and after doing so, and reception of wine from the cup was to be optional. By March 13, parishes were advised to remove water from all Holy water fonts, ask parishioners to refrain from shaking hands (although many had already abandoned that practice in favor of a friendly wave by then), to not offer wine and to allow people to take communion by hand only. As of March 17, all Sunday and weekday Masses were cancelled indefinitely.

Services for Easter, considered the most important celebration of the liturgical year, were held via Facebook, and soon virtual liturgies became a weekly happening for many, a practice that will continue until an actual gathering in a real building can again be a weekly occurrence. Rev. Bill Burke, who has been offering weekly mass on St. Marguerite Bourgeoys’ Facebook page, indicated in a CBC interview that social media has created a “connectedness” that has surprised and impressed him, although he has observed elsewhere that, “Liturgy needs people and people need Liturgy.”

I also would add that for those, especially Anglicans and Catholics, whose liturgies focus on the Eucharist, there is a great void in the virtual ceremony during which the celebrant and perhaps one or two other participants receive the Bread and Wine while so many others are merely onlookers.


Many other pastors have taken to Facebook during these days of COVID-19 to retain a connection with their parishioners, who have responded with great appreciation for their efforts. Parishes with Facebook pages, and they are legion, are posting weekly bulletins, keeping parishioners aware of happenings that will or are already affecting the way in which they worship.

Fr. Bill Burke (and friend)

Fr. Bill Burke (and Maggie) celebrate mass from home.

Rev. Bob Lyle of Bethel Presbyterian Church in Sydney also tapes Facebook services which are posted on Sundays. In fact, the 110 church members who would normally attend a Sunday service has blossomed into an average of 500 viewers, including a significant number of young people, some of whom post comments to the Bethel Facebook page.

In addition, Rev. Lyle posts on an online blog as well as sending out 150 emails and mailing 50 letters to parishioners with words of hope and encouragement. One parishioner asked for a link to the Sunday service which was then forwarded to a parish member in one of the local nursing homes who was quite delighted to be able to watch from her room. Lyle says it has been quite a learning process, and he believes that some of what is happening now, might become a regular part of parish spiritual life long after the virus has become a thing of the past.

Most churches I contacted have messages advising parishioners as to what is available as far as services but it wasn’t easy to find a “live” person. The Salvation Army Community Church, like other churches mentioned above, also offers Facebook services, and, as the Salvation Army does, continues with its charitable work in the community. The phone message offers people a way to contact them if they find themselves in need of food or heat assistance, which is exactly what we would expect of the Salvation Army which has made a name for itself as a truly “giving” organization.

Rev. Peter Rafuse, Pastor of the Parish of the Resurrection, Sydney and Louisbourg, has discovered that his Facebook experience over the past number of weeks has been an eye-opener and an education, leading him to believe that “virtual” church services will not be abandoned when the worst of the pandemic is over.

On Monday and Wednesday of each week, from the confines of their kitchen in Sydney Mines, Rev. Rafuse and his wife Mary, who plays the guitar, provide two differently themed Facebook services. On Sundays, a Eucharistic service takes place in the church, and involves four self-distancing church members, Dr. Margaret Fraser, who is the cantor and who leads the singing in which viewers can participate; Katherine Fraser, who plays the piano; Rev. Rafuse as presider; and his wife, Mary, who handles camera duties and readings.

The reaction of parishioners and viewers from far and wide has been wonderful, Rafuse says, pleased to add that for Easter, they had 688 viewers, many former Sydney and Louisbourg residents who now live out West. Rafuse has been very impressed at how many parishioners who were never Facebook fans have come round, one in particular, who had said there would be no way he would ever use it, has been a virtual viewer and is very happy with it. Rafuse also credits the Catholics who pioneered TV’s Mass for Shut-Ins — that would be 57 years ago — for being so far ahead of the times when CJCB began running it. He says many Anglicans viewed it regularly, developing a “prayerful connection” between the two groups. It was the late Rev. Frank Abbass who pioneered the program which, especially in these times, still maintains a faithful audience.


And what do individual church-goers miss about the real rather than the virtual when it comes to weekly liturgies or services? I spoke to a friend who put it quite beautifully, acknowledging she misses “the collegiality of the Christian community, receiving communion after listening to the Eucharistic Prayer and, in the case of her faith, witnessing the Transubstantiation.” She also misses “singing the responses and the hymns, the presence of children and the various parish committees that contribute to the joie de vivre of parish life,” of which must leave a large vacuum in one’s spiritual life.

Another friend of mine, a former Cape Bretoner, now a parishioner of St. Benedict’s Parish in Halifax, watches that parish’s live-streamed Mass each Sunday which includes two clergy, two choir members and one reader, as well as “great homilies.” That’s possible because St. Benedict’s has been live-streaming liturgies since long before COVID-19 made it a necessity. While she, too, misses the community and the Eucharist, she mentions the “beautiful Eucharistic prayer” said in place of actually receiving the sacrament. She will be more than happy to return to an actual liturgy, but gives her pastor full marks for having this option available year round for those unable to attend in person. The Mass lasts about 1 and 1/2 hrs. and is followed by a question-and-answer period with the clergy taking all and any questions. There is also an online liturgy for children.

Rev. Peter Rafuse

Rev. Peter Rafuse celebrates mass online.

And what about a clergyman, almost 60 years a priest, who finds himself saying daily Mass alone, without the regulars who would normally attend each day but who are self-isolating. Fr. Douglas Murphy of Holy Rosary Parish in Westmount knows many are “longing to come back,” “hungering for the Eucharist” and missing the gatherings every bit as much as he does himself. His fear is that public Masses may not be allowed for a long time yet and quotes a clergy friend in Cleveland, Ohio, who says they have been ordered to resume liturgies on Pentecost which will be celebrated on May 31st and which only a certain number would be permitted to attend. That would meaning “giving out tickets,” if anyone can even imagine that. He wonders if worshippers will come back or if they might see new people. He finds himself living a “lonely” existence, but in that, he is one of millions.

It’s interesting to see just how much the Internet has influenced the manner in which people’s religious lives are being supported when church leaders of all denominations are able to reach out to adherents right across the country. For example, more than 80 leading Canadian church men and women have posted words of comfort and advice on how to retain their faith in such a time of adversity and all call for their people “to highlight the necessity for greater attention to the needs of the homeless, the elderly and those who are already suffering from social isolation.”

One item not seen on a virtual church service is a collection plate or basket, but that doesn’t for a minute suggest that churches aren’t in need of donations as staff must be paid, buildings must be heated and maintained, and all the usual financial obligations must be met. Some parishes are set up for email transfers and a “check in the mail” is happily accepted, so rather than considering making up for a few months’ donations when all this has passed, consider making a weekly or even monthly payment. When it comes to financial needs, “virtual” just doesn’t cut it.



Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.