Modern media brings the Church into the home


Due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the Church has had to find alternative ways to bring the Mass, and Easter celebrations in particular, into our homes. Mathibela Sebothoma looks at the vital role that communications technologies and social media have come to play as priests find ways to minister to their communities in lockdown.

In the early days of Radio Veritas, I presided at the Holy Mass in the studio with less than five people physically present. It was at noon. The studio SMS line was full of people requesting their petitions or “Mass intentions”. The radio Mass was always popular.

When I was in the seminary, we were taught how to prepare the Mass that was normally broadcast on Sundays on the then “Radio South Africa”, now SAfm. This was very popular.

I never missed the Christmas Mass and the Easter Mass celebrated live from the Vatican City.

Before COVID-19

On Ash Wednesday, we had Mass at noon in the Cathedral of Sacred Heart in Pretoria. Many people working in the Pretoria city centre used their lunch time to attend a daily Mass. At the time I had no idea that the COVID-19 would radically change our normal liturgies and it would be one of the last few times we would meet as a community.

A few days later many dioceses decided to restrict Mass participants to 100 people. A week later President Ramaphosa called for a far more stringent lockdown. The Churches once again did not oppose the decision taken by cabinet.

I, together with some priests and lay people, started talking about how we can still be spiritual without contradicting government’s stance of a lockdown. Some suggested we use social media to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 infections.

I had given up Facebook for Lent following the example of Fr Sello Makgale, who has been giving up social media for a number of years.

At the time I had no idea that the COVID-19 would radically change our normal liturgies and it would be one of the last few times we would meet as a community.

With the new challenges never seen before in South Africa, I prayed and God told me to “stay at home”.

A way around the lockdown

Recently I got a call from my mother – she is 90 years old. She has only ever missed Sunday Mass when she has been too ill to attend. She was very upset because Church doors were locked. She, however, understood the reason for the restrictions.

My mother was relieved and happy to be introduced to the Sesotho Mass on the Radio Veritas DStv channel, even though she could not receive Holy Communion. Spiritual communion was enough for her, though she cannot wait for things to be normal again.

Fr Joel Skhosana, a scripture scholar at St John Vianney Seminary, started trending on a WhatsApp voice note, giving people hope in the midst of the crisis we and the world are facing. I received one of his WhatsApp homilies from a doctor who is a Health Sciences lecturer and a member of the Uniting Reformed Church. When I called Fr Skhosana to congratulate him, he told me he had received positive responses from as far as Zimbabwe. Many of the priests followed his example by sending their parishioners the homilies and reflections they would have heard if they had been at Mass.

It was encouraging to see young priests using a platform like Facebook. Suddenly rosaries, the office of readings and novenas, among others, were reaching hearts and souls at home. Their messages were forwarded and shared. In the comments section, people have shown their appreciation for the new initiatives by the Catholic clergy.

Social media training

As with anything new there will always be mistakes. Not all priests are trained in broadcasting or social media.

Three South African priests have attended Italian universities to study social communications. They are Fr Phuti Makgabo (Johannesburg), Fr Ncamiso Vilakati (Manzini) and Fr Kabelo Mahemo (Kimberley). Sr Shana Monare from the Sisters of Calvary, who also studied in Rome, is doing good things in Botswana. Fr Smilo Mngadi (Marianhill) and Fr Russell Pollitt (Jesuit) are already veterans and unofficial spokespersons of the Church in South Africa.

We do the best we can with what we have.

I watched and prayed closely with Pope Francis at his special Urbi et Orbi while he entered into adoration of the Blessed Sacrament on the altar, and I felt his blessing when the monstrance he was holding pointed to the north, east, south and west. I definitely benefitted from the indulgences announced and listed.

Yes, a parish in Vosloorus or Mhluzi may not have all the professionals employed by the Vatican. None of our parishes have the expensive information and communication technology owned by the Vatican or even our own SABC.

Bietjie bietjie maak meer (little by little we will get there). Rome was not built in day. We do the best we can with what we have.

Nevertheless, the pastoral strategies we have had to adopt very quickly as a result of the crisis, may stimulate a new forms of pastoral in the future. Let us meet and review the lessons we have learnt after the lockdown has been lifted.

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Modern media brings the Church into the home