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September 10, 2020

Reaching souls with trepidation: How I began livestreaming the Mass


Reaching souls with trepidation: How I began livestreaming the Mass
 

I was walking down the hall of our parish center chatting with another staff member. It was a decisive moment, palpable, and I said to her, “Shut it down, shut it all down.” The COVID-19 pandemic was rolling across the United States, everything was escalating very rapidly, and a different staff member of our childcare program had a family member that had been exposed. It was all but enough, with the many unknowns, to be prudent and close the parish. No more ministry groups gathering; no more daily Mass, nor office hours. Everything would be shuttered, and the staff sent home on March 12, 2020.

It was the right decision. The very next day directives would roll out from the Bishop’s Office and the landscape of Catholicism in Utah would change. Safety was paramount, and it still is five months later. Over the following months, various directives and adjustments would fall into place. We would eventually slowly open our parishes and the churches to worship in person. In those early days of the shutdown, our bishop asked our priests to begin livestreaming Mass. This was no small feat and proved to be daunting for many. I don’t recall a single priest having experience with livestreaming a Mass or being able to navigate the technological jungle of YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo and a host of other tools. The first was our parish in Orem, UT. Others would follow.

A week after the shutdown, I grabbed my cell phone holder for the car and found a clumsy way to attach it to a music stand and began livestreaming Mass to Facebook. As the days rolled by, I studied websites and products to gain a little education and moved quickly to get some equipment on order. The country was shutting down, and if the supermarket was any indicator, everything essential would evaporate from the shelves. I ordered some cameras, tripods, cables, a video switcher and WiFi system.

I continued to livestream with a simple cell phone setup. I worried about the strength of the audio, as the cell phone needed to be a good distance from the altar to capture both the altar and the ambo. I grabbed an amplified speaker, plugged in a microphone on a stand and a cordless lavalier microphone that I would wear. Cranking it up just before the feedback threshold won the day. The cell phone picked up the volume from the speaker. It worked. It was thrown together, but it was enough.

Over the past five months, the equipment all eventually arrived, and I have made incremental adjustments to improve our livestream. I explicitly wanted a wireless solution — as far as that was possible. There were not a lot of options, but I did purchase a SlingStudio setup (see related video) that uses its own hub and WiFi to communicate with all the cameras. I could control up to four cameras on an iPad that I could discretely hold or set down while presiding! The SlingStudio is capable of much more. For example, if a volunteer would operate the iPad (or iMac) they could queue up graphics, music and even pre-recorded video. They could rotate other cameras into the four camera slots to use up to a dozen cameras. As for me, I kept livestreaming with just three cameras and a smile under my mask. The SlingStudio gave me the ability and freedom to switch camera views on the fly and keep tabs on the live feed going out to the world.

Our bishop has already stated that he would like our parishes to continue livestreaming when the pandemic is a thing of the past. Reaching out with technology to the homebound and those unable to safely attend Mass is a valuable part of the spiritual care of souls. The technological landscape is slowly being absorbed, and we will get better at this as time goes by.

I want to close with a list of some recommendations, but I also want to encourage my brother priests and our parish staffs across the nation to consider livestreaming if you have not already. There are many ways to do it — some are very costly, and some are as simple as a cell phone. I can honestly say that I have received a lot of positive feedback from parishioners for taking the effort to keep everyone safe and bring the celebrations and announcements to everyone through our livestreams. It has been a blessing to connect with the parishioners, especially when we were closed. Now that we have reopened with masks, social distancing and continuous sanitization, we still provide the livestream of our celebrations. It has meant a lot to so many to go to Mass each day — even if most still attend remotely.

Recommendations

  • Start simple: If you don’t have cameras, get a cell phone and livestream to Facebook. It’s free, and it’s easy figure out.
  • Music Licensing: Be sure to secure your music and streaming licensing before you have music in your livestreams. The licensing is different for performing, pre-recording and livestreaming. For example, OCP uses ONE LICENSE for all three types of licensing and more.
  • Optics: When purchasing video cameras be sure to look for optical zoom (preferred over digital zoom). This will make a huge difference! Many optical zoom cameras also add digital zoom to zoom farther. Lock the settings on optical only. If your cameras have auto-focus, use it!
  • Audio: Use your church audio’s ‘System Out’ jack to feed sound into your video, switching off camera mics whenever possible. This will then take the audio from your ambo, lavalier mics, choir and other inputs directly to your livestream feed. Mute your camera mics to reduce reverb, echo, etc.
  • Tripods: Look for tripods that telescope up. Churches tend to have the first pews well below the level of the altar and ambo. Telescoping higher will give you a more level appearance in the video.
  • Multiple cameras: When using more than one camera, focus one on the altar up close, on the ambo up close, and one wide angle not focused up close. The wide angle is essential for funerals or other ceremonial activities in front of the altar.
  • Facebook: Create a Facebook page for your parish. Don’t use your personal account. In this way, the video library will stay with the parish when/if you are reassigned.
  • YouTube: Your YouTube channel will need 1,000 subscribers before you can livestream to it. This makes it very prohibitive to the beginner.
  • Vimeo: This has an $800 cost annually for the level of services you will need to livestream, but it is well worth the money, as you can preschedule livestreams, embed the ongoing event video (Mass) into your website and add a donation button on your web page with it.
  • PTZ Cameras: ‘Pan Tilt Zoom’ cameras can be operated by a volunteer with a remote control. This will take your livestreaming to the next level, but these cameras do cost more.
 
Reverend John Evans
Reverend John Evans
 

Rev. John Evans has served as the pastor of St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Cottonwood Heights, UT since 2014.