What exactly are we losing as our lives move increasingly online? Few of us will be sorry to forgo long commutes, and we will all have our own experiences of online work meetings, email collaboration, and teaching by video-link. As for large-scale devotional events, the Latin Mass Society, like other Catholic organisations, had to learn the hard way when it became impossible to do our annual walking pilgrimage from Ely to Walsingham, due to Covid-19.
The objective of a pilgrimage is to get physically to a holy place in a spirit of prayer and penance. One can do this individually, but we always gain something by making our devotions corporate (cf Matthew 18:20), and the sense of solidarity arising from a shared penance like a demanding walk is wonderfully motivating. If this solidarity, and even the physical destination, is taken away, what is left?
Rather than do nothing at all on the weekend of the pilgrimage, we decided to invite people to walk somewhere local to them, individually or in small groups. To give structure to the day we published video meditations by priests who have over the years accompanied the pilgrimage, and as well as live-streamed Masses from churches along the route, we had live-streamed Angelus, Rosary and Compline. Our walking and prayers were offered for the same intention as all our Walsingham pilgrimages: the conversion of England. The routes and lengths of our walks could be recorded and shared using the exercise app Strava.
Did it work? If the question is, Was this a good substitute for walking with 60 fellow-pilgrims across Norfolk, singing and praying and attending Masses together until one can sing the Te Deum and Regina Caeli in a state of exhaustion and relief in the ruins of Walsingham Priory? then no, it was no substitute at all. If the question is, Was this a good way of making the most of a private pilgrimage, by connecting it with those of others around the country and the world? then yes, it worked.
The meditations and liturgies of each day – the feast of St Augustine of Hippo, the Beheading of St John the Baptist, a Votive Mass of Our Lady in the Slipper Chapel at Walsingham – connected us with the liturgical calendar and the common prayer of the Church, and it was heartening to see all the different walks being uploaded, indicating the efforts being made by fellow pilgrims, to the tune of 50 pilgrims clocking up 672.12 miles, with many more unrecorded.
But there are two other questions in the background. Are online devotional events worth doing in ordinary times, perhaps particularly for housebound and isolated Catholics? And should we expect in future every devotional event to have online manifestations, such as broadcast liturgies and talks, live-tweeting and streams of photographs?
I’d not want to rule out positive answers to either question, but the difficulties and limitations must be kept in mind. In January 2019 we initiated a series of talks in London which would as a matter of policy not be online, because we wanted to maximise the incentive to attend in person, and to create a relaxed atmosphere where one’s lightest word was not being recorded for posterity. The series was a response to the need for real community and friendship: the kind not mediated by technology.
For the foreseeable future podcasts remain a way of packaging the intellectual content of our talks, but a friendly chat with like-minded people over a glass of wine cannot be delivered electronically.
Something similar is the case with devotional events. Shrines are places where God is pleased to bless those who honour Him in His saints, and the greater the effort needed to get there, the more honour we do them and Him.
We should not pretend that viewing an image, even one being broadcast live, is a way of being present at something; moreover, the business of giving others electronic access to profound devotional moments can be a distraction for all involved. Ordinary photography can be bad enough, but videoing, uploading, and posting and commenting on social media have the potential to turn any event into a circus unless kept within sensible limits.
Sometimes we should say: just experience the moment, and stop worrying about sharing it.