The Invisible Church
By Belinda Nzeribe
The invisible Coronavirus has spurred a bustling virtual audience and church ministers are adapting. They now cater to invisible congregations behind the camera. The sanctuaries are empty and there are no devout crowds to energize the pastor. It can be an isolating task, standing at the pulpit trying to reach out to an audience that isn't there. But it’s also an undertaking required to, “keep members connection to the church community and support their spiritual life,” said Rev. Fr. Marcellinus Teko, the Lagos based administrator of the Holy Cross Cathedral.
When the pandemic forced chapels to shut its doors, many preachers transitioned to providing televisual or internet services. These platforms have become the expedient medium for Christians to worship during this pandemic. But there is a danger in its convenience, in that worshippers may develop a taste for it and shun more physical worship activities ultimately. Rev. Fr. Teko is not worried digital sermons will impact the return to physical gatherings. ‘Online worship is not a substitute, let's not get carried away by what is happening now’ he said.
The Cathedral of the Holy Cross is the seat of the Lagos Archdiocese and from here spiritual activities are telecast to about three million Catholics in Lagos and millions of other Catholics across Nigeria and Africa. As the administrator of the cathedral, Marcellinus Teko manages the tele-outreach and he tells of the pressure of meeting the spiritual needs of Catholics at this time. “The pandemic is not funny,” he says. “A lot of people have died, become ill - everyone is living under the fear of this virus. It has changed lifestyle drastically. People have had to readjust, we didn’t envisage this.”
Recently, FunTimes Magazine’s Belinda Nzeribe interviewed Rev. Fr. Teko on the issue of virtual, digital and “teleworship” in the age of the coronavirus.
Fr Marcellinus Teko
The Coronavirus pandemic has disrupted our living. How has the pandemic impacted the church?
It's a depressing time for everyone including the church. Our greatest hit is the closing down of houses of worship.. For us as Catholics, Sunday worship is sacrosanct, the weekday worship is also important; locking down the Lord’s house is demoralizing spiritually. The country is already laden with problems and people find relief in spiritual engagement with God. To remain relevant to the faithful during this period we partnered with Lumen Christi TV and we have been broadcasting different activities to the faithful.
Do you think the live telecasts are helping your members at this time?
Of course. It’s helping to keep their spiritual lives active. The connection with the House of God remains intact for many.
Did the Archdiocese feel pressured knowing all African Catholics who had access to cable TV were relying on your outreach?
Indeed, we were under some pressure to put out the very best since we knew millions would be watching. Not as entertainment but to satisfy the spiritual yearnings of the people, help them feel that connection as much as possible, as if they were participating in their different chapels. We started with week-day masses and the coverage seemed to appeal to people, so we thought to develop it further. We explored broadcasting on more affordable cable networks with wider coverage. This was helpful in tending to more members especially during the holy week.
Is it strange to celebrate mass without the physical presence of the one thousand that usually attend mass in the cathedral; one imagines delivering the sermon would be different.
(chuckles) I’ve not had to face such a scenario before. We were used to having the people right there before us, you could get feedback even from face reactions. You can get motivated too by the reactions from the people. Now you are faced with an empty cathedral and cameras just before you. I found it difficult adjusting. There was no congregation to give feedback. I have had to get used to it. What helps me now is that I have it at the back of my mind that it’s not just the parishioners listening, we have more people all over Africa who are also paying attention. Once you understand this you just give it your best shot. These digital worship services can never replace the real thing. It’s truly different talking to people through a camera.
“These digital worship services can never replace the real thing”
But how do you connect spiritually with these millions of invisible worshippers?
I think the connection should be with God. That’s why it’s a spiritual activity. Whether they are in the Lord’s house or in their homes, the aim is to bring a connection between man and God.
With Houses of Worship now offering services on social media, some say it is cheapening the solemnity and spirituality of mass. Is the medium removing the “holy” in the mass?
Social media can be compared to a pipe through which something flows; it’s a means, a channel to get to a targeted audience. Take the pipe for instance, if you want blood to flow through it and there is a patient needing blood at the other end, it serves its purpose. If you want water to flow through it and there’s someone thirsty at the other end, it also serves that purpose.
Social media is available to everyone for whatever use. The mass itself is holy and transmitting it through social media to the people doesn’t remove the holy from it. I think in a way it sanctifies the social media. It is one of the positive uses we can get from it. We are all constrained to use it because of the pandemic.
The Don-Adinuba family participate in virtual Easter Mass. Cathedral had a wider coverage at Easter.
What can parishioners do to get the full experience of digital mass? Watching it on a laptop, it's almost a passive affair in some instances, like watching a movie on Netflix. It could be difficult managing the short attention span of a digital audience.
The important thing is to prepare the mind and create the right atmosphere. The guideline states that people should gather as families in their homes. It should not be a one-man affair – families should gather together, set an altar before the TV, light a candle and be dressed like they are going to the House of God. This will help put them in the right disposition for worship. Keep distractions away, it would not be the time to look at the phones, or entertain visitors. You have an important appointment with God. From the feedback we got, the guidelines have helped a lot of people.
Are online churches the future? Isn't there a risk of never returning to the obligatory Sunday physical services? I mean some may feel more comfortable with online worship to demand more of it.
I think a major challenge that Christians will have generally is to make that shift from this new norm and return to our old way of worship. For Catholics, worship is more than attending to listen to the word of God, the Eucharist is the heart of it all, and it can never be replaced by virtual worship. You can’t consecrate virtually, and there is no substitute for physical reception of communion. I think it should be so for other denominations; online presence cannot be a substitute for physical presence. The satisfaction the soul needs when it searches for God cannot be received completely through this digital worship, and you get that connection, that satisfaction when you gather with people. Worshipping God is personal and also communal. Let's not be carried away by what is happening now. It’s not a substitute but it suffices for now.
We long for this to end so we can go back to the Lord’s house.
Some preachers are telling their followers that Covid-19 is not real. When you minister to the millions that watch your broadcasts, what do you teach them about the pandemic?
For me as a person, I believe it is real. All over the world, we have heard of deaths and I don’t think they are made up stories. I know some persons here in Lagos who have had the coronavirus and they recovered. But there might be conspiracy theories around the origin and the spread and management of the disease.
We have been propagating that everyone needs to be careful and adopt safety measures in order not to be affected. Like the Archbishop said in his homily, “some people say it doesn’t exist and some say it exists, well, the advice is it’s better for you to take the precaution. You have nothing to lose. If you don’t take the precaution and you are infected then you have everything to lose.” This is the responsible way to manage the information especially when you don’t have all the facts. It’s only wise to tell the people to protect themselves. Self-preservation is important, after that you can search for the truth.
Belinda is a contributor for FunTimes Magazine. She runs creative writing clubs in high schools and lives with her husband and three children in Lagos, Nigeria. Her other passion is child literacy and she manages a charity working to improve reading levels of kids in low income communities. She is becoming adept at stealing time here and there to finish her novel. Belinda holds varied degrees in Theatre and Film, Public and Media Relations, International Affairs and Pre-Primary Education.