Father Andreas Kaiser has been running the Catholic Parish of Ober St. Veit, in Vienna's 13th district, since 2009. He spoke with KAICIID about online worship in times of COVID-19, people rediscovering their faith, finding God in our own homes and how the current situation has impacted his lively church community on the outskirts of Vienna.
How have you stayed in touch with members of your church community during COVID-19?
This pandemic has brought great changes, also for our work in this parish. For 2,000 years, we as Christians conducted our mission “face-to-face”. That is how we spread our faith, how we bring people together and how we inspire them. It has always been this way since the resurrection of Jesus Christ. COVID-19 has changed all that. We had to think of a way to reach out to people and to maintain a regular exchange with the members of our community while keeping them physically distant at the same time. On the one hand, we do so by using our analogue “offline” networks – we call by phone, we send letters, we ask how they are doing, if they need help, etc. Second, we have started to offer digital worship and we are using social media platforms.
How do you do this logistically? Do you do this yourself or do you get any support?
We are lucky to have many people who are happy and willing to contribute their knowledge and talent. I have to admit that I´m happy to know how to use a smartphone (laughs). I am happy to have people in my parish who provide me with support. Since the first day of the “shutdown”, when churches were closed for services, we have offered livestreamed mass through our YouTube channel. We had 2,100 people watching our Easter Mass on Easter Sunday. Some of our viewers were from Poland, the Philippines and Luxembourg.
Are these people Austrians who have left the country, maybe expats who work abroad?
Yes, mostly they are. When they stream in from wherever they are in the world, they are just happy to see their old parish in Ober St. Veit again. Many of them have some kind of personal connection with the church, with the priest or with the chaplain. We are now considering continuing our streaming service even after this crisis ends. Maybe not every Sunday, but at least on the major Catholic holidays.
How many people are currently allowed into church for mass service?
In line with the Austrian government´s regulations, we have received the instruction from the Austrian Bishops’ Conference to celebrate mass with a maximum number of five people. We adhere to this regulation. For Easter Mass, for example, the chaplain, the sacristan, the organist, the technician and I were inside the church, nobody else.
How do you reach older people who may not be “digital natives”?
The older people in our church community are certainly very hard to reach, even though there are some who are comfortable using a laptop. These people need to be contacted in the traditional ways, by phone or letter. That's what our old analogue network that I mentioned earlier is good for. But for the younger generations, there is a lot that can be done thanks to social media. We are seeing that the number of visitors online has clearly been going up.
In this difficult time, do you believe that many people have rediscovered their faith, including people that would otherwise not come to church?
Yes, I am convinced that this is the case. I don´t know whether they are rediscovering faith in a religious community, or in the church itself. This is something I can’t assess, but it's also not relevant. I am in the church quite often and I have noticed that many people are coming in during the day to light a candle or to pray.
We have an “intercession box”, where people can deposit their intercessions either in the church building itself or virtually, via e-mail or via our website. I see that the number of intercessions we have been receiving is much higher than before the crisis.
I believe that many people are seeking hope, guidance and support. I believe that they can find all that in religion, and I am convinced they can find it in Christianity. If churches can offer something these days that provides people with hope and stability, then I believe that we have fulfilled our mission.
People just have a lot of time to think these days. And I believe if you have time to think, you inevitably come to a point where you ask yourself the “three fundamental questions of life”, as the Austrian Cardinal Franz König always used to say: Where do I come from? Where do I go? What is the purpose of life?
I heard your church community is inviting believers to send photos and then you stick them on the pews. How did this come about?
The idea is to maintain that sense of belonging and affiliation. The people who usually come here should see: “I am not there, but at least my photograph is”. I currently celebrate mass almost by myself, so it's also nice for me to see all these faces when I walk through the rows. We have received around 320 photos and they have all been affixed to the church pews. We now have more photos of people in the church than visitors on a normal Sunday (laughs). This idea has been picked up by many parishes. At St. Stephen´s Cathedral, they do the same. But the idea was not ours, I must say. We were inspired by a parish in Spain.
How do you feel that physical contact is missing in your own parish?
Experts say that it is prudent to keep a distance now, which I totally agree with because it's just important. Otherwise, the disease could spread further. However, the current situation is doing something to us. We avoid each other, and it´s only logical that we do so. But whenever we have funeral ceremonies here at the church, people are not allowed to touch each other.
In difficult situations, human beings want to hug, they want to hold each other, but at the moment, it´s not possible. In the future, the way we show affection, the way we get in touch with each other will have to be different from what we´ve known, because all this will accompany us for much longer. It will also affect the way we celebrate mass on Sunday. It will be difficult for us to find new ways and opportunities to be close to each other and to express our common bonds.
What other things do you offer to the members of your community in this crisis?
We have uploaded a lot of material to our website, for example prayer resources for adults and children and advice on how to celebrate mass at home. A few days ago, I saw a cartoon. It showed God and the devil. The devil said to God, “See, I have sent this virus and now all churches are closed”. God responded: “But in return, I have opened a church in every single house”. I find that cartoon beautiful. One hundred years ago, it was a lot more common to pray as a family in so-called “House Churches”. I believe that this can strengthen us. To sit together, to pray, to read from the Bible, to meditate as a family and to reflect. To rediscover these rituals is something that can strengthen family relations, I believe.