BISHOP JEFFREY R. HAINES
I have been experiencing a special kind of Easter joy as I have been receiving a bountiful outpouring of email messages expressing gratitude for the live-stream and television broadcast of the Liturgies of Holy Week from the Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist.
One viewer stated with simple grace, “Thank you for all of the beautiful Liturgies in such a stressful time.” Still another observer commented on how watching the Masses helped intensify her spiritual longing. “Thank you and everyone at the Cathedral for all of the on-line Services all week. It really is so meaningful and helpful. Coming back to church someday and having the Blessed Sacrament will be so precious.”
Yet another participant remarked how the experience sparked further conversations about the faith. “I’ve talked to others who are also watching Masses on TV … and we are sharing Homily messages and insights with one another to a much greater degree than we ever did before.” Some comments came from distant places, like this email from Arizona: “We have been staying connected to the Cathedral via the streaming of the Holy Week Services and find comfort and stability in this difficult time.” My favorite message, though, comes from a little girl. “Thank you to the Parish of St. John the Evangelist for providing us with an opportunity to pray … we were also grateful for the Order of Worship. During the Liturgy of the Eucharist, our family enjoyed matzos and lemonade. We already miss receiving the Body and Blood of Christ.”
What makes these words of appreciation even more significant is the fact that the capability of the Cathedral to broadcast an audio-visual presentation of the Mass almost never happened. In fact, when I arrived at St. John the Evangelist in June 2011, the prospect of broadcasting a visual image of the Mass was not even imaginable, because the parish had a much more basic problem with the ability of the congregation within the building even being able to hear the words being spoken. The sound system, which had been installed in February 2002, was falling apart. Numerous parishioners were complaining that there were dead zones within the church where the sound was either muted or absent. Some of them even left the parish because of their inability to hear the preaching, prayers and songs. Efforts to repair the existing sound system proved ineffectual, as acoustic consultants informed us that the equipment was now obsolete; it was no longer being manufactured. Even the simple fixing of malfunctioning speakers entailed restoring them with re-built parts from other old equipment.
The parish council and the finance committee of the Cathedral took up the issue of addressing the need for a new sound system and, over time, a task force was formed, acoustic experts were consulted and bids for the purchase and installation of new equipment were obtained. The leadership of the parish was shocked by the price tag of the bids.
Some people assume that the Cathedral Parish is large in membership and rich in financial resources because of the ornate nature of the church and the attractiveness of its location in downtown Milwaukee. However, the size of the congregation is relatively small (about 650 families) and, while the membership is very generous, a demographic analysis reveals that the majority of the parishioners are not wealthy. Thus, the decision to purchase a new sound system for the church would cut deeply into our source of savings, a financial reserve dedicated to capital improvements of the Cathedral edifice.
Yet, when the parish council and finance committee began deliberation toward a decision on the issue, a proposal came forth that sounded as bold as a proclamation from one of the ancient prophets. It was proposed that the parish not only invest in the purchase and installation of new sound equipment but also fund additional apparatus for both filming and broadcasting our liturgies. Astonishment abounded. However, after the sheer surprise diminished, a profound and compelling conversation was initiated among the parish leadership about the essence of our faith and our mission as a Cathedral. The discussion was inspired by the Evangelization Summit sponsored by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in May 2012 and the promulgation of a Year of Faith by Pope Benedict XVI that took place from October 2012 to November 2013. We were reminded that one of the core messages of our Lord Jesus Christ was that His Gospel is not a personal possession but must be shared and that our role as a Catholic Cathedral is to serve a “Mother Church,” an example of what it means to shine as a beacon of faith. Moreover, in the spirit of the “New Evangelization” of Pope John Paul II, mention was made of the need to use new methods to articulate new expressions of the time-honored elements of our faith with new ardor or enthusiasm and zeal. It was argued that the capability of filming and broadcasting liturgies and other events at the Cathedral clearly would be a response to the clarion call of Pope John Paul II to utilize the new electronics and social media to share the Good News.
The matter of the economic situation of our parish eventually was raised to interject a dose of the challenging reality of our situation. If the prospect of paying for a new sound system was daunting, then the likelihood of financing a modern audio-visual system with a production studio and broadcast equipment truly would strain our monetary resources. The consensus of the leadership of the parish, however, was that mission was more important than money. If we remain true to the mission, the means to fulfill it will come. Prudential financial judgment is wise and should be respected, but the donations given to our parish are meant to be dedicated to ministry and not merely serve as a financial cushion. In the end, faith triumphed.
Looking back, I suspect that no one on the parish council or finance committee of the Cathedral ever imagined we one day would be facing a crisis quite like the current coronavirus pandemic. Nor is it likely that anyone could foresee the role the audio-visual system would play in the live-stream and television broadcasts that would make it possible for the Catholics of southeastern Wisconsin to unite in prayer for the sacred celebrations of Holy Week in April 2020. But, what they did see and believe was the vital importance of faithfulness to mission. And, it was remaining true to mission that made possible the Easter joy expressed to me by so many viewers this week.