Midnight Christmas Mass has always been a particularly beloved Catholic tradition. For hundreds of years individuals and families have set out in the cold and the darkness of the Christmas Eve night, bound for their local church, where the warmth of fellowship and the hope of the Incarnation awaits.

Televising the Midnight Mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist has become a ministry for those at the cathedral. The 2013 Mass, pictured above, was the first time in 18 years, that the Mass was televised. (Submitted photo by Jonathan P. Gadbois)For those unable to leave their homes due to age, illness or other circumstances, it can be painful to have to miss out on the celebration.

That’s part of the reason why it has become an important ministry of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, with the help of WISN-TV, to bring the cathedral’s midnight Mass into the homes of viewers each year via a broadcast on Channel 12, which donates the airtime to the cathedral.

The Mass had not been broadcast since 1995 when, in 2013, the cathedral director of music, Michael Batcho, suggested reviving the tradition.

“He said, ‘Why don’t we see if we can get the midnight Mass on TV?’ And everybody kind of laughed a little bit, and he said, ‘No, I’m serious!’” remembered Fr. Jeff Haines, rector of the cathedral.

With the help of various corporate and private sponsors, including Columbia St. Mary’s, Sartori Cheese, Sensient Technologies, Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare, Sendik’s Food Markets, Sacred Heart Seminary and Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, the cathedral was able to fund part of the $18,000 for production costs, creating a makeshift control room in the sacristy.

When it came to finding a station to air the broadcast, the archdiocese recommended contacting WISN-TV, Channel 12.

“We look at it as just a service to the community for those that can’t make the trip on their own, to be able to have a Mass come into their living room,” said Jan Wade, president and general manager of WISN. “We know that there’s a large Catholic population in our city, so it seems logical to be able to do this.”

Fr. Haines said he has received many heartfelt and enthusiastic thanks over the past three years from viewers who have been profoundly moved by being able to experience the beauty of Christmas Mass in their own homes, especially when they might not have been able to attend liturgies otherwise.

“The one that was especially touching to me was – this was after the first time we’d done it – this woman actually called on the phone and she said she’s elderly, she’s homebound at that time for eight years, and the hardest part about being homebound for her was not being able to go to Mass,” recalled Fr. Haines.

“And in particular, at Christmas – that was Christmas to her, going to Mass. And she said, well, now Mass is coming to me, in my very home. She was literally crying tears of joy. You could hear it in her voice when I was talking to her.”

Fr. Haines said that in some places the practice of midnight Mass has grown scarcer in recent years due to the priest shortage and the popularity of anticipation Masses in the early evening on Christmas Eve. For many viewers of an older generation, he said, the broadcast has brought them back to a time when midnight Christmas Mass was the highlight of the season.

“Another elderly person said to me, you know, thank you so much for this; I always had such fond memories of midnight Mass as a child growing up,” he said. “She said, ‘I would love to go, but I’m old now, and I don’t drive at night and I don’t drive far!’”

It was precisely these older and homebound viewers who were on the mind of cathedral parishioners Tom and Lynne Van Himbergen when they agreed to underwrite part of the production costs each year.

“I’m on the older side of the agenda – I’m in my 60s – so it reminds me of my participation growing up as a Mass server, with a packed service, music and the family all together,” he said. “I always volunteered for that Mass from the time I was 8 until I was 14 or something like that. I grew up in a small town near Appleton, and it was just a great – it was snowing and people would get there at 11 o’clock, the choir would be singing and the service was packed, and it was just a great event.”

He also feels it’s an opportunity for Milwaukeeans to gain exposure to the cathedral.

“It’s a great way for people to know that the Cathedral of St. John is the mother church of the diocese,” he said.

“People have some very fond memories of coming out in the quiet of the still winter night and then the joyful sounds of Christmas waking up the night,” said Fr. Haines. “It’s just a brilliant way for Christmas to burst in. That tugs at the heart a little bit, when people think of midnight Mass, and the cathedral is always a special place for that to happen.”

For the staff at WISN-12, it was an easy decision to agree to donate the airtime, said Wade.

“We’ve had a longstanding relationship with (the archdiocese),” she said. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful church, and I think that the Mass on Christmas Eve, the whole reason for the holiday and so forth, it doesn’t necessarily matter that you’re Catholic or you’re not Catholic; I think it’s a wonderful thing for people to be able to enjoy without even having to venture outside. Many people will go and that’s great, but some people can’t.”

Viewership for the broadcast in 2014 was 10,025 homes, or about 24,000 people, said Ben Lorber, director of programming and public affairs at WISN.

“Twenty (thousand) to 30,000 people are now seeing the inside of the cathedral and seeing this wonderful service,” he said.

At 2:30 every Christmas morning, ABC airs a religious service, with a different denomination and national location each year (the cathedral was featured in 2006). But Fr. Haines said that he has received positive feedback from viewers who appreciate Channel 12 airing a local service.

“Someone wrote a note to me and said, ‘I know there are TV Masses available on other channels, like on cable TV, EWTN or satellite TV, but I don’t have satellite TV or cable TV, I just have regular TV!’” he said. “The other comment I got once from someone was they said, ‘I know that another channel has the pope on from his Mass in the Vatican, and that’s nice – but, you know, this is our hometown Christmas Mass, and that means a lot.’”

Fr. Haines encourages people to attend the Mass in person, if possible.

“You’ll get a spot – we have a nice turnout and it’s a good number of people but there’s still room, and we have ways of fitting them in. We encourage people to attend, but for those who can’t, through the magic of television, we can come right into their home, which is a pretty special thing.”