For many priests, the transition to virtual space because of the coronavirus-induced quarantine has posed a challenge. But among them there are those who are in their element on social networks. We spoke to one such priest, blogger Father Roman Demush from Ternopil in western Ukraine. He told us about how priests and churches of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) are moving online and what Easter online would be like (the conversation took place before April 19 - ed).
Prayers on Instagram
Father Roman Demush serves in an cathedral in the heart of the city. He created his Instagram page before he even became a priest. But it was two years ago when his son was born that he grew more active on the network. The priest shared the joys of fatherhood, on the platform, and subsequently started using hashtags #хочу_бути_добрим_татом (“I want to be a good father”) and #я_люблю_свою_дружину (“I love my wife”).
“For me as a young father, it was all very interesting and new. There are many instamoms. Maybe I just wanted to become an instadad. Then I realized that in pastoral activities, the internet needs to be used to become more accessible to young people," says the priest.
His page now has over than 13,500 subscribers. According to the priest, their numbers doubled during the quarantine. The experience of working with an audience has helped to create new formats for the church online, in during limited and isolated conditions. One of his projects is the daily prayer “Vechirnia Vervytsia” (‘Evening Rosary’) at 9:00 pm. The priest goes live, with several thousand people taking part in the prayer:
"When I pray online, I am shown how many thousands of people are present. I appreciate that these are numbers of active gadgets, but in fact there are whole families praying. At one point, thousands of people unite. To me, this is a visible sign of the presence of God between us. For me, this is the fruit of the quarantine," he explains.
During the first episodes of the “Vechirnia Vervytsia”, the priest wanted to encourage his followers and thank them for their common prayer. Thus, he organized a contest, in which 200 people took part:
"I came up with this idea of gifting a rosary. I didn’t do it for hype or self-promotion. By the way, it was won by a little boy who was quarantined with his mom at his grandmother’s place," he says.
Demush believes that such daily live broadcasts not only urge his audience to daily prayer, but also him personally.
During quarantine, the daily life of the priest grew more intense. So Father Roman Demush has no time for personal concerns.
“Staying busy helps to get rid of our fears, negative feelings and thoughts. People have more free time – some take up cooking, some teachers hold master classes, and we, as clergy, have to take care of bringing our spiritual life online," Demush comments.
According to Father Roman, other priests also need to create Instagram blogs and communicate with people online. Thus, he often encourages other priests to do so too. Sometimes virtual communication is easier because people do not see each other.
"However, the biggest danger is to turn virtual communication into a phony and think that it is enough. Social networks allow you to be closer and more sincere. But having thousands of subscribers, you may be fake to them,” worries the priest.
In addition to priesthood and Instagram blogging, Father Roman is involved in volunteering. He was invited to the @coronavirus.ternopil initiative group. Together with Instagram bloggers and activists, he helps doctors.
“We all have the same goal: we bring information to our audience that it is important to stay home and take care of your health. We are the so-called influencers. We also organize fundraisers, purchase protective equipment and pass it on to city doctors," Demush tells us.
The churches of the UGCC have now completely moved to online communication. This applies to both large cathedrals and small parish communities. Believers have had to get used not only to televised services, but to also to subscribe to YouTube channels of the cathedrals, or the Facebook pages of local parishes. The church is learning to communicate with parishioners through new tools – social networks and priests' blogs.
At the start of the quarantine, for the first time in a long time, priests had to serve a liturgy in an empty church. In Ternopil, where churches used to be filled to the brim on Sundays, priests found the transition to online particularly painful.
“It was a little creepy. You come to an empty church: no children, no believers, no choir. You understand that those people are on the other side of the TV screen, the phone, but that is not the same,” says Father Roman.
The UGCC also made changes to traditional Easter rites, such as the presentation of the shroud. Every Easter, on Friday, believers go to church to worship the symbol of the burial of Jesus Christ. This year, those who came to worship the shroud did not have direct contact with it. They can only be honored through worship and by watching the rite online.
"There is a separate camera on our cathedral's YouTube channel, which will broadcast this shroud the whole time, as well as the worship services that will be focused on it during the Holy Week," says Father Roman.
Divine services are broadcast using all possible tools: YouTube channels, Facebook pages, Instagram blogs, regional TV channels, as well as the archdiocese online radio "SVITANOK".
But as it turns out, we were not the first to listen to online services and consecrate the Easter cake at home.
"Even our grandparents prayed ‘online"’. Because they could not go to church in the times of the ‘underground’. They then prayed while listening to the radio. They often listened to services on the Vatican radio. So they also consecrated baskets, vines, and more through broadcast. So it won't be something new. We will just remember and give an adequate response to the challenge of our time,” Father Roman says.