Fifty-one years ago, the Passionists, a Roman Catholic order of priests headquartered in Rye Brook, decided to expand their ministry. The idea was to bring mass to those who couldn’t leave the house — the elderly, those with disabilities, and the housebound.
The medium was television.
“The owner of Channel 7 in New York City was Catholic, and he donated the studio and the production resources,” says Father Paul Fagan, the executive producer and host of The Sunday Mass.
Little did the Passionists know in the early ‘70s that there would be a pandemic in 2020 that would make most of our population housebound. Nor would they have foreseen the internet, streaming services, and, most specifically, something called YouTube.
“Our televised service always had a following but when COVID hit we had no idea how it would blow up,” Fagan says. “Some Sundays we had 70,000 and 80,000 views and we started to hear from people all around the world.”
Fagan didn’t expect the explosion of followers. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe in his production, it was something else and something that all YouTubers deal with: competition.
“During the pandemic, many parishes started to record mass and make it available on YouTube. I thought for sure that would take viewers away from our broadcast. As it turns out, the opposite happened,” Fagan says.
Most parishes didn’t have the capacity for a professional production. That meant they flipped open a laptop and used the built-in cameras and microphones. The result was usually a service that was hard to see and hear and one that didn’t translate to a computer screen or a television. Add in downtime while offertory collections were made during services and while the congregation proceeded to communion, and it was a clunky and awkward viewing.
“We wanted to create an almost virtual parish so viewers could feel at home and part of a unique congregation and not just a viewer of another’s mass.”
— Father Paul Fagan
“The Passionists made a decision based on our experience with producing a video mass. Instead of recording various congregations celebrating mass every week, we wanted to create an almost virtual parish so viewers could feel at home and part of a unique congregation and not just a viewer of another’s mass,” he says.
Fagan works with a professional production company so that the video is clear, the sound is professional quality, and the camera angles, lighting, and edits support the viewer’s experience. About a half dozen priests rotate as celebrants and many of the same lectors, servers, and musicians have remained the same for the last decade. It creates a feeling of familiarity and a kinship with the broadcast for those watching.
There are constraints brought on by the medium.
“The mass must be 28 and a half minutes long to fit in to the half-hour television schedules for the cable systems that broadcast it. We have to record between four and six masses at a time to keep production costs down, and because we make them so far in advance, we can’t always offer prayers based on current events,” Fagan says.
The Sunday Mass is recorded at the Immaculate Conception Church in Jamaica, Queens. To find out more about the broadcast, visit thesundaymass.org or contact the Passionists in Rye Brook at 914.738.3344.
Tom Schreck is a frequent contributor to Westchester Magazine and 914INC. He’s written profiles of Nick Spano, Tony Sayegh, and the area’s top business leaders, plus humor pieces on his dog, the DMV driving manual, and his Elvis-themed take on interior decorating.