A New Use for Old Technology: Webcams and the Blessed Sacrament

This morning before turning my attention to reading the headlines, I wanted to take a couple of minutes and compose myself for the day, and so dropped in at the website for St. Mary’s Church in Navan, Ireland.  Now as it happens, I have never been to this church, nor to Ireland for that matter, but through the wonders of modern technology I am not only able to read about what is going on in this parish if I wish, but more importantly for the purposes of this post, to actually see what it is going on there – or at least, what is going on in a couple of corners of the church.  For St. Mary’s has two webcams, which are really more like live streaming channels rather than the webcams you will recall from when the internet was in its infancy.

So trying to put myself into the right mood for today, I clicked on the website for St. Mary’s to spend a few moments in prayer.  Below you see a screencap of their Adoration Chapel webcam this morning, and you will notice that Our Lord, in the Blessed Sacrament, is not alone.  For soon after I went onto the site, the older gentleman you see in the picture came through the glass doors on the right into the chapel.  He sat down, put on his glasses, and took out what I presume to be a devotional book, so that he could pray in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.

This had not happened previously when I visited the site, so it was rather startling to be looking at the parish’s webcam at the exact moment this took place.  I said my own prayer for his intentions, whatever they may be, before returning to my own matters.  I will never know this gentleman in this life, nor he me, though of course I wish him well.  However the overall experience does give us some matters for consideration and reflection.

It is hard to remember now what a revolutionary thing webcams were when they first began appearing on the internet, when it was a new place which had not yet been defined.  For a time it seemed as though there were static webcams being set up all over the world, as technology became more accessible and more and more users wanted to find ways to meet new people.  There were countless webcams placed in office windows by tech-savvy professionals to look out onto city streets, for example, which sometimes did not look onto anything particularly interesting, yet were a way of saying, “I’m here.”

Today there are far fewer of these static webcams today, than there were ten or fifteen years ago.  Many businesses, institutions, and individuals disconnected theirs years ago.  Some places still have them functioning, though it is hard to imagine that anyone continues to maintain them.  Ask yourself how often you go and look at a static webcam now, gazing at a distant place in real time whenever you wish, and you will suddenly realize it has probably been quite a long time since you did so.

One reason for the fading of enthusiasm for this now “old” technology is the loss of a sense of genuine wonder at the technology itself.  As we have all become more jaded, demanding better and better products and means of communication, the fascination of being able to see an intersection in Barcelona whenever we like eventually becomes old hat.  Moreover the often jerky, poor image quality simply seemed to be less appealing, particularly once high-quality streaming video became available.

There was also a growing realization of the lack of purpose afforded by a static webcam.  While it might be interesting to see what was going on, one could not hear what was taking place, and there was usually no way to interact with what one saw.  Unless you were dealing with a personal webcam tied to someone’s website, you could not tap the person standing in the shot, ask them their name, and how they were doing.

However, recently I have been rediscovering the webcam as a medium, and spoke about this not long ago on the Catholic Weekend show.  It seems obvious to me now, though I kick myself for not having realized it earlier, that rather than being a useless, outdated technology, the static webcam can actually serve one very singular purpose indeed: as an aid to prayer.  While one could always do this of course, as our online lives become more crowded and noisy, being able to fall back upon this simple, but effective way to connect with what truly matters throughout the day is a wonderful balm for such troubled times, and the often poisonous atmosphere of  the internet.

As my Catholic readers know, looking at a static webcam is definitely not the same as physically being present in a church before the Blessed Sacrament.  Yet just as watching the mass on television can be a path to prayer, a source of comfort, and a means of feeling connected to the Catholic community for those such as the sick or housebound, so too, I think these kinds of virtual visits are a wonderful way to be able to take a break when you need it.  In fact, just a couple of days ago, a fellow Catholic friend on Twitter asked what one might do to be able to alleviate stress or anxiety while at work, and I immediately suggested bookmarking these sites.

Perhaps this is a new or rediscovered purpose for webcams which more parishes, religious communities, and so on ought to consider putting in place.  Being able to look upon the tabernacle or the monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament any time we want, wherever we happen to be – at home, at work, while traveling, etc. – is far more profound than simply looking at a landscape or a building or a street corner.  That may be what prevents this technology, limited though it may be, from going the way of other internet novelties.

Screencap from St. Mary’s Parish, Navan, Ireland

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “A New Use for Old Technology: Webcams and the Blessed Sacrament

  1. What a great idea. My “use” of webcams is for visiting places that I can’t be and would like to be. There are some great ones for Mt. Rainier (you can see the mountain in all its glory in all kinds of weather) and there is a site that lists webcams all over the world. I love watching the Abbey Road crossing and various ones in Holland, where I’ve visited in the past.
    But yes, going to a chapel is a great way to use the webcams. I wonder if other religious places (shrines?) have webcams.

    • Thanks for reading! By no means am I suggesting that webcams are completely useless, of course, for as you point out there are some nice things to look at online. But encouraging more Catholic churches, monasteries, convents, etc. to do this might be a way of encouraging greater reflection and possibly people asking what it’s all about, which I see as a good thing.

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