A few weeks ago, members of St. Francis Parish Church listened intently as Monsignor Craig Harrison delivered his homily. But something was different at this Mass. Harrison wasn’t at the pulpit. Instead, he appeared in a video projected onto a large screen above the altar, filmed 6,216 miles away weeks earlier from inside the Cathedral of San Rufino in Assisi, Italy.
Harrison was in the middle of his annual summer pilgrimage to the birthplace of the parish’s name-sake, Saint Francis, where he has been going for more than 40 years, usually for just a few weeks.
“After 25 years of service, the church gives you a sabbatical for extra time for prayer, meditation and reflection,” Harrison said. This year’s sojourn lasted 2 ½ months. “I had a hard time the first week letting go of the day-to-day operations, but after I got settled in, it was easier to be by myself at times and see the world through different eyes.”
And on this visit – a first for his Bakersfield flock. He brought along his videographer, parishioner Bob West, to document the religious journey.
“Since I was going to be away so long, I wanted to stay connected to my parish. I wanted to pro-vide them with short videos and sermons so they could enjoy the experience with me,” Harrison said.
West and an assistant spent five days with Harrison. They taped three homilies from Italy and sev-eral episodes of his popular “Moments with Monsignor Craig.” Harrison is so at ease in front of the camera that most were shot in just one take. One was recorded in the small chapel in St. Antho-ny’s Guest House overlooking the Basilica of Saint Clare and another in the nearly thousand-year-old church of San Paolo. The videographers donated their time and talent. Their travel was under-written by donations.
“I think Father Craig gets even more inspired for his homilies and other talks when he is in Assi-si,” West said, adding that this was the assignment of a lifetime.
There is still nearly an hour of unaired footage of tours of churches and history of Saints Francis and Clare that may find its way into a documentary or a future women’s fellowship presentation.
He and Harrison began collaborating on spiritual videos several years ago for the parish’s monthly men’s fellowship.
“The ‘Moments’ segment was a creation of our younger members of my staff who thought this would be a great way to connect with the new generation,” Harrison recalled.
West shot one, shared it on Facebook and it was viewed more than a thousand times. Harrison, who has hundreds of followers on a variety of social media platforms, sees the digitalization of evangelizing as an optimal way to share a perspective and message with his flock.
“I think the church, just like the world, must continue to find ways to communicate and share the faith,” Harrison said.
While Jesus’ disciples traveled on foot to spread His word and televangelists have been coming into our living rooms for decades.
Today, reaching the faithful is as easy as a click of the mouse.
Harrison is among the first locally to blaze the cybertrail, but he is not alone in embracing the inter-net as another vehicle to preach and minister. Catholic leaders around the world recognize the need to establish a social media presence as their faithful adapt to digital ways of interdependence.
“The Catholic Church recognizes both the opportunities and challenges that accompany faith being lived through multimedia platforms,” said Rev. Armando Ochoa, bishop of the Diocese of Fresno. “The most important test of its value is the fruit it bears. If any form of media brings us closer through an authentic relationship with God and one another in a spirit of love and charity, it is in-deed a blessing. But media should deepen real presence in relationships, never replace it.”
Parishioners who missed this summer’s videotaped sermons are able to view them on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and the parish website.
“I do believe what Father Craig brought back to the congregation is a sense that he is praying for all of us and had time to look back at his years in the priesthood with some critical thinking,” said parishioner Mary Jo Pasek.
“The most important thing we have in our lives is connection – with God, with families and with each other,” Harrison said. “Anytime we can make a connection, we build community.”