A behind the scenes look at Catholic livestreaming

By Dan Russo

Witness Editor

DUBUQUE — Before broadcasting the rosary live on the internet from the Vianney House March 26, a few last-minute details had to be ironed out as Archbishop Michael Jackels prepared to lead the prayers. 

“Do you know who’s doing the introduction?” asked the archbishop, having already attached a small microphone to his lapel.

After some momentary confusion among the small group of seminarians who had gathered in the chapel that is attached to their private residence, Tim ­Weber volunteered, or, perhaps, was drafted by his peers. 

“OK,” said the young man who is in formation for the priesthood at St. Pius X Seminary at Loras College. “Is this something I need to be dressed for?”

Weber stepped forward in a hoodie, looking a bit informal next to the archbishop in his suit and Roman collar. 

“You’re fine,” said Archbishop Jackels, with a smile. “Are you OK with this?”

“Yeah, it’s good for me,” responded ­Weber. 

A view of the control screen Deacon John Robbins sees on a laptop computer while preparing to livestream the rosary at the Vianney House chapel March 26 in Dubuque. (Witness photos by Dan Russo)

After a few good-natured jokes from the other seminarians about his wardrobe, he stepped up to one of three cameras to practice the words he would be reading before everyone prayed the luminous mysteries live with hundreds of participants viewing online. 

 Many of the seminarians are back at the residence and have been staying home except for exercise and other essential trips due to classes being canceled amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

Since public Masses and other events have been canceled in Catholic dioceses across the world, livestreaming has been much more common as faithful search for ways to connect spiritually with the church, while maintaining social distancing guidelines recommended by public health officials. 

Archbishop Jackels is seen praying the rosary from the perspective of all three cameras during a livestream. The closest one in the photo is in the Vianney House chapel balcony looking down on the action.

In the Archdiocese of Dubuque, live­streams of the rosary on Thursdays and the Mass on Sundays, in both English and Spanish, have drawn significant audiences. According to Jeremy Jones, an information technology administrator for the archdiocese who is part of the “backstage crew” for the livestreams, the bilingual rosary averages about 600 live viewers and the Sunday Mass about 5-6,000. The archbishop’s first livestreamed Mass after public gathering restrictions went into place had about 10,000 live viewers. Since then, many parishes have worked out how to offer their congregations live Masses at the local level. 

Archbishop Jackels prays the rosary before a statue of Mary and Jesus as a camera captures it for a livestream.

“We’re pleasantly surprised with how many people are watching our livestreams,” said Jones. “There were a lot of things that were in place (before the pandemic) that are now being utilized.”

Jones coordinates with Deacon John Robbins, director of communications for the archdiocese, to produce the livestreams. The first one at the archdiocesan level occurred in 2017, when pastoral center staff livestreamed the funeral of Archbishop Daniel Kucera, OSB, at the Cathedral of St. Raphael. Since then, practice has helped make perfect, and improvements are always being sought. 

Jeremy Jones, an information technology administrator for the archdiocese communicates with people in the chapel adjusting sound equipment from his office computer.  

The archdiocese uses Sling Studio to do livestreaming. This product is a combination of hardware and software that makes it possible for a signal to be fed directly to the archdiocesan YouTube channel as well as to the archdiocesan website.  

Jones, Robbins and sometimes the seminarians work with three cameras, the lapel microphone, a microphone on the ambo and two shotgun mics, which pick up ambient sound. They communicate via phone call and text and control equipment using laptops.

“During the livestreams, I’m constantly adjusting sound levels,” said Jones. 

“The first week (of the Vianney House Mass), we were just using the shotgun mics. The second week, we plugged into the chapel sound system.”

Robbins and Jones work together to follow the action and change camera angles. Afterwards, recordings are immediately available to be rewatched. In recent weeks, more parishes have been taking the plunge into livestreaming.  

“Most of the (parishes) have done a great job using smartphones and tablets to livestream,” said Jones. “What I’ve seen most is Facebook Live.”

A reverent feeling permeated throughout  the chapel like rising incense in the moments before prayer began.

“We’re just about 90 seconds out,” said Deacon Robbins to Weber as he made a gesture one might see in a network news studio. “I’ll point to you.”

(Left to right): Deacon John Robbins discusses how to use equipment to livestream eucharistic adoration in the Vianney House chapel with seminarians Issac Neppel,
Jack Dunne and Tim Weber after a recent rosary livestream.

After the livestream was done, Robbins and a few of the seminarians stuck around for a while discussing how to use the archdiocesan Facebook page to broadcast eucharistic adoration and evening prayer from the chapel. Since then, seminarians have been doing this on a regular basis. The seminarians said they are happy to help foster “spiritual communion” among Catholics at a difficult time. 

“I think what we’re doing here is we’re trying to bring our prayer life to them, to help intercede for them,” reflected Weber after the recent livestream.

Cover photo: Archbishop Michael Jackels (left) practices his introduction in front of one of the cameras while Deacon John Robbins checks the shot in cooperation with Jeremy Jones, a technology expert, who Robbins is speaking with by phone.