April 2, 2020 / 5:38 PM / in 2 months

Belgian priest spreads the word online during coronavirus lockdown

Belgian priest Wim Simons leads a mass which can be followed via his Facebook page, during a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown, in Herk-de-Stad, Belgium April 2, 2020. REUTERS/Yves Herman

HERK-DE-STAD, Belgium (Reuters) - A Belgian priest who began livestreaming services and prayer sessions after coronavirus restrictions closed his church has found a far larger congregation online than he had before.

Wim Simons’ webcasts on Facebook have drawn worshippers from across Dutch-speaking Belgium and the Netherlands as well as his regular churchgoers.

“It has really grown. In this time of crisis, people may be looking for some inner peace such as through a moment of blessing,” he said before one of his daily services.

One Sunday, his online audience was over 30 times larger than the 150 people Simons says he usually sees at St Martinus church in Herk-de-Stad, a small town in Limburg in eastern Belgium, where coronavirus infections have been highest.

Special Easter services in the coming week could see it increase further, especially after channel TV Limburg broadcast some of his services on local television.

The 38-year-old priest now holds an hour-long service from his empty church at 6 p.m. on Mondays to Fridays and a half-hour prayer slot at 9 p.m.. There is an earlier service on Saturday and a mass on Sunday morning.

And Simons may continue tending his virtual flock even after the lockdown is lifted: he says the popularity of his webcasts has made him aware of people, like those in care homes, who would like to attend services but are unable to do so.

Reporting by Yves Herman and Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Catherine Evans

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