What Does the Metaverse Have to do with the Church? A Lot, Actually

The MetaCatholic apostolate is pioneering what the Church’s evangelization could look like in virtual and augmented reality, and shows why the Church needs to be in the Metaverse.

A work-in-progress shot of MetaCatholic's virtual reality rosary following the sorrowful mysteries.
A work-in-progress shot of MetaCatholic's virtual reality rosary following the sorrowful mysteries. (photo: MetaCatholic)

Gaming technology has leaped forward from self-contained consoles onto the internet, and today new imaginative three-dimensional digital worlds broadly called “the Metaverse” are being created with immersive technology that allows people to explore and interact in these virtual realities. 

For the Catholic disciple who follows Jesus Christ the question today is not “what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem,” but “what does Jerusalem have to do with the Metaverse?”

According to Father Ian VanHeusen, president of MetaCatholic and Newman Center chaplain at East Carolina University in Greenville, Jerusalem (meaning the Church) has a great deal to do with the Metaverse and needs to be present there.

The MetaCatholic project is a Catholic foray into the Metaverse, recognizing virtual reality and augmented reality as a new frontier of evangelization the Church needs to enter, with its own dangers and opportunities to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

“We're still in the very early stages of this,” the priest told the Register. “We're learning how to do 360 degree videos and 360 degree immersive experiences with virtual reality right now.”

MetaCatholic, Father VanHeusen said, has a grant for 20 VR-headsets, and their first project is creating a VR Rosary. Their test pilot will start with the Sorrowful Mysteries, which will be a 360 immersive experience that can be explored with current technology like a VR-headset. After the Rosary project is finished, MetaCatholic plans to take stock of the results so far, and see what other projects can be embarked on.

“With these immersive experiences, you can feel like you’re there,” he said.  

The Metaverse currently consists of separate, contained digital worlds that are likely to become more integrated over time, similar to how the internet is today. 

Father VanHeusen said the future of the Metaverse, is “what they call Web 3.0, some combination of virtual reality and augmented reality,” and will likely have a bigger impact on society in the next 5-10 years.


Evangelizing with Virtual Reality

Father VanHeusen explains that virtual reality provides a 360 degree immersive experience that takes a person out of their current surroundings, such as through a VR-headset. 

In contrast, “augmented reality,” involves a person remaining in their real world surroundings but using some form of technology that “augments” the real world with the digital. The priest said as an example, a person in the future might look at a building through glasses and see their Google reviews; or be in a meeting room where holograms of the people occupy the physical space.

“The technology is there, or definitely on the way,” he said.

Both technologies offer possibilities for the Church. For example, a parish could use VR-technology to take people “on pilgrimage” to the Holy Land without having to leave the country. 

But this kind of experience could go way beyond that. One good VR project, Father VanHeusen said, would be to “walk through the history of the Bible.” With enough funding for such a project, Catholics could explore the Temple of Jerusalem, for example, and interact with the characters. Another VR-project, he said, could immerse a Catholic in the medieval world of St. Thomas Aquinas, experiencing both the Angelic Doctor and what the Mass was like. 

“You're going to be able to be immersed in ancient worlds,” he said. “And pretty soon, we'll probably be able to do something closer, like photo realism in the street, with 3D environments.”

At the same time, pilgrimage sites could eventually make use of augmented technology to enhance a pilgrim’s interaction with the location.


A World with or without the Gospel?

What happens if a whole new world is created, and the Church is not there to offer the Gospel? Father VanHeusen said the Church has some very clear spaces to be in VR, such as YouTube’s VR section or the Oculus Store, but the Catholic content is not there yet. 

“We're going to try to probably try to get an app on the Oculus Store,” he said, “so people can access Catholic content in the VR space.” 

Father VanHeusen said part of what MetaCatholic is doing right now is figuring out these new technologies and how the Church can be there effectively.

“We need to be in those spaces on early and learn how we can use them for evangelization, and what are the benefits and the risks,” he said. “And a big thing we need to educate parents is there are some risks with these new technologies.”

VR technology is overall becoming much cheaper, while other technology like bodysuits that allow a person to “touch” and “feel” in the Metaverse, what is called “haptick feedback,” is already under development.

But the Metaverse’s benefits also carries risks. Among them are technology addictions, which can draw people out of the real world and can alter their sense of reality, or sexual addiction from immersive VR pornographic experiences.

Father VanHeusen is also particularly concerned about the impact of VR technology on poor communities, where parents may just “plop their kids in the VR headset for hours on end.”

Parents should exercise prudence with children’s moral development with VR technology, and preview VR-content just as they would with regular movies or shows. 

But pastors in particular are going to have to think about guiding the faithful in the morality of decision-making in the Metaverse. As experiences in the Metaverse become more realistic, pastors will have to grapple with the effects of people’s choices in the Metaverse, such as by engaging in violent or brutal acts or illegal actions, on their moral development.

“I think that’s going to be a real concern,” the priest said. He pointed out that sexual violence in these digital worlds is already a serious concern, typically from users who look at the Metaverse as a place where morality does not count and they can do whatever they want. 

Father VanHeusen predicted that governments may start to outlaw certain virtual experiences in order to safeguard society. 


Making Real More Beautiful

But the Metaverse and VR-technology also has the opportunity to make the world more beautiful.

One project he would love to explore is designing VR chapels, where artists like Daniel Mitsui can show off their religious artwork in a VR chapel — a Sistine Chapel for modern Michelangelos without costing millions of dollars.

And for parishes and dioceses, that technology also offers a valuable tool to allow Catholics to virtually step into a sacred space, such as a new church or chapel, walk around it and give their feedback. 

Before a single act of construction or renovation takes place, Father VanHeusen explained, “You're going to be able to see things and have a sense of what it will look like before it's made.”


For more information on MetaCatholic visit https://metacatholic.church/