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Happy 21st, Sacred Space!

“Peter Scally SJ and I met together last month for the first time in ages and we reminisced. We especially remembered Ash Wednesday 1999. It was the day Sacred Space was born…” So writes Bishop Alan McGuckian SJ, remembering the birth of Sacred Space, the online prayer website, 21 years ago. (Read his reminiscence below).

That Ash Wednesday 1,000 people prayed using the Sacred Space website, available then only in English. This Ash Wednesday, February 26, 2020, more than 15 thousand people from all over the world will pray in English and in the 19 other languages available to them.

They will also be able to avail of the annual Sacred Space Lenten retreat which is offered in conjunction with the British online audio prayer website Pray As You Go. This year’s retreat Journeying with Jesus is written by British Jesuit Peter Edmonds SJ. He has composed six different themed reflections, one for each week: the desert; the mountain; the well; the pool; the tomb, and the garden.

“21 years is an important milestone in the history of any website,” according to John McDermott, the newly appointed Director of Sacred Space. “Sacred Space will be marking this birthday by planning for the future,” he says, adding that at present “plans are in place for a significant redevelopment of the website.”

The worldwide online prayer community that uses Sacred Space daily is his primary focus and priority. “As part of our commitment to that community we are bringing back the very popular Latest Space newsletter,” he says, “and we’ve also started up new Instagram and Pinterest accounts to keep in touch with people around the world.”

The birth of an online prayer community

Fr Peter Scally SJ and I met together last month for the first time in ages and we reminisced. We especially remembered Ash Wednesday 1999. It was the day Sacred Space was born.

Over the previous few days we had emailed contacts all over the world, we had sent out press releases trying to spark the interest of journalists in the amazing notion of people praying in front of their computers for Lent. It was so novel that Sacred Space was on the front pages of a number of papers, and Peter and I spent much of Shrove Tuesday evening talking to different radio stations.

On Ash Wednesday over 1,000 people prayed with us on Sacred Space. By the time we reached the office that morning, there were already a few hundred. That told us that people from Australia and points west of there had already been there.

Every time someone clicked “Amen” the counter moved. Already people were doing the maths in their heads. “During these few minutes that I’m sitting here in Dublin praying with today’s scripture, there are dozens doing the same thing elsewhere.” The Sacred Space community was born.

The next day the emails started to arrive: “I’m praying with Sacred Space in Glasgow and I can’t believe how effective it is.” “I’m a Methodist from Belfast and I love praying with the scriptures in this way.” “Lusaka calling!” From the beginning, people felt part of a universal community of prayer, thrilled to be united in this new way.

In the coming days, more personal Sacred Space stories emerged. For example: “My little girl died two years ago and since then I haven’t felt able to return to my church on Sundays. Praying at Sacred Space has allowed me to be present without being seen. Now I feel ready and next Sunday I’m going back to church for the first time.”

Sitting in our office in Dublin we were astounded at the wonderful things God was doing in people’s lives all over the world through the Word being carried in this new way. It all felt so dynamic.

Our team began to grow. Fr Gerry Burke, a veteran of the mission in Japan, arrived home to Ireland and developed Living Space as a way to reach out to people in new and diverse ways. Róisín Pye joined the staff around the time we began developing ways of getting people to spread the news through parish bulletins and other outlets.

Spreading the news about Sacred Space became our big challenge. So, for Lent 2000 we decided on a PR campaign using the sides of Dublin buses. Peter came up with a brilliant line, stretching along the side of the double-decker buses: Praying is PC www.sacredspace.ie (see photo).

As soon as the buses appeared on the streets of Dublin the phones in the office started hopping. RTÉ, the Irish national broadcaster wanted to know what it was all about, then the BBC World Service and finally Reuters. Thanks to the Reuters connections we started getting new Sacred Spacers arriving from remote islands in far off seas who had read about the site on their local paper.

St Patrick’s Day 1999 saw the launch of Tearmann.com, the Irish language version. That was a proud day for us in Dublin. When Sophia Andrade in Portugal saw a second language involved she shot off an email; “Why not a Portuguese version?” “Why not indeed!” The Portuguese showed the way and the Sacred Space family is now truly an answer to the tower of Babel, appearing in 20 languages including English.

I leave off the story there… Everyone who reads this can pick it up at their own point of entry. It’s such a joy to know that Jesus, the Word of God, reveals himself to us in this Sacred Space community scattered throughout the world, in such a gentle and powerful way. Thanks be to God.

—Bishop Alan McGuckian SJ