MADISON, Wisconsin — While the decision to suspend public Masses at more than 100 Catholic parishes was “the hardest thing I could possibly do,” the coronavirus pandemic presents the faithful an opportunity to become more focused on prayer and can lead to a deeper trust in God, Bishop Donald J. Hying said.
Hying announced that public Masses would not be held in the Madison diocese’s 102 parishes until further notice. The decision was based on state and local government directives to limit the size of group gatherings, in hopes of slowing the COVID-19 virus that originated in China and has spread to more than 120 other countries. Wisconsin has 47 confirmed cases of coronavirus, including 10 in Dane County, where the Madison diocese is based. No COVID-19 deaths have been reported in Wisconsin. Nationwide, there are more than 5,700 confirmed cases of coronavirus, including 94 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.
“In light of our concern and in light of the government’s regulations regarding public gatherings, I made the decision in tandem with all the other bishops here in the state of Wisconsin to suspend the public celebration of Mass, beginning today,” Hying said at a news conference. “As a Catholic bishop, that’s the hardest thing that I could possibly do, because for us as Catholics, Mass is everything. The Mass is our participation in the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection and for our people, it’s our connection to God.”
Last week, Hying issued a dispensation from Sunday obligation to attend Holy Mass due to concerns about the virus, although Masses were offered as usual across the diocese. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers issued a March 17 moratorium on public and private gatherings of 50 or more people. That, along with guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was a major factor in the decision to halt public Masses.
Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki earlier announced suspension of public Masses from March 18 through April 3. Bishop William P. Callahan suspended public Masses in the Diocese of La Crosse until further notice. Callahan invited parishioners to send him their prayer intentions. All of Wisconsin’s 277 Catholic schools are also shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“In the end, we know that God will get us through this,” Hying said. “This is a moment of challenge. It’s also a moment of invitation for us to really trust in God and to call on him to heal us of this virus and drive it from us. It’s a moment of solidarity that we realize, I think, in a deeper way how much we need God and how much we need each other. It calls for faith and trust.”
Hying said that churches would remain open for private prayer and priests will continue to be available for confessions. Masses for funerals and weddings will also continue, although “with proper concern to maintain the proper number of people as capped by health regulations,” he said.
>Catholics across Wisconsin and the nation struggled to adjust to the idea of not attending Holy Mass as the calendar approaches Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent. Many will turn to online worship to fill the void. Two Madison diocese parishes, St. Joseph Catholic Church in Baraboo and St. Mary Catholic Church in Pine Bluff, live-stream all daily and Sunday Masses. Sunday Mass is broadcast on CBS affiliate WISC Channel 3 in Madison. In Milwaukee, two Masses at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist are broadcast; the 9 a.m. Mass on 920-AM radio and the 11 a.m. Mass on the cathedral’s YouTube channel. Masses are also televised on WITI Fox 6 and WVTV My24.
Hying called on the faithful to give special care to the poor as the pandemic unfolds. “In this moment I really want to call on all of us to be supportive of the poor and of the marginalized. We think of all the at-risk communities who this virus will affect in very profound ways,” Hying said. “So any way that we can continue to support them and to support the mission of the Church, realizing of course that many people are going to be challenged economically and spiritually and psychologically by this pandemic.”
Hying said a decision on Masses for the Triduum will be made during the week of March 30-April 3. “We know it’s so fluid that it’s changing almost by the hour,” Hying said of the pandemic. “We’ll certainly take everything into account at that moment and make the prudential decision for Holy Week.”
Hying said in addition to watching Masses on television or the internet, parishioners should spend time praying the Holy Rosary, reading Scripture and praying the Liturgy of the Hours. Sundays should be dedicated to prayer and meditation, he said. Even though the situation is difficult, Hying said it should deepen faith.
“In the season of Lent, no one bargained on this on Ash Wednesday that Lent would unfold like this,” Hying said. “God is somehow operative in all of this and leading us to a place of deeper trust in Him.”
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