MADISON, Wisconsin — The May 13 Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling that struck down the state’s virus-inspired “Safer at Home” quarantine order now paves the way for a restoration of public Holy Mass, more than two months after large worship gatherings were banned due to the Wuhan corona virus dubbed COVID-19.
In a 4-3 ruling, the state’s high court declared Wisconsin’s Safer at Home initiative to be “unlawful, invalid, and unenforceable” and struck it down as a “vast seizure of power” that usurped mandatory oversight by the Wisconsin Legislature. Issued by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services at the direction of Gov. Tony Evers, Safer at Home in essence quarantined 5.82 million Wisconsin residents in their homes and banned even modest size public gatherings. It also imposed travel restrictions and ruled only certain “essential” businesses could remain in operation. Violators were subject to arrest, 30 days in jail and a $250 fine.
As a result of the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling, the five Wisconsin dioceses that shepherd 1.2 million Catholics are working on plans for a phased reopening public Masses by the end of May.
The Archdiocese of Milwaukee announced a “Catholic Comeback” program that restores public Masses on a limited basis, starting with the vigil of Pentecost on May 30. The opening of public Masses comes with an extensive list of restrictions and guidelines for social distancing and hygiene, including a ban on receiving Holy Communion on the tongue or receiving the Precious Blood from the chalice. Obligation to attend Sunday Mass is dispensed through Sunday, July 5. For now, only Sunday Masses will be public, including Saturday evening vigil Masses. Catholic Comeback was being developed before the court ruling.
“I know people are anxious to return to normal. However, we must also acknowledge that people are anxious about returning to public activities and crowded spaces,” Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki said in a letter to priests and staff. “Following the (Catholic Comeback) matrix is a prudent approach and a reasonable and responsible way to resume Catholic life in our archdiocese, without taking unnecessary risks.”
The Diocese of Madison will announce its plan for resumption of public Masses next week. Bishop Donald J. Hying said he aims “to create a careful plan recognizing both societal health concerns and the spiritual needs of the faithful.” Some parishes in the Madison diocese had already resumed limited public Masses that kept attendance to fewer than 10 people. Some parishes utilize online sign-up to organize attendance for private prayer time and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. A number of parishes have conducted parking-lot Masses and adoration, with the faithful remaining in their vehicles. Others have held outdoor “drive-through” confessions.
While the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling led to the nearly immediate opening of some restaurants and bars across the state, confusion still reigns in America’s Dairyland. A number of local governments, including the cities of Milwaukee and Racine, and the counties of Dane (Madison), Rock (Janesville), and Brown (Green Bay), quickly issued stay-at-home orders that in some cases are identical to those struck down by the state’s high court. Kenosha County withdrew its new stay-at-home order Thursday night, a day after it was enacted. The Wisconsin Counties Association advised that “the provisions struck down by the State Supreme Court also applied to local health officers,” said Kenosha County Corporation Counsel Joseph Cardamone. Bishop Hying said Dane County and the city of Madison continue to consider religious entities as “essential businesses and operations,” and they will now allow “more reasonably sized congregations for public worship while maintaining appropriate health-related safeguards.”
“…I look forward to seeing this exception for religious entities being adopted in our other ten counties in the Diocese of Madison,” Hying said, “and hopefully statewide in any possible state order.” The Madison diocese encompasses 134 churches in 11 counties in south-central Wisconsin, including the capital city.
The Diocese of Superior in northern Wisconsin was already working on a plan to offer Communion services with small groups of nine or fewer parishioners. That could happen in the next week or two. Most churches were already offering private prayer time with limited small groups. “The diocese will not be making any changes at this time,” Bishop James Powers said in reaction to the Supreme Court ruling. Plans are in the works “to resume limited public weekend Masses as soon as it seems prudent,” Powers said.
The Diocese of Green Bay will begin offering Communion services with distribution of the Blessed Sacrament, starting May 30 and 31, Bishop David L. Ricken said. “I understand the desire of the faithful to receive Christ in the Eucharist and there is precedent for doing so in extraordinary, emergency situations like we are facing right now, even outside the Mass. And this is the route we are taking at this time.” The Communion service will include a brief reading, recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and distribution of Holy Communion. Ricken said it is a short-term solution and is not meant to replace Holy Mass.
The debate over mandated Communion in the hand has only intensified during the corona virus pandemic. The Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon earlier this year affirmed the right of the faithful to receive Communion on the tongue, ruling the risk of virus transmission was roughly equal to receiving the Eucharist in the hand. A group of theologians and medical experts organized by the Thomistic Institute issued a report in late April that said distribution on the tongue can be done without unreasonable risk.” Diocese of Knoxville Bishop Richard F. Stika has banned reception on the tongue when public Masses resume. He set off protests on Twitter after stating that anyone wanting Communion on the tongue who “makes a scene” would be asked to leave Mass.
Many Catholics consider reception of the Eucharist in the hand to be irreverent and even sacrilegious, because the practice risks particles of the sacred host staying on the hands or falling onto the floor. Some priests who distribute Communion both ways say they believe the risk of physical contact between priest and communicant is actually less using on-the-tongue distribution. “The ban on Communion in the mouth is unfounded compared to the great health risks of Communion in the hand in the time of a pandemic,” Bishop Athanasius Schneider wrote earlier this year. “Such a ban constitutes an abuse of authority.”
Father Richard Heilman, whose St. Mary parish near Madison has communion rails and distribution primarily on the tongue while kneeling, says the efforts are part of his plans to boost reverent worship and increase the supernatural belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The parish offers what Fr. Heilman calls an “enriched Novus Ordo” Mass with ad orientem worship and frequent use of incense and Latin prayers. Traditional Latin Masses are also offered at St. Mary.
“I believe we have something truly substantial and authentic to offer them,” Fr. Heilman recently wrote on his teaching blog. “In this ‘heavenly setting’ their hardened hearts are made soft and supple, like a sponge. They are laid open to receive what God so desperately wants to give them: The Divine Life.”
(Note: This report was updated twice on May 15, 2020, to reflect further changes in the situation in Wisconsin.)
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