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Wisconsin Catholics again obligated to attend Sunday Mass

Dispensations issued in March due to COVID-19 are being lifted over the next two weekends.

The Basilica of St. Josaphat in Milwaukee. (Photo by Joseph M. Hanneman)

Starting in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and the Diocese of Green Bay on September 19-20 and phasing in at three other dioceses the remainder of September, Wisconsin Catholics are no longer dispensed from mandatory attendance at Sunday Mass for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down public worship back in mid-March.

Wisconsin’s five bishops earlier announced the dispensation from attending Mass would be lifted in September, and each diocese set its own deadline for returning to Sunday obligation under pain of grave sin.

Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki reinstated Sunday obligation beginning with September 19 vigil Masses and September 20 Sunday Masses. “Our obligation to attend Sunday worship reflects the very character of who we are as Catholics,” Archbishop Listecki wrote in a letter to more than 540,000 registered Catholics in the 10 counties of the archdiocese. “When we fail in our responsibility before God, we sin. Therefore, we need to form our consciences so that we can be fully informed in making decisions about our actions. The Church in Her wisdom offers us guidelines to help in our formation.”

Churches in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee will limit attendance based on each parish’s ability to maintain physical distancing between the faithful. Parishioners must wear face masks as required by an executive order by Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (an order being challenged in the Wisconsin Supreme Court). Priests, deacons and Eucharistic ministers are required to wear masks while distributing Holy Communion.

Reception of Communion is recommended in the hand only, although reception on the tongue is allowed at the discretion of the priest. Those receiving on the tongue must approach for Communion after those who receive in the hand. If the number wanting reception on the tongue is small, “distribution could take place after Mass, in the sacristy or other appropriate area,” the archdiocese’s “Catholic Comeback” plan states.

Diocese of Green Bay Bishop David L. Ricken decided to lift the dispensation from Sunday Mass starting with September 19-20 Masses in the 16 counties of the diocese. “In the Ten Commandments, the Lord makes it very clear, ‘Remember to keep holy the Lord’s Day,’ ” Ricken wrote in a letter to the faithful. “One way we do that is by attending Mass, what we call the Sunday obligation. At times, though, we may be tempted to see our Sunday obligation as just that, a minimum requirement in order to ‘keep God and the church off my back.’ But this commandment, like all the commandments, is rooted in God’s love for us.”

Attendance restrictions are being lifted, as long as physical distancing recommendations are followed in seating and when approaching for Holy Communion. Reception of Communion is “strongly encouraged” in the hand, according to diocesan guidelines, although “provisions should be made so that anyone who wishes to receive on the tongue may do so.”

In the Diocese of Madison, Catholics will be again required to attend Sunday Mass beginning September 26-27, Bishop Donald J. Hying announced. Public celebration of Holy Mass was suspended in mid-March due to COVID-19 and resumed with attendance restrictions and other safety protocols on May 31. The dispensation from Sunday obligation has been in place since March 12.

“For Catholics, the celebration of Sunday Eucharist is the heart and center of who we are as children of God,” Hying wrote in a letter to his flock. “It is the source and summit of the Christian life. Participating in the sacrifice of the Mass, we hear the Word and receive the Eucharist. We need the very real and sacred nourishment of the Mass, and as good and pious as watching Mass at home and making a spiritual communion has been for many these months of quarantine, this can never substitute for the efficacy of participating in even one celebration of the Eucharist.”

Attendees in the Madison diocese’s 134 churches across 11 counties are asked to practice physical distancing and wear masks. Those located in Dane County and the capital city of Madison are still under government-imposed attendance restrictions based on building capacity. Those who wish to receive Communion on the tongue are asked to approach after the rest of the faithful have received Communion in the hand. The diocese maintains a web site with answers to frequently asked questions on COVID-19 and the Holy Mass.

In all the dioceses, the elderly, immunodeficient and those who remain at increased risk for illness are allowed to refrain from attending Mass without committing sin, as allowed by canon law. Fear of becoming ill, however, does not qualify for dispensation from Sunday obligation. Parishioners who are ill or showing symptoms of illness should remain at home.

The bishops announced on August 31 their intention to reinstate Sunday obligation in September for Wisconsin’s 1.2 million Catholics at 715 parishes in the state’s 72 counties. The Diocese of Superior and the Diocese of La Crosse have not yet announced effective dates for the lifting of the dispensation.

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About Joseph M. Hanneman 101 Articles
Joseph M. Hanneman writes from Madison, Wisconsin.


  1. No way I will attend Mass if I have to wear a mask, or receive Communion if is has to be in the hand. But I don’t live in Wisconsin. My parish gives Communion on the tongue to people kneeling, and perhaps two out of two hundred wear a mask. And I’m not going to mention where.

    • One diocesan-authorized clinical study in the US has shown that there is no more danger of receiving on the tongue than there is in the hand. But maybe…there is no (real) danger either way? And the Eastern Churches worldwide are using the spoon for intinction. No reports of outbreaks from that sector of the Church, either. Makes one wonder.

  2. This is confusing. Milwaukee is still limiting attendance yet reinstating the obligation? Can that be correct? Sounds like a catch-22 situation if it is– and a recipe for scrupulosity.

    • If their church attendance is like ours in NY, they will sadly have plenty of room. Even pre-covid our attendance had dropped significantly, whether because of the sex abuse crisis or the ongoing secularization of society I dont know. My church was built in the 1950’s when people still went to church, can hold 800 people. We dont get anywhere near that number at any of our several Sunday Masses. Further if excessive attendance proves to be an issue, the pastor can figure out a way to add Masses if need be. Right now, many of our elderly members have not returned, many because of covid fears and I dont think the Bishops saying they have to will make them respond.

  3. Long overdue by so many States in our Country that are being ruled by FEAR and ILLEGAL EO’s. As FDR said so many years ago:”The only thing we have to fear.Is fear itself”.The other side of the coin of FEAR is Faith,and we haven’t seen enough of that side of the coin in America for at least the last 4 months.

    • I don’t know if I’d say received “on the tongue,” although it is basically true. The priest uses a spoon and “feeds” the flock. I guess maybe that is the best way to put it.
      Pre-Covid, our priest had the one spoon for the entire parish. Now, he uses a different spoon for each communicant.
      Our bishop still has dispensed us from the Sunday Obligation, but our small parish seems to have returned to more or less normal.

  4. My first impression is one of rampant confusion. With the pandemic at a rage we need to double down. Parishioners with potentially higher exposure to infection are given further dispensation? Others are plagued with a “grave sin”? I have a grandmother that I insist that she remain home. Am I in the “grave sin” category? How do the clerics maintain exposures to CDC COVID rules of mask wearing, temperature testing and social distancing? Is some one guarding the church entrances to turn away those without a mask and have a temperature and a cold? Separation of six feet may be to little if someone, (child), who is asymptomatic removes their mask to sneeze which spews droplets further. And, are the expelled parishioners exposed to “grave sin”? Moreover, the Trump Whitehouse confuses us further by not showing the leadership of complying with the scientists.

    I thought that we are “all in this together”?

    • Morgan,
      If you insist that your grandma has to stay home from Mass even though she wants to attend, then I suppose you might be in some state of sin. It would be her own decision to make I think.
      Goodness, no one is suggesting older folks shouldn’t have a dispensation if they’re especially vulnerable. But alternatively they have every right to worship at church if they so choose.

    • All in this together? Ha, no, because some of us really don’t see this as a threat anymore. Hasn’t been for weeks.
      And no, the Trump White House neither confusing nor are the scientists in agreement with what is going on.

      • In some parts of the nation, it hasn’t been a threat for MONTHS, and in still other places, virtually NEVER. Check the infection rate stats…

    • Did you not trouble yourself to read the article? Your grandmother (which I must say is quite an accomplishment since you’ve informed us in the past that you are in your 80’s) is not obligated to attend Mass. “In all the dioceses, the elderly, immunodeficient and those who remain at increased risk for illness are allowed to refrain from attending Mass without committing sin, as allowed by canon law.”

      I can just see you at the Pearly Gates, informing St. Peter that President Trump is to blame for any and every sin you ever committed.

    • Morgan, First , the pandemic is easing and diminishing in every state. Second all older and compromised parishioners are exempt from Sunday mass. Third churches in my area require masks period. Fourthly our church has ushers that monitor masks,and science tells us that young children are not drivers of contagious aspects of this virus and lastly your last sentence exposes you for what you are.

  5. This seems to have little to do with concern for souls and much to do with the collection basket. If “Fear of becoming ill, however, does not qualify for dispensation from Sunday obligation.” what has this 6 month dispensation been about?
    In Canada and on many online Catholic sites, we’ve been repeatedly reassured that the Grace from a devout Spiritual Communion can, in some circumstances be equal to actual reception of The Eucharist. We are now being told that all the Spiritual Communion in the world doesn’t add up to one actual reception of The Sacrament.
    With Francis at the helm and Bishops completely contradicting each ither over very important moral issues, it’s probably time to begin to think for oneself unless u you can find a Holy priest with a Bishop who will not suspend his faculties for preaching The Truth based on longstanding Church teaching.
    I’m a single, somewhat disabled senior, who has reached out to my Parish in London, Ontario several times over the last six months. Any and ask requests for the slightest accommodation that might enable me to “keep my Sunday obligation” or receive any Sacraments in any manner have been met with a wall of refusal and excuses.
    I’m wirn out trying to keep up with what often seen to be arbitrary styles and regulations during this Wuhan Virus shutdown.
    I can only hope that this is the beginning of the end for a world gone mad. A world being helped on its way into complete confusion by a largely emasculated Church that no longer upholds what it has taught for 2000 years!

  6. I was stunned recently when I was almost denied communion on the tongue in a rural Milwaukee area church. My parish church (in another state) rarely has anyone receiving in the hand. I will pray every day that the communion rails be brought back to all churches. There was a lot less confusion and more reverence for the Eucharist before they were removed.

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