Starting in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and the Diocese of Green Bay on Sept. 19-20 and phasing in at two other dioceses the remainder of September, most 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.
On Aug. 31, Wisconsin’s five bishops announced the dispensation from attending Mass would be lifted in September for Wisconsin’s 1.2 million Catholics at 715 parishes. Each diocese was to set its own deadline for returning to Sunday obligation under pain of grave sin. However, the Diocese of La Crosse on Sept. 18 decided to keep the dispensation in place, due to ongoing concerns about the number of COVID-19 cases. No end date for the dispensation was set.
“While this is a departure from the decision of my brother bishops in Wisconsin, it is not mean spirited,” Bishop William Patrick Callahan wrote in a letter to priests and parishioners. “I am considering the high number of new COVID cases in our area and the growing number of congregants and the ability we have of safely social distancing in our churches. These factors create a large number of situations that bring us back to the very reason why we lifted the obligation in the first place.”
Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki reinstated Sunday obligation beginning with Sept. 19 vigil Masses and Sept. 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 Sept. 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 Sept. 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.
Bishop James P. Powers of the Diocese of Superior said the dispensation from Sunday obligation will be lifted effective Sept. 26 and 27. “Although it may not be possible or prudent for some to attend the public celebration of the Mass, thanks be to God, there no longer seems to be a reason that rises to the seriousness of a general dispensation for all the faithful,” Powers said in a letter to parishioners.
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, including those who have tested positive or been exposed to someone with COVID-19 in the past 14 days.
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