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Most Wisconsin Catholics again obligated to attend Sunday Mass

Dispensations issued in March due to COVID-19 are lifted in 4 of 5 dioceses; La Crosse keeps dispensation in place.

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


  1. My first impression of this article 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”?

      • Probably not, since all he did was re-post the comment he made previously.

        Also, since he has told us previously he’s in his 80’s, I’d be fascinated to meet his grandmother.

          • Thanks, mrscracker. It continues to amaze that the “holier thans” pick on the semantics without addressing the facts. I must be a star when some writer acknowledged my age. I should have said “my deceased grandmother” and that I would have asked her to remain home.
            I will take the naysayers thoughts under advisement.

  2. Most churches are much larger than required for the present day number of attendees. Our church seats 800. Our busiest Mass pre-covid was about 225. Plenty of room to be safely seated. Old people at risk should remain at home. As for the rest of us, if you can go to a grocery store, bank, restaurant or dry cleaner, or take a bus or train to work, there is no reason why you cannot go to church. This disease is far from a death sentence for the vast majority of those who get it. More thought and less hysteria would be a good thing to encourage. Just as president Trump suggested.And by the way, whether or not Trump wears a mask, most folks out there have seen enough talking heads on TV chatting up masks to figure out on your own whether or not you want to wear one yourself. That has nothing at all to do with the President’s decision.

    • I suggest you become more real than political. Fact: Trump, in his own words, acknowledged in January that he was aware of the deadly potential of the coronavirus pandemic in an interview with Bob Woodward that was taped. Fact: That crime cost nearly 200,000 lost souls in 6 months. Fact: America is a disgrace in the eyes of the world by being LAST and out of control on eradicating the virus. Fact: Young people can carry the virus. Fact: Trump is constantly spewing false statements on the virus trashing his own scientists reality. There is no alternate facts! etc, etc, etc…

      • “Fact: Trump, in his own words, acknowledged in January that he was aware of the deadly potential of the coronavirus pandemic in an interview with Bob Woodward that was taped.”

        Fact: He had already told us that he was trying to keep the country calm and not cause a panic, way back in March: And Dr. Fauci says that President Trump didn’t misrepresent anything:

        “Fact: That crime cost nearly 200,000 lost souls in 6 months.”

        Fact: Being aware that the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic was serious is not a crime (which is what your post said).

        Fact: Not going on television and flailing and shrieking “WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE! PANIC, PANIC, PANIC!” is also not a crime; and neither did it cause 200,000 deaths. What is it that you think he should have done that would magically have stopped all the deaths, or even many of them?

        “Fact: America is a disgrace in the eyes of the world by being LAST and out of control on eradicating the virus.”

        Fact: Your statement is not a fact. The US is 7th in deaths per million of population (, and that is assuming that countries such as China, North Korea, and any number of other ones are reporting accurately; and that the US and all other countries are reporting the deaths the same way (e.g. if someone is flattened by a falling piano but tests positive for coronavirus the US is likely to report it as a coronavirus death but that doesn’t hold true for other countries).

        “Fact: Young people can carry the virus.”

        Fact: “Early studies suggested that children do not contribute much to the spread of coronavirus. But more recent studies raise concerns that children could be capable of spreading the infection.” So blaming the President for going along with what the early studies said is hardly fair. But then, another Fact: is that if Trump Derangement Syndrome were fatal you’d’ve died several years ago.

        “Fact: Trump is constantly spewing false statements on the virus trashing his own scientists reality.”

        Fact: His scientists are not entitled to their own reality. And I’m willing to bet that some of those “false statements” of which you accuse him consist largely of your gullible swallowing while of misrepresentations. You probably think that the President suggested injecting bleach into the lungs of patients.

        “There is no alternate facts!”

        Actually, there are alternate facts, by which I mean that experts have flip-floppped. “Don’t wear a mask, they don’t do any good” suddenly became “You *must* wear a mask!” And every time they flip-flop they lose more credibility.

  3. Many of us were similar pre covid stats, as far as attendees.

    We have older folks going to Mass every day, and on the weekends; I would guess the chance is greater at a dept or grocery store — maybe they could have Masses for those more susceptible?

    Yet as soon as you walk out of the church doors you can light up a tobacco or dope cigarette and it’s legal. More people will die this year from smoking than covid, (at this point, anyway.)

  4. It would seem they will need to do 3 times the number of masses in a day to accommodate the social distancing guidelines due to space issues. There’s more work for the priests if they are to maintain that stance, but if their number one concern is for parishioners then there should be no objections on the increased time demands of the church clergy.

    Not that necessary believe the social distancing guidelines are the proverbial gospel on how to handle Covd-19…but just sayin’.

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