But they ask the faithful to continue doing some form of lenten penance.
First there were warnings to avoid shaking hands during church services, then there were dispensations from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays, then there was a suspension of public liturgies.
Now, the novel coronavirus pandemic is leading to a temporary change in another long-held Catholic practice.
The worsening crisis coincides with the season of lent, when Catholics, Orthodox and other denominations practice penance, focus on reconciliation with God and prepare for the feast of Easter. Fasting, prayer and almsgiving are the traditional pillars of lenten discipline, and Fridays of lent, especially Good Friday, when the Crucifixion of Jesus is commemorated, have particular rules. Catholics are required to abstain from meat on Fridays, and to fast altogether on Good Friday.
But the pandemic has led to social restrictions, including the necessity to avoid contact with other people and to stay at home most of the time. Many people are finding it more difficult to do their food shopping, and, bishops reason, they might not be able to find meat alternatives.
On March 20, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, granted all the faithful of the Diocese of Brooklyn a dispensation from the law of abstinence for the Fridays of Lent for this year.
“This is being done to assist people who may have difficulties in shopping for food or other reasons which would make this practice difficult at this time,” said a statement from the diocese, which covers two boroughs in New York City, currently the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States. “Parishioners are reminded the Fridays of Lent remain days of penance and prayer, which is needed now more than ever.”
The same day, the Diocese of Pittsburgh stated that Bishop David Zubik, “with a heart to preserve the Mission of the Catholic Church … is dispensing from the obligation to abstain from meat on Lenten Fridays with the exception of Good Friday.
“As you are aware, many of the shelves and cases in our supermarkets are sparse if not empty,” the bishop said. “This is a time when pastoral necessity has informed my decision.”
In the same statement, Bishop Zubik permitted priests to hear confessions in church parking lots, “following specific guidelines to preserve the sanctity of the sacrament. The guidelines for priests include directions for a set up that allows for anonymity and privacy.”
“Our faithful need reassurance of God’s mercy now more than ever,” Bishop Zubik said.
In a decree announced late Wednesday, Bishop Shelton Fabre of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, announced that he has granted a dispensation to the Catholic faithful in the diocese of the obligation to abstain from eating meat for the two remaining Fridays in Lent.
He reminded the faithful that the law on abstinence and fasting for Good Friday is never dispensed and must be observed in its entirety, the diocese said.
The bishop said that the spread of COVID-19 has placed many people “in a situation wherein obtaining food, including meal alternatives from meat, the rising cost of fish and other forms of seafood and even the challenge of being able to obtain groceries without endangering their health, make it clearly difficult for them to fulfill this practice.”
These Fridays of Lent will remain as days of penance and prayer, Bishop Fabre said. “For those who are able to keep this practice, I encourage you to continue fulfilling this obligation for your spiritual benefits and the good of the Church,” he wrote. “However, for those who sincerely find it difficult to embrace this practice, I hereby grant you dispensation from the obligation to abstain from eating meat for the remaining Fridays in Lent (4th and 5th weeks). Instead, I ask that you substitute this with other forms of penance, especially works of piety and charity in place of the abstinence in accord with canon 1253 of the Code of Canon Law.”
The diocese pointed out that the obligation to abstain from eating meat on all Fridays in Lent, as well as on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, is imposed on all Catholics who have attained the age of 14.
On Thursday, the Diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey, announced similar measures.
“Bishop James F. Checchio has granted a dispensation from abstaining from meat on Fridays for the rest of Lent, except Good Friday, which is universal law and a day of fasting and abstaining from meat, so bishops do not have the authority to dispense,” said Anthony P. Kearns III, Esq., chancellor and spokesperson for the Diocese of Metuchen, in a statement. “He gave the dispensation based on the difficulties of obtaining some types of food by some of our faithful and the many other sacrifices which all of us are suddenly experiencing given the coronavirus. As Catholics, we are called to care for our brothers and sisters, and so now, more than ever, Bishop Checchio encourages the faithful to reach out and consider the needs of their neighbor.
“As individuals, as a local Church, as a nation and as a universal family, we did not know what sacrifices this Lent would bring as we began it this year,” Kearns continued. Bishop Checchio asks that everyone please pray for one another and continue to care for their neighbor, both physically and spiritually, even if that requires some additional different sacrifices from us. We pray that through these sacrifices, the joys of Easter will likewise be heightened for us too.”
In the Eastern Catholic Churches, there are stricter rules of fasting, including abstinence from meat and dairy products on most of the days of lent. On Thursday, Bishop Andriy Rabiy, auxiliary bishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, wrote that “due to continuous shortages and economic hardships recently being experienced by the faithful because of the spreading coronavirus pandemic, the obligation to fast from meat on Fridays, March 27 and April 3, is lifted.”
“However, the faithful are strongly encouraged to continue observing the fast if circumstances allow, in addition to prayers and almsgiving,” said Bishop Rabiy.
The dispensations are given on a diocesan level. Catholics residing in a diocese not mentioned should check with the official website of that diocese.