Less than a month after telling Catholics that they must attend Mass on Sundays and holy days again, a Wisconsin bishop has once more suspended the obligation.
“In the past few weeks the number of cases has increased fourfold within many areas of our [16-county] diocese, and we are being counted among the worst outbreaks in the country,” Bishop David L. Ricken of Green Bay wrote in an October 5 letter to the faithful of the diocese. “Therefore, given the recent markedly high rise in the number of cases, and after consultation with diocesan leadership and medical professionals, I have decided to dispense again the Catholic faithful in the Diocese of Green Bay from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays.”
Following a spike in cases, Gov. Tony Evers issued an emergency order and declared a public health emergency Sept. 22, including a statewide mask mandate, ABC News reported. Evers also blamed college students who have returned to campus in person this fall for contributing to the upswing.
“College and university students are driving the increase in cases, with the highest rate of new COVID-19 cases in 18- to 24-year-olds,” according to the governor’s office.
Bishop Ricken clarified that his decision did not mean that public Masses would be suspended or churches closed, but that parishes will “need to become even more vigilant in regard to observing the health protocols so as to prevent the spread of disease and allow as many people as is safe to come to Mass without fear of infection.” That includes mandatory wearing of masks at Mass.
He said he was issuing the dispensation for people who might be unable to attend Mass “because of significant health concerns as well as for those who have been burdened in conscience.” He added that the Sunday obligation would be reimposed “after the current high numbers of infection have subsided and stabilized.”
Ricken made the point that there is “great medicinal value in the Eucharist and the Sunday gathering for Holy Mass.”
“The Eucharist itself has tremendous healing properties since it is the very Body and Blood of Jesus Christ and being together to worship God at Mass every Sunday, even in modest numbers, greatly strengthens our faith.”
The Green Bay Diocese issued a dispensation from mandatory attendance on March 13, shortly after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. A few days later, public celebration of Mass was banned. Many parishes provided a live stream of Mass celebrated alone by the pastor. Bishop Ricken’s Mass was broadcast on a local television station.
It was a pattern seen in dioceses throughout the country, but Bishop Ricken was one of only a handful of bishops who lifted the dispensation for the Sunday obligation. When the diocese announced that decision September 10, it reminded parishioners that even when the faithful are unable to attend Mass on Sundays, they were “nevertheless urged to make holy the Lord’s Day and to pray, read the Scriptures, and take part in acts of charity.”
Other dioceses in Wisconsin continue to grant a dispensation, but the Dioceses of Madison and Superior revoked it September 26.