Just two weeks after the dispensation from Sunday Mass attendance was lifted in the Diocese of Green Bay, Bishop David Ricken has reinstated it, due to sharply rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in the area.
“In the past few weeks the number of cases has increased fourfold within many areas of our diocese, and we are being counted among the worst outbreaks in the country,” Ricken said in an Oct. 5 letter to members 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.”
Ricken clarified that public Masses are not being suspended and will continue to be celebrated, with continuing safety measures.
“I grant this dispensation to help in preventing the community spread of this disease. I have further done this for those who might be unable to come to Mass because of significant health concerns as well as for those who have been burdened in conscience,” he said. “After the current high numbers of infection have subsided and stabilized, we will return to the Sunday obligation requirements.”
The bishop also noted “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,” he said.
Ricken had initially granted a dispensation from Sunday Mass attendance in March, as did the other bishops in Wisconsin and throughout the United States. He lifted the dispensation on the weekend of September 19-20, saying, “[T]he obligation to gather together as a Christian community to worship on Sundays is a natural reflection of our faith as [Christ’s] disciples.”
Wisconsin has seen a resurgence in COVID-19 cases in recent days. Last week the state reported new highs in deaths, hospitalizations, and seven-day case averages. CNN reported that 45 of the state’s 72 counties are currently seeing “very high” COVID-19 activity, according to health officials.
In Wisconsin – as in every state across the country – public celebrations of Mass were suspended this past spring, as the global spread of COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and prompted public health shutdowns. Public Masses have since resumed, with additional health precautions including mask requirements, social distancing, and extra sanitation efforts.
On August 31, the Wisconsin Catholic Conference announced that the bishops of all five dioceses in the state had decided to lift the dispensation from the Sunday Mass obligation.
Two weeks later, Bishop William Callahan of La Crosse reversed course and announced that he had decided to keep the dispensation in place for his diocese.
“While this is a departure from the decision of my brother bishops in Wisconsin, it is not mean spirited,” he said in a September 18 letter to members of the diocese.
“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,” he said.
The other four dioceses in the state moved forward with lifting the dispensation at various times in September, while clarifying that the obligation to attend Sunday Mass does not bind those who are sick, have compromised immune systems, or live with a family member with a vulnerable health condition.
Amy Grau, communications director for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, told CNA the archdiocese is not currently planning to reinstate the dispensation following Green Bay’s decision to do so. She said the archdiocese continues to monitor the data from its local counties.
The Diocese of Madison is not currently planning to reinstate the dispensation either, chancellor William Yallaly told CNA. He added that the diocese is “more likely to remind people firmly of the conditions under which they are already liberally dispensed under the law, rather than issuing a new blanket dispensation.”
The Diocese of Superior did not respond to CNA’s request for comment.
Other bishops throughout the country have largely allowed the dispensation from Sunday Mass attendance to remain in place, although some have discussed lifting the dispensation before the end of the year if conditions permit.
Public health officials have cautioned that the fall and winter could see new surges in COVID-19 cases, as colder weather moves people indoors, where the virus can spread more easily.
In late August, three doctors published an article in Real Clear Science pointing to evidence that church services can be conducted safely when public health guidelines are followed. The doctors said that no outbreaks had been linked to worship services several months after churches had reopened, even in cases when contagious, pre-symptomatic parishioners took part in church events.