By Natalie Brophy, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
GREEN BAY – Thousands of Catholics in Wisconsin will no longer be allowed to skip church services for general safety concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In March, the five Catholic dioceses in Wisconsin issued a dispensation for the obligation to attend Sunday Mass. A dispensation is “a relaxation of a law,” said the Rev. John Girotti, vicar for the Diocese of Green Bay. Catholics are “obliged in conscious” to go to Mass on Sundays, Girotti said, but due to the pandemic, Wisconsin’s bishops relaxed the obligation, so Catholics were no longer required to attend Mass.
Six months after first granting the dispensations, some of the Catholic dioceses will lift them this month.
For churches that fall under the Green Bay diocese, the dispensation will end the weekend of Sept. 19 and 20. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee will end its dispensation starting Monday, and the Diocese of Madison will follow on Sept. 27.
The Diocese of Superior will lift the dispensation later this month but is still working on a plan and has not decided on a date as of Thursday, director of administrative services Dan Blank said.
As of Thursday, the dispensation remains in effect for the Diocese of La Crosse. Diocese officials did not elaborate on whether they plan to lift the dispensation in September, though the Wisconsin Catholic Conference said last month that all five Wisconsin bishops plan to end the dispensation.
The obligation to attend weekly Mass does not apply to those who have serious health conditions, are caring for an ill loved one, are frail due to illness or age or otherwise are “morally prevented from worshipping at Mass for a grave reason,” according to the Green Bay diocese.
There will be a limited number of online and televised Masses for those who still cannot attend in person. A list of those can be found on the Diocese of Green Bay website.
In addition, churches in the Green Bay diocese will no longer have to restrict the number of people who can come to services, as long as people can maintain proper social distancing. People should wear masks if they are able and use hand sanitizer when entering and exiting churches. Hosts, which are pieces of bread, will still be offered to parishioners for Holy Communion. Wine will not be offered.
The Catholic Diocese of Green Bay includes Brown, Calumet, Door, Florence, Forest, Kewaunee, Langlade, Manitowoc, Marinette, Menominee, Oconto, Outagamie, Shawano, Waupaca, Waushara and Winnebago counties.
Girotti called the end to the dispensation a “gentle nudge” to encourage Catholics who are able to come back to Sunday Mass.
“What we’re finding is that there is a benefit for the people of God to gather together in a community, safely, to worship God,” Girotti said. “It’s been six months and we’re worried about the souls of the individuals who, for whatever reason, are not able to go to Mass.
“This is a formal way of telling Catholics, ‘We have to try to move on from this and not live in fear.'”
Green Bay leaders consulted with a nurse who works for the diocese and the nine Catholic hospitals within the diocese before making their decision, Girotti said.
Since churches were able to reopen in May after the state Supreme Court struck down Gov. Tony Evers’ safer-at-home order, Mass attendance in the Diocese of Green Bay has been around one-third to half of what it used to be, Girotti said. With proper social distancing, most churches can hold about 50% of their total capacities, he said.
“It’s not like there’s people banging down the doors,” he said. “This is a way for us to try to get back to it, but realize we want to be safe. And we don’t want to pressure people. Six months is a very long time. So that’s kind of what’s behind this.”
The Rev. Jim Leary of Saint Joseph Parish in Appleton said he thinks it will take time for Sunday services to start filling up again.
“I think (Bishop David Ricken) now is trying to encourage people to look at returning to the celebration, but there still is this respect for people if they’re not feeling well or if they’re elderly or if they really are feeling that they’re not safe,” Leary said.
As for those who are not considered high-risk for COVID-19 or caring for a sick loved one but still feel uncomfortable or unsafe going out and being in groups, Girotti said people should follow their conscious when deciding whether to start attending Mass again.
“The most common words that Jesus says in the Gospel are three words: ‘Be not afraid.’ And he says it over and over and over again,” Girotti said. “So I would invite folks who are living in fear to come to the Lord Jesus, to worship Him in the community, to be safe there and just remember that He tells us to ‘be not afraid.'”
Contact Natalie Brophy at (715) 216-5452 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @brophy_natalie.