Diocese offers new response to coronavirus

By Sam Lucero | The Compass | March 17, 2020

‘Protecting the vulnerable’ is reason for suspending Masses, says Bishop Ricken

ALLOUEZ — Four days after granting a dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass due to the spread of the coronavirus, Bishop David Ricken announced March 17 that all public Masses in the Diocese of Green Bay are suspended for the next four to eight weeks.

The decision to suspend the public celebration of Mass followed several guidelines issued by state and federal authorities.

A sign outside of St. Matthew Church in Allouez March 13 reminds people how to take care during the coronavirus pandemic. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

On March 15, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that large events and mass gatherings, consisting of 50 people or more, be discontinued throughout the United States for the next eight weeks. On Monday, March 16, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers banned public gatherings of 50 or more people, and President Donald Trump released guidelines asking people to avoid gathering in groups of more than 10 people.

At least 95 U.S. dioceses and archdioceses have suspended public Masses. As the coronavirus pandemic continued to spread (as of March 17, 46 cases have been reported in Wisconsin), more and more events sponsored by the diocese and parishes have been canceled or postponed.

In his March 17 letter, Bishop Ricken said he has been working closely with Catholic bishops of the state, as well as the diocesan staff and Catholic health care professionals to ensure proper decisions are being made to avoid the spread of the coronavirus.

“Fear of the unknown, including how to care for children with schools closed for weeks, the care and safety of elderly family, friends and those with compromised immune systems … is causing stress on a variety of fronts for many families,” said Bishop Ricken.

In suspending the public attendance at Masses in the diocese, Bishop Ricken stated, “I want to assure you all, not attending Mass during a national health emergency like this is not sinful.”

“During this time when we are most in need of the Eucharist as the source and summit of our Catholic faith, I encourage parishes to find innovative ways to meet the needs of the faithful and be the body of Christ for each other, even when physically apart,” he added.

To help ease the loss of Mass attendance for the faithful, Bishop Ricken will celebrate a 30-minute Mass each Sunday during the suspension of public attendance. It will be broadcast at 10:30 a.m. over the local CBS affiliate, WFRV Local 5. Sunday Mass is also available diocesan-wide via broadcast television on ABC affiliate WBAY at 5:30 a.m. and on CW14 at 8 a.m. Mass is also available on Relevant Radio, 1050 AM at 9 a.m. Parishes throughout the diocese are also livestreaming Mass. Check your parish website for details.

State of emergency

Gov. Evers’ state of emergency declaration on March 14 resulted in the closing of all public and private schools in Wisconsin until at least April 6. In parishes, religious education programming for children and adult faith formation programs are canceled. “All large gatherings throughout the diocese have been cancelled or postponed to a later date,” said Bishop Ricken. “This includes all communal penance services scheduled this Lent.”

At St. Martin of Tours in Cecil, Deacon Todd Raether, pastoral coordinator, announced at Sunday Mass March 15 that faith formation classes were cancelled for the year and that he planned to send parents religious education material they could use at home with their children.

He also announced via email that the church would be open for private prayer.

“Some of you may have decided, for health reasons, to stay away from the crowds at Mass. Yet, you may miss the time you get to spend with the Lord in church,” he said. “For that reason … the church will be unlocked and available for private worship from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day.

Looking to Holy Week, the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday on April 12, Bishop Ricken said the possibility of not publicly celebrating “the holiest time of the year … makes this very difficult. Please continue to pray for the swift resolution to this pandemic by going to our Blessed Mother, who intercedes to Jesus on our behalf, and to St. Joseph, as we begin this year-long devotion to him in our diocese.”

Pastors celebrate online Masses

At least seven diocesan parishes, bracing for a drop in Sunday Mass attendance last weekend following Bishop Ricken’s dispensation, held livestreamed Masses, such as “Facebook Live.” Parishes included Our Lady of Lourdes in De Pere, St. Rose/St. Mary in Clintonville/Bear Creek, Resurrection in Allouez, St. Louis in Dyckesville, St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Green Bay, St. Francis of Assisi in Manitowoc, and St. John the Baptist in Howard.

Norbertine Fr. Tim Shillcox, pastor of St. Rose/St. Mary parishes, celebrated all three of his Masses last weekend via Facebook Live.

“With an iPad and iPhone and a music stand, it was really easy to set up,” he told The Compass. “I publicized it by our parishes’ Facebook page and my own — about 2,800 contacts all together — and hoped people would share. We had about 2,500 views from all over.”

This is in contrast with the live attendance averaged each weekend: “400 across three Masses at two sites,” Fr. Shillcox said.

During his homily, Fr. Shillcox said that the coronavirus was either “a Chinese blessing or a Chinese curse.”

“We sure have hit the jackpot on that these days, especially in the last even 48 hours,” he said. “Things that we would never have guessed. Unthinkable cancellations, March Madness, the state basketball tournament.”

Public Masses and even funerals and weddings were being canceled, he said. “You can’t even die or get married these days in the church. Who would have ever thought? It was never on our radar screen, this business about global pandemic. Reserved for science fiction movies perhaps, or comic books. … In seminary, 35 years ago, they taught us how to baptize, even how to go into tragedy or the emergency room or a funeral parlor, or even the site of death. … But how to handle a global pandemic? How to do this? I didn’t see it coming.”

He urged those at Mass and those viewing on Facebook to have faith.

“The Scriptures deal with things we never saw coming,” he said. “God didn’t wait for us to be ready. God sent his only beloved Son, who died for us. … He came to save us. He came to forgive us. … Perhaps our biggest Lenten task, our greatest Christian task, is to let ourselves trust that God loves us so much.”

Fr. Shillcox told The Compass that he plans to continue offering the livestream Mass for daily and weekend Masses “for the immediate future. Maybe even after the pandemic is over.” He is also considering offering a livestreamed adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

“I’m not sure what (liturgical) guidelines might say about this,” he added. “I want to share that opportunity with others during this crazy time.”

Editor’s note: Patricia Kasten, Jeff Kurowski and Bob Zyskowski contributed to this story.

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