Q&A: The Sunday Mass dispensation

By Deacon Shaun Johnson | Special to the Compass | July 28, 2021

Editor’s note: With the announcement by Bishop David Ricken that the dispensation for Sunday Mass obligation will end on Aug. 15, The Compass asked Deacon Shaun Johnson, director of Divine Worship and master of ceremonies, to answer a few questions related to the Sunday Mass obligation.

Q: What WAS the dispensation that is now being lifted and what did it apply to?

A: Particularly in this case, Bishop David Ricken had given a dispensation for the faithful from the moral obligation to attend Sunday Mass to the people of the Diocese of Green Bay. Basically, what this meant was that the faithful were — during the time of the dispensation — not obligated to attend the Sunday Mass because of the potential danger of spreading COVID-19.

Q: Are there other times that a dispensation to attend Sunday Mass is granted/has been granted in the past?

A: For the Diocese of Green Bay as a whole and for the amount of time this has lasted, no — or at least possibly not since 1918 with the Spanish Flu. This is a very rare occurrence, and due to the severity and unknown nature of COVID-19, it was deemed prudent to issue a dispensation. However, individual priests may grant a dispensation to individual parishioners based on certain criteria and in certain situations. Living in the hinterland of Wisconsin, one can point to the most common occurrence that a dispensation would be granted — a blizzard or severe snowstorm. But there are other “grave” instances for which a dispensation could be granted by either a bishop or a priest.

Q: If I am elderly, sick or suffer from a chronic disease/condition that makes my immune system vulnerable, or if I am a primary caregiver for someone who suffers these conditions, am I required to go to Mass now that the dispensation has been lifted?

A: The short answer is no. If one is prevented from attending Sunday Mass due to illness, disease, physical/psychological disability or for another “grave cause,” one is not obligated to attend Sunday Mass. However, the obligation to “Keep holy the Sabbath” still remains. One should, if he/she is not able to attend Sunday Mass, spend time in prayer or another form of liturgical prayer, if possible.

Q: Why are we “obligated” to go to Sunday Mass?

A: This is a great question. The answer is really twofold. First, because this is not simply a human law. God has given us all the responsibility and duty to give praise, honor and worship to him on the first day of the week when he gave Moses the Ten Commandments. Particularly, the third commandment tells us that we are to “Keep holy the Sabbath.” As Christians, we celebrate the Sabbath on Sunday because Sunday is always the day of the resurrection and the first day of the week.

The second reason why we are to go to Mass on Sunday is because we are all called to grow in our relationship with our God. The ultimate and primary purpose for which all of creation exists is to give honor, praise and worship to our God. The fullest way  we do this is by participating in what the church calls the “source and summit of our faith.” If the Mass is the “source and summit,” then everything flows into and from it. The most powerful and effective prayer we have as a church is the Mass. Thus, the greatest way we can become united and in “communion” with God is by encountering and receiving Christ in the Mass.

Q: Is it a mortal sin to miss Mass on Sunday?

A: The short answer is yes. Again, unless there is a “grave reason” why one cannot go to Mass on Sunday, it is a major break in our relationship with our God not to honor, praise and worship him by participating in the Sunday Mass. As such, to restore our relationship with God, we have the opportunity and responsibility to receive reconciliation with God by going to confession — the sacrament of penance/reconciliation.

Q: Will the Sunday morning TV Mass continue after the dispensation is lifted and, if so, will that “count” as going to Mass?

A: The short and simple answers are yes and no. So, yes, the Sunday TV Mass will continue for the foreseeable future. This is aired primarily for those who are sick, homebound, imprisoned and/or infirm. If they find themselves in a situation where they cannot attend Mass for — as was mentioned above — a “grave reason,” it may suffice for an opportunity to “Keep holy the Sabbath,” but it does not suffice for the obligation to attend Sunday Mass for those who can attend.

Q: Is there a possibility that another dispensation could be put in place, since COVID is still around?

A: Yes, there is a possibility that there could be another dispensation to attend Sunday Mass that would be issued in the future, for example, due to a dramatic increase or severity of cases of COVID or any other disease or situation where attending Sunday Mass may be very difficult or impossible for a time. 

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