Diocese: Catholics can no longer use COVID as an excuse to miss Mass

Bishop Terry LaValley says Mass for students at Augustinian Academy in Carthage. Watertown Daily Times

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg will reinstate the obligation to attend Sunday Mass effective the weekend of June 5 and 6.

Bishop Terry LaValley and his counterparts in the dioceses of Syracuse, Buffalo and Rochester made the announcement May 23.

“Today, with vaccination rates rising, infection numbers across the state are falling and we are seeing the reopening of every sector of society, including businesses, restaurants and sporting events,” the bishops said in a joint statement.

“Now it is also time to return to Sunday Mass.”

In a video posted to the Diocese of Ogdensburg’s website, LaValley recalled how he suspended all public Masses on March 17, 2020 due to the coronavirus. At that time, all parishioners “were dispensed from their obligation to participate at Sunday Eucharist.”

Through the establishment of protocols in consultation with public health officials, Masses resumed, though the dispensation remained in place.

“Our churches have proven to be among the safest places to come together, a great testament to the ongoing hard work of pastors, parish staff and our parishioners,” LaValley said.

Though the dispensation is ending, the bishop said there are certain times when the obligation to attend Sunday Mass will not apply.

He said those who struggle with serious health concerns, are physically or morally prevented from worshipping at Mass, or believe that going into public places could place their health or that of their loved ones in serious peril may abstain.

The obligation is also waived for those who are sick, have been in contact with a sick person or who are caring for a seriously ill person who requires their presence.

The diocese notified its priests and deacons of updated guidelines May 19 after the state eliminated the gathering cap at houses of worship.

Per that memo, available at tinyurl.com/hxpzmpbr, fully vaccinated parishioners are no longer required to wear face masks at Mass, unless they prefer to do so. Those who are not fully vaccinated should maintain six feet of social distance from those they do not live with and wear masks except when receiving Communion.

The guidelines also say the sign of peace is optional — though there should be no physical contact — and that the Communion wine should not be distributed at this time.

Additionally, hand sanitizer should be available at all church entrances and in the altar area.

Diocesan Communications Director Darcy Fargo confirmed that, with the exception of the dispensation being lifted, the May 19 regulations will remain unchanged at this time.

“We’ll continue to abide by all relevant protocols as long as they’re in effect.”

Clinton County Health Department Senior Public Health Educator Molly Flynn said, following a review of the diocese’s updated guidance, her agency applauds the efforts being taken to return parishioners to in-person worship.

“The continued measures of physical distancing within the facilities will be especially important moving forward,” she continued.

“CCHD encourages all parishioners to utilize the hand-sanitizing stations during each visit and worshipping from home if they are feeling sick.”

Noting 13 active cases and a vaccination rate just below 50 percent in Clinton County, Flynn urged a careful opening up of the community to ensure residents’ hard work can pay off.

“That means continuing to wear masks if you are not fully vaccinated, avoiding large gatherings where the vaccination status of attendees is unknown, getting vaccinated if you have not yet done so, washing hands frequently and staying home if you are sick.”

Fargo said the decision on whether to continue livestreaming Masses will be left up to individual churches.

The Rev. Steven Murray, pastor of St. Andr Bessette Roman Catholic Parish in Malone, said his parish does not plan to continue doing so.

He pointed to how he pre-records Mass each week which is then broadcast on Spectrum at 9 a.m. Sundays, as well as other televised Masses on EWTN.

Murray believes people are anxious to get back to in-person celebration because they miss the fellowship with other parishioners.

“An important part of our faith is the fact that we come together,” he said. “We have an individual relationship with our Lord and Savior, but also a communal relationship.”

Murray said one of the most painful parts of not having people come to church was their inability to receive the Eucharist.

“To not be able to receive the blessed sacrament, it’s really a great burden for the community to carry.”

The reinstatement is set to coincide with the celebration of the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, also known as the Feast of Corpus Christi.

Fargo explained that feast day commemorates the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist — body, blood, soul and divinity.

“What more fitting day to return to Mass and receive the sacrament of the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith?” she said.

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