PHILADELPHIA — In place since March 2020 because of COVID-19, the dispensation from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass in person in the Philadelphia Archdiocese is being lifted, effective Aug. 15, the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The obligation to attend Mass in person “comes from our baptism as Christians,” which “compels Christians to unite themselves with Christ at the altar in his saving sacrifice of the cross,” said Philadelphia Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez.
Citing Scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and canon law, the archbishop said “participation in the communal celebration of the Sunday Eucharist is a testimony of belonging and of being faithful to Christ and to his church.”
He made the comments in a July 15 statement announcing that “each Catholic bishop in Pennsylvania will reinstate the obligation to attend Mass in person on Sundays and holy days” on the Assumption.
The obligation “does not apply to those who are seriously ill (or) have a serious health risk,” said the archbishop, nor to “those who have serious anxiety about being a part of large groups at this time.”
Those who care for those unable to attend Mass in person also are exempt, he said, noting that such exceptions are standard and “always the case.”
Acknowledging COVID-19’s devastating impact, the archbishop stressed that “Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, has been with us throughout this challenging period.”
Christ is “especially near to us when we encounter him in the Eucharist,” said Pérez, and “with the impact of the pandemic considerably reduced, it is again possible for the faithful to assemble for the Eucharist. It is time to lift the dispensation from the obligation.”
In March 2020, the bishops of Pennsylvania had jointly decided to dispense the faithful from the obligation “in order to provide for the common good given concerns over the developing pandemic,” said the archbishop.
Following city, state and federal public health orders, public Masses were suspended in the Philadelphia Archdiocese March 18, 2020 in order to slow the spread of the illness by limiting social contact.
The move followed those taken by bishops in other areas of the country where COVID-19’s impact was felt early on, including the Archdiocese of Seattle.
Parishes throughout the Philadelphia Archdiocese and across the globe quickly moved to livestream liturgies, with bishops encouraging the practice of making a spiritual Communion — an act of inviting Jesus into one’s being when reception of the physical host is not possible. The practice, part of Catholic tradition, typically relies on a well-known prayer composed by St. Alphonsus Liguori in the 18th century.
Online rosary devotions and eucharistic adoration also gained popularity during the public Mass suspension.
At the same time, most Catholic churches remained open daily for private prayer and for small-scale sacramental celebrations of penance, baptism, funerals and weddings.
Over the last couple of months, many U.S. dioceses and archdioceses have announced the resumption of public Masses, and one by one — or by province — they have announced the lifting of the dispensation of the Mass obligation.
In western Oregon, when Portland Archbishop Alexander K. Sample told the faithful he was ending the dispensation of the Mass obligation for Sundays and holy days, effective July 16, he said: “It’s time to come back to the Eucharist with joy.”
But he also remarked he finds it odd to think of Mass as an obligation.
“It’s about the love of our God which he has poured out for us in his most beloved Son, Jesus Christ, and which is manifested in the Holy Eucharist,” Sample wrote in a pastoral statement accompanying his June 30 decree lifting the dispensation.
“If Jesus had invited me to be at the Last Supper, would I have told him I had something else on my calendar that day?” he continued. “If he had invited me to stand by his mother, Holy Mary, at the foot of the cross, would I have said I had to be somewhere else that day? If he had invited me to be at his tomb when the stone was rolled away as he rose from the dead, would I have said I was too busy? Of course not! Yet that is precisely what we celebrate and make present in every Mass.”
He acknowledged the profound loss and difficulty people have experienced since March 2020, including the death of loved ones and emotional struggles.
Sample also said the usual factors that excuse a Catholic from attending Mass on days of obligation remain in place for those who are sick, their caretakers, and anyone with serious health concerns or grave fear of illness that makes it necessary to avoid large public gatherings.
In the Philadelphia Archdiocese, throughout the pandemic, officials worked closely with city and state health authorities in developing plans to resume full-scale, in-person worship. The “Arise” initiative offered guidance to parishes on ministering to faithful amid COVID-19 restrictions, and preparing for the eventual resumption of parish life.
With Gov. Tom Wolf lifting many pandemic restrictions across the state in early June, public Masses resumed June 5-6 in the Philadelphia Archdiocese.
Although vaccinations are widely available and church doors have been open, many pews are still empty, prompting concern among pastoral leaders.
Daniel Cellucci, CEO of the Catholic Leadership Institute based in Malvern, Pennsylvania,, posed the stark question in a national talk entitled “What if they don’t come back?”
Noting that church attendance is down despite a gradual post-pandemic return to normalcy, Cellucci challenged his audience to “ask ‘what if’ and write a new story,” relying on “the same confidence the early church had.”
In his statement, Pérez echoed the same sense of hope.
“This is a moment to thank God anew for the great gift of the Mass and the real presence of Jesus to us in his holy body and blood, as well as the joy of gathering together as a people of faith.”
Contributing to this story was Ed Langlois, managing editor of the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland.
Christian is a senior content producer for CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.