The improving situation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed Bishop J. Mark Spalding to open the door for more people to participate in person in the celebration of Mass.
Bishop Spalding has issued a decree restoring the obligation to participate in Mass on Sundays and holy days beginning on Palm Sunday, March 28. The decree was signed on Wednesday, March 17, 2021, exactly one year after a dispensation from the obligation was first put in effect.
In announcing the decision, Bishop Spalding said in a letter to the faithful of the Diocese of Nashville, that he took into account “the rapid decline in hospitalizations and deaths, our emergence from the winter flu season, and the now widespread availability of vaccination, in particular for those in vulnerable demographic categories.
“Steadily increasing attendance at Mass is now straining the limited capacity of many of our churches,” he added. “We have consulted with leaders in the Catholic healthcare system throughout the state, who support our plan and have assured us that it is prudent and reasonable.”
The bishop also noted in his letter that Church law recognizes that the obligation does not apply when a “grave cause” is present.
“Serious ongoing risks and concerns you might have about the coronavirus can certainly constitute that grave cause,” Bishop Spalding said. “At the same time, I believe that the health situation now permits a fuller expression of the Church’s life and a reasonable courage and confidence in the face of what is now a much-reduced risk.
“Personal responsibility is a centerpiece of our faith,” he added. “Each person is called to exercise this responsibility with prudence and wisdom at all times, and especially in times such as this.”
The bishops of the three dioceses in Tennessee, Bishop Spalding, Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville and Bishop David Talley of Memphis, recently discussed when they might lift the dispensation in their dioceses.
“The bishops of the state see that we are rapidly approaching the point where all, particularly vulnerable persons, will have the opportunity to be vaccinated if they wish,” said Father John Hammond, Vicar General and Judicial Vicar of the Diocese of Nashville.
“That, coupled with the generally positive trend lines, in terms of hospitalizations and mortality and cases in general, makes it seem we now have arrived at the point that the universal law (of the Church) itself applies to our situation again,” Father Hammond said. “For a year it didn’t, which is why the dispensation was necessary.
“For most people now, that grave cause will no longer be present,” Father Hammond said. “But for some people it may still be because they haven’t been vaccinated or they remain at some risk for the coronavirus. And those are the situations the law already provides for.”
According to the Tennessee Department of Health website, the number of new cases in the state has fallen dramatically from the highs recorded just after the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Also, as of March 16, more than 1.3 million Tennesseans, 17.5 percent of the state’s population, have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the state Health Department
The federal government has directed all states to make all American adults eligible to receive the vaccines no later than May 1.
“The state regulations have been gradually relaxing,” Father Hammond said. “Here in the State of Tennessee, the governor has worked with us from the beginning to ensure our freedom to make these determinations. We’ve been very respectful of the governor’s suggestions and the protocols and the advice of health care officials,” he added.
“The bishop believes we’ve come to the point where we can be courageous without being reckless,” Father Hammond said.
“As Bishop Spalding has asked, it’s incredibly important that we all support our parish pastors in this time of transition,” said Brian Cooper, Chancellor and Chief Operating Officer of the diocese who was involved in coordinating the efforts of the three Tennessee bishops and had direct conversations with Catholic medical professionals and hospital administrators about the bishops’ plans to lift the dispensation in their dioceses.
“We must recognize that some uneasiness and uncertainty are usually present whenever difficult decisions are called for,” Cooper said. “However, we must also remember that together as community we have already successfully met many COVID-related challenges faced in our Catholic churches, schools and senior residences. This time will be no different.”
Preparing for the lifting of the dispensation
Parishes will have about two weeks to prepare for the lifting of the dispensation, which will occur as the Church heads into Holy Week.
“Some of your own parish’s COVID-related precautions may be modified, including increased seating availability, and the use of facial coverings at some Masses or events becoming optional,” Bishop Spalding said in his letter to the faithful. “We will remain prudent, however, as not all precautions will be set aside.
“I am leaving significant discretion to your pastor, in consultation with lay leadership in the parish, to discern the details of this transition in the way best suited to your community,” Bishop Spalding added.
The lifting of the dispensation will look different from parish to parish depending on the local circumstances, Father Hammond said.
“Each pastor in this diocese is being given a fairly wide latitude of how this will take place,” Father Hammond said. “The bishop would prefer to give pastors as much latitude as he can,” trusting that the pastor will know what is best for his community.
Some parishes might choose to open up some of the pews that have been blocked off, changing the traffic flow of people into and out of the church, or relaxing some of the expectations concerning wearing a mask, Father Hammond said.
Some of the simplifications and modifications made to the liturgies of Holy Week last year to protect against the spread of the virus could still be used this year even with the lifting of the dispensation, Father Hammond said.
“This goes hand in hand with the discretion that the Vatican has given to each bishop about how Holy Week will be celebrated,” Father Hammond said. “Our bishop has passed along that same discretion to the pastors.”
“It’s hard to know what to expect” when the dispensation is lifted, Father Hammond said. “We’ve never done this before.
“What we do know is that in nearly all of our churches there’s been a steady increase in Mass attendance to the point that they are straining to accommodate everyone” with existing limitations on the size of gatherings, said Father Hammond, who also is pastor of St. Patrick Church in Nashville. “That’s certainly true for me in my parish and I hear it from many others as well.”
In his letter to the faithful, Bishop Spalding said, “I humbly ask for your cooperation and flexibility in working with all our pastors and parish leaders as they collaborate with me to navigate this challenging transition to normalcy.
“In that light, allow me to take this opportunity to thank you for the extraordinary faithfulness and understanding you have shown and continue to show as we have continued to live the life of our Church during this extraordinary time,” he added. “We pray that the Divine Physician will protect and defend us, today and always, from all illness of body, mind and spirit.” To read the bishop’s letter to the faithful and the official decree, click here.