An archbishop in Wisconsin says missing Mass due to COVID-19 fears is a “grave sin,” as an order excusing parishioners from attending Catholic Mass is set to expire.

On Monday, an order allowing parishioners throughout the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to skip mass due to COVID-19 will end, and Archbishop Jerome Listecki is encouraging parishioners to return to church in a letter posted to the archdiocese website.

“It will be the responsibility of those who are capable and not prohibited by other circumstances to attend Sunday Mass,” Listecki wrote. “Those who deliberately fail to attend Sunday Mass commit a grave sin.”

Listecki said dispensation to skip mass will remain only for “grave reasons” such as sickness or caring for those who are sick. Being at high risk of serious illness from COVID-19 due to age, underlying conditions or a weak immune system is also considered a “grave reason,” he wrote.

Fear alone, however, is not an excuse to skip, Listecki wrote in his letter.

“Fear of getting sick, in and of itself, does not excuse someone from the obligation,” Listecki wrote. “However, if the fear is generated because of at-risk factors, such as preexisting conditions, age or compromised immune systems, then the fear would be sufficient to excuse from the obligation.”

The Catholic Church’s “Sunday obligation” dictates that Catholics have a moral duty to attend Mass each week, in accordance with the Bible’s teaching of “keeping holy the Lord’s day,” the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported.

Earlier this year, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee — with more than 640,000 registered Catholics across 10 counties — suspended the Sunday obligation due to COVID-19. For six months, parishioners were not required to attend Mass in a decision made after “much thoughtful and prayerful discernment,” Listecki wrote.

While the archdiocese live-streamed services, Listecki said remote viewing did not fulfill a Catholic’s Sunday obligation.

As the dispensation ends, the archdiocese will continue to stream services, but Listecki’s chief of staff, Jerry Topczewski, told the Journal-Sentinel that the archbishop doesn’t want parishioners to stream in lieu of in-person attendance just because it’s more comfortable.

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Listecki is asking parishioners to look inward when deciding whether to attend.

“It is up to each individual to weigh their own circumstances through an examination of their conscience and determine, by use of their conscience, whether or not they are excused from the Sunday obligation,” he wrote. “Remember, a well-formed conscience is upright and truthful.”

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Wisconsin has had more than 89,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 1,200 deaths, according to the state department of health services.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that churches encourage staff and members to don masks and promote healthy practices such as hand washing and covering coughs and sneezes.

The agency also warns against sharing worship materials including hymnals and religious texts.

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