Cardinal Dolan implores Catholics to return to Sunday Mass

Cardinal Dolan Peter Zelasko/CNA

In a column for the archdiocesan newspaper on Wednesday, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York implored Catholics to return to Sunday Mass during the Easter Season.

“Yes, for the last year, we have prudently been able to decide that the emergency health crisis can allow us to excuse ourselves from that God-given obligation,” Cardinal Dolan wrote in a column for Catholic New York. Those vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the elderly, “can still excuse themselves, as has always been the case,” he wrote.

However, many other Catholics are already returning to public activities without attending Mass, and they should return to church, he said.

“But for the majority of us—are we going to restaurants? To the kids’ soccer and little league games? To the store? To the beauty parlor? To gatherings with family and friends?” Cardinal Dolan asked. “Well, then, it’s time to get back to Mass.”

In March 2020, all Catholic dioceses in the U.S. suspended public Masses due to the spread of COVID-19. While all dioceses have reopened churches since then, only a few have reinstated a modified Sunday obligation where Catholics who are not symptomatic and who are not at high risk from COVID-19 or caring for the sick must return to Sunday Mass.

The Archdiocese of New York suspended public Masses last spring, but churches began to reopen during the summer. Cardinal Dolan referenced last year’s closures in his column.

“We had no choice, since wise health guidelines required us to close our church buildings,” he wrote. Once the archdiocese reopened parishes for Mass, the parishes “rose to the occasion with scrupulous cleaning, sanitation, ventilation, distancing, and restrictions,” he wrote, noting that parishioners “gradually began to return.”

“No more gradual about it! It’s time to get back to Sunday Mass!” Cardinal Dolan wrote on Wednesday.

The recent Paschal Triduum emphasized the importance of the Mass, which itself is the renewal of the Triduum, he said.

“We recognize Jesus at Mass and Holy Communion. We enter again the eternal, infinite mystery of His death on the cross and resurrection from the dead. Every Sunday Mass is a renewal of the Last Supper, Good Friday, and Easter,” Cardinal Dolan wrote.

A spokesman for the archdiocese clarified to CNA that the Sunday obligation, where Catholics are required by canon law to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation except in grave cases where they cannot, was never suspended in the archdiocese.

While public Masses were suspended by the archdiocese for several months due to the spread of COVID-19, the Sunday obligation was in place once churches reopened for Mass, the spokesman noted. However, the usual “grave” reasons for Catholics not to attend Sunday Mass – such as sickness or being in danger of the COVID-19 pandemic – still applied, and Catholics were free to decline to attend Mass for "a serious reason."

“But, now that more and more people are being vaccinated, and people are engaging in more and more public activities, the Cardinal is reminding them of the sacred obligation to attend Sunday Mass,” the spokesman stated.

The archdiocese’s office of the vicar general in January and again in February reminded priests that the Sunday obligation was in place for Catholics.

“On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, Catholics are obliged to participate in the Mass and to refrain from unnecessary work and all spiritually-distracting activities in conformity with the code of canon law,” vicar general Fr. Joseph LaMorte wrote in a Jan. 18, 2021 letter to priests.

A February letter from the vicar general’s office stated that dispensation from the Sunday obligation for lay Catholics was “a recurring question from many priests.” Cardinal Dolan never lifted the Sunday obligation, the office clarified.

“The obligation for Sunday Mass is always there.  It’s a divine law.  We didn’t make it up and we can’t dispense from it,” the office instructed. 

Rather, the pandemic was grave enough reason for Catholics to not attend Mass, the office said, but as more Catholics are “socializing” now, “we need to encourage them to come back.”

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“We are facing the serious issue of Mass attendance which is at 50% of what it was a year ago,” the office stated, noting that pastors could consider including “catechetical bulletin inserts,” for evangelization, “handed out on Sunday and shared with those at home.” 

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