ASK FATHER: Bishop reimposed Sunday Mass obligation but there are still attendance numbers restrictions.

From a reader…


Dear Father,

Our bishop recently ended the dispensation from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass, except in cases of old age or health. This means my young, healthy family is obligated to attend Mass once more. He has also increased the capacity allowance to 50%, but social distancing (6 ft) is still required.

When churches reopened at limited capacity (it had been 33%), our priest was opposed to any sort of registration or reservation system. Instead, he split the parish into two groups by surname, who have been attending Mass on alternating weekends. He has said that he will continue that system due to space limitations (our church building is small).

Is my family obligated to see if another local parish can fit us in on those “off” weekends?

Interesting.  Reimpose the obligation, but with restricted access to Mass in parishes.  That signals a somewhat cynical view of the numbers of people the bishop expects to return to Mass.

Here’s a thought.  Write to the bishop and ask his advice:

“We’re supposed to go every week, but our pastor will only let us go every other week.  Since you imposed the obligation, which parish should we attend on ‘off’ weekends?”

Another thought: If its not too onerous, go to another parish, maybe permanently.

And speaking of a burden, there is an adage: Nemo ad impossibilia tenetur. No one is bound to the impossible.

If it is truly burdensome, no one is bound to obligation. Say the pastor won’t let you go to Mass. The next parish is in he next county fifty miles away, with a Mass at a bad time for your family needs. The obligation is lifted.

So, in a word, no, you are not strictly obliged.

I would still write to the Bishop.

You reimposed the obligation, but it’s hard to fulfill it here. What to do?

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Danteewoo says:

    Does a bishop have the authority to dispense from a Sunday Mass obligation? I was bothered in 1993 when the archbishop of my town of Denver dispensed with the obligation so that as many as possible could attend John Paul II’s World Youth Day Mass.

  2. Dantewoo: I am not sure where you have been for the past year or so but, YES, the local bishop can dispense from the Sunday Mass obligation. Virtually all bishops in these USA DID dispense people because of COVID-1984 and a lot of people were upset by that decision. Bishops are starting to reinstate the obligation piecemeal. We shall see if any one cares any more.

  3. Lurker 59 says:

    It might be the case that the local parish’s restrictions are being retained to appease those who have chosen to live in fear of government rather than in fear of God. That the pastor didn’t require registrations/Mass tickets indicates that he is somewhat sensable.

    My suggestion is to just go yourself and see what happens. If questioned by a busybody, say that the Bishop told you to go to Mass, see what happens. Don’t be confrontational but see what happens. If nothing, bring the rest of the family the next “off” week.

    The only way to get past these restrictions is to ignore them and see what happens.

    FYI — I’ve noticed people starting to ignore the roped off pews at my local parish. There is space elsewhere, they are just taking down the ropes to be be family/friends. Nothing is happening.

  4. David says:

    Queritas: I wonder why it hasn’t occurred to this Pastor to add a Sunday Mass, so that both parish contingents have one to attend?

    I also heartily endorse Lurker 59’s comment. If enough free people start acting free, the tyranny will collapse.

  5. Danteewoo says:

    Fr. Z, Fine, bishops have the authority to dispense. But they have left millions in the lurch by suspending Mass. Case in point: a very fine downtown Denver church remained open for months and distributed Communion during the day. But no Masses were allowed. Why not have a priest say a private Mass (ad orientem, yet) with any people present attending but not responding? I can’t see the prohibition; if you can give out Communion, you can say a “private” Mass, much like a side altar Mass in pre-Conciliar days (which the SSPX here still does very often.). I think the decision on the part of the archdiocese here was wrong. And by the way, our archbishop is certainly one of the country’s best and a good man. He goofed in this case.

    And where have I been in the past year? In church. I am one of the luckiest Catholics in the country, I suspect, because on only two Sundays did I not attend Mass. I went to Confession about every two weeks, once to a priest who had Covid at the time and later died of it.

    And your last sentence is ominous: “We shall see if anyone cares anymore.” If the bishops didn’t care enough to risk the wrath of the secular authorities and give people the Mass, why should the faithful care? Clearly the faithful should and must, but damage has been done.

  6. JTH says:

    Recently, my cousin and her family didn’t wear masks while at Mass. The next week the pastor in his homily mentioned an “insensitive” family that didn’t wear masks the previous week. Evidently a man complained that he had only recently been able to overcome his fear of Covid and attend Mass when he encountered this family in front of him without masks.

    Why are people so afraid of dying? Especially from a virus with a 99% recovery rate.

    She’s looking for another parish to attend. Can’t blame her if it’s going to be that way.

  7. Ages says:

    My parish is flat out not enforcing the bishop’s rules. I asked Father about it and he said, if the bishop wants to turn people away from church, he can come and do it himself.

    Find a parish like that if you can.

  8. ex seaxe says:

    Of course we don’t know others stories, someone might not be concerned for themselves dying and yet be responsible for an aged parent they are looking after. We cannot know all the stories of others peoples lives, but we can display common courtesy. And equally, JTH’s cousin may have a positive reason for not wearing a face covering. I know a neighbour who got medical exemption from the rules, rules which thankfully have now been removed.
    My local supermarket has replaced its sign requiring face masks and distancing with a request to customers to show consideration for others and their feelings of insecurity.

  9. Josephus Corvus says:

    David asked: I wonder why it hasn’t occurred to this Pastor to add a Sunday Mass, so that both parish contingents have one to attend?

    There may be a simple answer to that question. Specifically, he might not be allowed to. For some reason, even though the Mass is one of the most important things that a priest does, many bishops don’t agree and limit an individual priest to no more that two Masses per day. Some bishops have thought that they were doing something extra special to allow three Masses during the pandemic. Unfortunately, this is why some uninformed people will talk about “lazy priests”. They are simply following orders to be done by noon on their #1 “work day” of the week.

    I remember when I received First Communion back in the mid-70s. We had a special Mass in the afternoon. Now, even the local TLM parish bans regular parishioners during the High Mass on the week of First Communion.

  10. That cynical, self-defeatist attitude is one reason I have always disliked daily Mass chapels, apart from the shenanigans that they often encourage. “No, we’ll never get more than 30 people for daily Mass… besides, we need a small chapel where we can force all the silly things that people would avoid if they could spread out.” I had reached the point where I felt I’d be better off skipping Mass if I were traveling and came across a daily Mass chapel.

    More to the point, I just don’t see how one can reconcile restoring the obligation with restricting attendance at all. It’s a bishop talking out of both sides of his mouth. “You’re welcome– but you’re not.” That also points to a major cultural problem today– the abandonment of the logical principle of non-contradiction as if ignoring it will make it go away. Mutually contradictory propositions cannot both be true– and even a bishop is bound by that. That’s when, as Father suggested, “no one is held to the impossible” kicks in. I don’t know if we should give up that easily, but if push comes to shove, if you can’t, you can’t.

  11. ChrisP says:

    We have varying degrees of this New Zealand, but to be honest, we are a complete national dead duck when it comes to religion. Mass attendances are down 30% minimum (which is pretty much that 30% now being honest for once). Our fastest growing “faith” is Jedi – how mature.

    Our new parish priest is a bit useless and the enforced diocesan amalgamation is truly awful to behold.

    Personally, we’ve replied to inconsistent leadership by providing reduced financial contributions. That makes the point as lax leadership generally cares a lot about lucre.

    I think we’re required to support the Church, not any Church and more accurately, the Church that survives. Where that Church is within the next two years is the question.

  12. TonyO says:

    I heartily endorse Fr. Z’s advice (not that anyone needs my endorsement, especially not Fr. Z) – ask the bishop. It’s HIS obligation to provide the mass and sacraments, so ask him to provide. I also agree with Lurker 59: pay no attention to the “rule” about getting to go to mass by last name – just go and let them figure out the problem. Make it THEIR problem, not yours.

    @ Chris P: yes, I think that when the bishops discover that (at most) only 50% of the people who used to go to mass will come back (and that’s only about 25% to 30% of Catholics to begin with), and as a result they get considerably less money than before, they will realize that “mistakes were made”. They still won’t admit THEY made those mistakes. Frankly, I suspect that some bishops actually WANT there to be a financial “crisis” of low donations, to justify closing off some facilities. (Yes, that’s a defeatist attitude if ever there was one.) I wonder if a bishop would agree to closing off a whole DIOCESE, though, or combine two dioceses (with, of course, the slacker bishop out of a see). How would that feel to him?

    But yes, we can “support the Church” by giving money to all sorts of Church endeavors, including (private, non-diocesan) Catholic schools or hospitals, or to a specific priest, or to a seminary in Ghana, Africa, (where they still believe in the Mass), or to an FSSP parish, or to a monastery. The local parish or diocese need never see a dime: if they won’t do their job, they don’t deserve the money. (That said, I have always supported my local parish, but then I have had the good luck to have a local parish worth supporting. During this past year, our pastor moved mass outside, but refused to limit attendance or require sign-ups, and had confession available almost every day – what a blessing! And yes, I took Fr. Z’s advice, and went to confession.)

    I predict that there will be a movement (not sure how large) of some bishops to NEVER restore the weekly obligation. They will argue that “going to mass should be ‘from the heart’ and not a matter of obligation.” Just like the US bishops did with the Friday abstinence thing 55 years ago. They will assert (contrary to ALL POSSIBLE evidence and measures) that changing the Friday abstinence rule was “successful” (Maximum Beans will say “wildly” successful – just look at the “springtime” in the Church) and we should do the same with the Mass. Under the current pope, the Vatican will reject that theory, but … do nothing explicit about bishops who drag their feet into next year, and the year after, about returning to “normal”. Eventually there will be dioceses with flagrant and open dismissal of the mass altogether. This will continue until a pope with an ounce of common sense and a backbone is elected.

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