Dear Faithful of the East River South Dakota (i.e. Diocese of Sioux Falls),
Thankfully, the anticipated magnitude of the serious effects of COVID-19 have not been as extensive in South Dakota as was initially projected. These past months have caused hardship not only for those who have had serious effects from the virus and their families, but also for those who have been in isolation and health care workers. Also, I am mindful of those who attend to those who are vulnerable in their families. To varying degrees, I sense we have all been affected physically, psychologically and spiritually by the various measures implemented to limit the spread of the virus.
Throughout this experience, I have kept close to mind the risk to those most vulnerable to harm and also my duty to provide for the care and nourishment of all souls, including those who can reasonably attend Mass. Therefore, it was a great joy for me to permit the resumption of public Masses beginning on May 15, though then leaving the Sunday Mass dispensation in place.
As your spiritual shepherd, I have been prayerfully pondering updated guidelines to help Catholics receive (greater access to) the spiritual, educational, liturgical and pastoral care that the Church uniquely offers in East River South Dakota. State Health Department data distinguishing the severity of the virus from total cases of COVID-19 infections has been most helpful in my discernment. The department’s data has indicated that the most severe effects have been experienced by a very low percentage of those with infections. After receiving clarity through prayer, in light of this data, I have come to realize it is now time to change the general dispensation from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass. Making this change at this time will provide greater access to the sacraments and other spiritual, educational, pastoral and liturgical celebrations in our Catholic churches and schools which is essential for us to lead the happy, healthy and holy lives God desires for us.
As I have been praying these last months, I have been monitoring COVID-19 infection rates and am grateful the projected severe harm to a large number of people in East River South Dakota has not occurred. The local data presently available is helpful. For example, as of August 10, of the 44 counties in our diocese, seven have no active cases, 22 have one to 10 active cases, and 15 have 11 or more active cases. Thanks be to God, the hospitals within our state have not suffered an overwhelming surge as was initially feared.
Taking a closer look at severity, as of August 10, statewide, 63 people are hospitalized with a COVID-19 diagnosis out of a total of 1,146 known active cases. These 63 people account for 3% of the total hospital bed capacity, 3% of intensive care unit bed capacity, and 5% of ventilator capacity for the state.
Looking back over these last months, the data shows us that the effects directly caused by COVID- 19 are real. Collectively, this data indicates that infection rates have not been as widespread and the number experiencing severe illness has not been as significant in our diocese as it had been projected when the general dispensation was granted.
Why the Sunday Mass Obligation?
Our faith teaches us so beautifully through the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “(t)he celebration of Sunday observes the moral commandment inscribed by nature in the human heart to render to God an outward, visible, public, and regular worship ‘as a sign of his universal beneficence to all.’ Sunday worship fulfills the moral command of the Old Covenant, taking up its rhythm and spirit in the weekly celebration of the Creator and Redeemer of his people (p. 2176).” “(T)he Eucharist is celebrated amid the assembly of the faithful, the visible expression of the Church.” (p. 1329)
“The Sunday celebration of the Lord’s Day and his Eucharist is at the heart of the Church’s life.” (p. 2179) What material food produces in our bodily life, Holy Communion wonderfully achieves in our spiritual life. Communion with the flesh of the risen Christ, a flesh “given life and giving life through the Holy Spirit,” preserves, increases, and renews the life of grace received at Baptism. This growth in Christian life needs the nourishment of Eucharistic Communion, the bread for our pilgrimage until the moment of death. (p. 1392)
Dispensation from the Obligation to Attend Sunday Mass Change
After receiving clarity through prayer, consultation with clergy and others, and in light of this data, effective on August 17, 2020, I am changing the dispensation to apply only to those at increased risk for severe illness1 and those responsible for their care. It is important for all in the diocese to know that this modification is made out of pastoral concern for the souls entrusted to my spiritual care.
Guidance for Those Not at Increased Risk of Severe Illness
For those not at increased risk of severe illness, the Church has long recognized circumstances in which the faithful may be excused from Mass attendance even without a dispensation from the bishop. For example, during a normal influenza season, one who is ill with influenza-like symptoms may, in good conscience, refrain from attending Mass due to their illness, and also as an act of justice towards others so the illness isn’t passed on.
If one wishes to avoid attending Sunday Mass in person due to significant fear or some other serious reason, the Church teaches us that we must carefully discern whether the fear is morally justifiable, or whether such fear is inordinate (not reasonable) and, therefore, not based on a prudent examination of reality. But it is essential that these serious questions are discerned in prayer and that the decisions are made in good faith, based upon objective data.
To apply these principles to COVID-19, examples of circumstances that might be discerned as morally justifiable reasons for not attending Sunday Mass may include regular contact with a person with increased risk; recent, prolonged contact2 with a symptomatic person; or a significant emotional response from fear of contracting COVID-19.
Physical Distancing and Hygiene Practices: Our Personal Responsibilities to One Another
While it is evident that South Dakotans have “flattened the curve” as was intended by our actions undertaken since the coronavirus arrived, COVID-19 remains among us. With so much yet to be known about the virus, its behavior and effects, and possible treatments or vaccinations, it may remain with us for some time. During this time, our personal efforts to maintain reasonable physical distancing measures and good hygienic practices are both prudent and important to respect all human life. Prudence also needs to take into account a variety of local circumstances, including the prevalence of coronavirus cases in each area. The accompanying guidelines I am providing are offered in an effort to help pastors, working with their staff and volunteers, discern reasonable and prudent accommodations to serve the faithful in their spiritual, educational, liturgical and pastoral care.
The letter and its accompanying guidelines are the fruit of clarity in prayer, broad consultation, and a comprehensive review of data. As shepherd and spiritual father, my desire is that all souls are happy, healthy and holy in mind, body and spirit. I will continue to pray, review the data, monitor the status of COVID-19, especially in eastern South Dakota, and make adjustments if warranted in the weeks and months ahead.
Please know of my prayers for you and your families. I invite you to join me in praying for the intercession of Mary, Our Mother, and St. Joseph, our patron, for guidance and help in the months ahead.
Sincerely in Christ,
Most Reverend Donald E. DeGrood
Bishop of Sioux Falls