In light of the toll a novel strain of coronavirus is taking on the country, some U.S. Roman Catholic bishops are upending church tradition by relaxing parishioners’ Lenten duties.
During Lent, a period of fasting and reflection leading up to Easter, Catholics over the age of 14 are traditionally obligated to refrain from eating meat on Fridays. But bishops in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and other states have issued dispensations from this rule due to the social and economic upheaval caused by the pandemic.
In New York, the current epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S., state officials ordered residents last Friday to stay at home for the foreseeable future. Brooklyn Bishop Rev. Nicholas DiMarzio issued a dispensation that same day in an effort to lighten the loads of Catholics who have trouble shopping for food.
In the week since he announced the dispensation, DiMarzio’s diocese has issued press releases about 13 parishioners who contracted the new coronavirus and had visited church buildings ― including a priest, a nun and several choir members. On Wednesday, the diocese announced that an elderly parishioner had died of the disease.
In New York state, more than 500 people had died of COVID-19 as of Friday.
Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux noted that COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, has made observing the traditional fast from meat tough for his parishioners in southern Louisiana. The state has seen nearly 120 COVID-19 deaths so far.
“The new Corona Virus Disease or COVID-19 has placed most, if not all, of our faithful in a situation where obtaining food, including meal alternatives from meat, the rising cost of fish and other forms of seafood, and even the challenge of being able to obtain groceries without endangering their health, make it clearly difficult for them to fulfill this practice.”
He encouraged Catholics who take advantage of this dispensation to substitute their traditional fast from meat with other forms of penance, particularly acts of charity.
Rev. Peter J. Uglietto, auxiliary bishop of Boston, said Catholics are called at this time to “make the best of what we have at hand or is available for purchase.”
“Many people are using what they have stored in their freezers and on their shelves,” he wrote in a letter announcing a dispensation for his archdiocese Thursday. “Others are depending upon pre-packaged meals or food delivered through support agencies.”
Most bishops are still upholding the requirement for Catholics ages 18 to 59 to fast on Good Friday, the day that marks Jesus’s death. Generally, the only people excused from that obligation are pregnant or nursing women, and those who are sick.
Exemptions from this particular church rule aren’t unheard of in U.S. Catholic dioceses. In the past, some bishops have offered these dispensations when a Lenten Friday coincides with St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.
It was around Ash Wednesday on Feb. 26, the first day of Lent, that American Catholics started hearing about cancellations of public Mass in Italy and other parts of the world that had been affected earlier by the skyrocketing coronavirus cases.
This year’s Lent has proved to be like none other in recent history. Earlier this month, bishops around the country dispensed Catholics from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays. Most American dioceses have suspended public celebrations of Mass and moved services online.
Some dioceses have already announced that they’re cancelling public services during Holy Week and Easter, which falls on April 12. This means many American Catholics won’t be able to participate in the devotions and traditions that usually mark the holiest season of the Christian year.
The U.S. now has over 100,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more 1,400 deaths recorded, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
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