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Bp. Donald DeGrood of Sioux Falls, S.D.SFDiocese / YouTube

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SIOUX FALLS, South Dakota, August 11, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — A South Dakota bishop is changing his COVID-related order dispensing Catholics from their obligation to attend Sunday Mass, citing “pastoral concern for the souls entrusted to my spiritual care.”

Bishop Donald DeGrood announced in an August 10 pastoral letter that effective next Sunday, the dispensation will “apply only to those at increased risk for severe illness and those responsible for their care.”

DeGrood was consecrated bishop of Sioux Falls, a diocese east of the Missouri River with some 124 parishes and more than 120,000 baptized members, on February 13, 2020 — a day before he turned 55, and a month before the coronavirus crisis slammed the United States.

As the country locked down, all Catholic dioceses canceled public Masses while the bishops simultaneously granted the faithful a dispensation from their Sunday Mass obligation.

Bishop DeGrood’s diocese resumed public Masses on May 15, and he appears to be the first American prelate to significantly modify his Sunday Mass dispensation.

His pastoral letter also includes notably lenient measures for celebrating Mass and gives parish priests wide discretion on their implementation.

According to DeGrood’s directives, masks are not mandated, Holy Communion can be received on the tongue, holy water may be restored in receptacles, priests and deacons are not to wear masks when distributing Holy Communion, pre-registration for Mass is no longer to be requested, the sign of the peace and passing the collection basket are discouraged, and the practice of “prudent and reasonable” social distancing and hygiene is encouraged.

DeGrood wrote that he has been “praying and monitoring the situation” and that the rates of infection and numbers of people who became significantly ill from the virus have not been as widespread or significant in the diocese “as it had been projected when the general dispensation was granted.”

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,” DeGrood said.

Moreover, at that time, “63 people are hospitalized with a COVID-19 diagnosis out of a total of 1,146 known active cases,” and these “account for 3 percent of the total hospital bed capacity, 3 percent of intensive care unit bed capacity, and 5 percent of ventilator capacity for the state,” he said.

“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 illness, and those responsible for their care,” the bishop stated.

“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.”

DeGrood also reiterated why Catholics are obliged to attend Mass on Sunday, noting that the Catholic faith “teaches us so beautifully” through the Catechism of the Catholic Church that the “Sunday celebration of the Lord’s Day and his Eucharist is at the heart of the Church’s life” (CCC 2179).

According to the Catechism, the “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,” DeGrood said.

“What material food produces in our bodily life, Holy Communion wonderfully achieves in our spiritual life,” the bishop said.

For those Catholics “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,” DeGrood noted.

In the case of the coronavirus crisis, “morally justifiable reasons for not attending Sunday Mass may include regular contact with a person with increased risk; recent, prolonged contact with a symptomatic person; or a significant emotional response from fear of contracting COVID-19,” he said.

A footnote cites South Dakota’s Department of Health Guidelines definition of “prolonged contact” as “having been within six feet of another individual for 15 minutes or longer.”

For Catholics who want “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,” wrote the bishop.

“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.”

Another footnote specifies that for “the purposes of the canonical dispensation herein, ‘those at increased risk for severe illness’ is exclusive to those aged 65 and older and those with the following medical conditions: cancer; chronic kidney disease; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; immunocompromised state (weakened immune system) from solid organ transplant; obesity (body mass index of 30 or higher); serious heart conditions, such as heart failure, coronary artery disease, or cardiomyopathies; sickle cell disease; and type 2 diabetes mellitus.”

Bishop DeGrood’s letter can be read here.