Use reason, stand in solidarity with one another, and don’t forget that God is in charge.

That was the message Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki conveyed on the afternoon of Friday, March 13, at a press conference at the Mary Mother of the Church Pastoral Center in St. Francis.

Speaking to the 600,000 faithful of the 10-county Archdiocese of Milwaukee through the gathered representatives of the media, the archbishop said he wanted first and foremost to impart a feeling of reassurance to those who are unnerved by the emergence of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, in the United States and Wisconsin.

“We’re going to be OK,” he said. “I don’t think we hear that enough, but we are going to be OK.”

The archbishop’s remarks came merely moments after President Donald Trump declared a state of national emergency due to the virus’ spread and just a day after Gov. Tony Evers declared a public health emergency in the state of Wisconsin.

Archbishop Listecki urged the faithful to “pull back from any kind of hysteria or panic” and entrust themselves to God in prayer. “Know that God has not abandoned us and that God will be with us during this period of time, as He has been with us during other times of crisis in our life.”

The archbishop also noted that this is an opportunity to reflect on the Catholic principle of solidarity.

“Solidarity means we’re all tied at the hip with one another,” he explained. “Individually we all have to face our own mortality, so that’s a given, but we usually do so privately … but now when we encounter a little bit of pandemic that is seen throughout the world, that mortality faces all of us.”

But that mortality, he said, reminds us that “we’re made for God.”

He praised public health officials for their work, and stressed the duty of all Catholics to be good citizens and to listen to the advice of those in authority “who are helping us to understand that we have to do the things necessary to be reasonable during this time.”

“Now, it disrupts our routine and our normal function, but this is done so that we can provide and make sure the resources are there for all of us, whatever way, shape or form this coronavirus may affect us,” he said. “But because of that we have to readjust a little bit of our routine and that’s including ourselves as a Church.”

“And we will do so why?” he continued. “For the sake of everyone else, for the good of everyone.”

Catholics called to be good citizens

 One day earlier on March 12, the archbishop had issued a dispensation to all Catholics in the archdiocese relieving them of their obligation to attend Sunday Mass on March 15, 22 and 29. Explaining his reasoning in giving the dispensation, at the press conference he said he wanted to “alleviate the burden of the obligation” for those who are elderly or concerned about their risk of contracting and transmitting the virus.

He acknowledged that missing Mass would be a huge disappointment for many devout Catholics.

“Worship is the most important thing we do in human activity,” he said. “Some of our Catholics are so devoted — my mom, on her deathbed, ‘I’ve got to get to Sunday Mass.’ Mom, you don’t. ‘No, I’ve got to get to Sunday Mass.’”

He clarified that after the three Sundays mentioned in the dispensation have passed, “we’ll take a look and make an evaluation. We might be in a different place. I always have the authority to extend if we need to do that.”

He emphasized all of these efforts are aimed at preserving vital, life-saving resources in the event cases of this highly contagious virus escalate dramatically and threaten to overwhelm healthcare systems. The lower the number of people who become infected, the lower the number of resources used, freeing them up to save the lives of those who might otherwise die from the virus.

“We’re good members and good citizens of this society,” he said of Catholics.

Bishops Don Hying of the Diocese of Madison, William Callahan of the Diocese of La Crosse and David Ricken of the Diocese of Green Bay also issued a dispensation to the faithful of their dioceses.

“This is not to say that the faithful are prohibited from attending Mass – no one is obligated to use this dispensation,” wrote Bishop Hying. “However, it is encouraged that everyone takes seriously this dispensation and take liberal advantage of it, keeping in mind also the recommendation from the Wisconsin Department of Health to avoid large community gatherings — particularly large intergenerational COVID-19 gatherings — at this time.”

 Limiting contact with others

On March 3, recommendations were sent to parishes that outlined liturgical and pastoral suggestions in the event of a viral outbreak. On March 13, the archbishop explained those recommendations were “in response to healthcare officials asking us to limit those things that kind of place us in contact with one other, which would increase the spread of the virus, if it is present.”

The recommendations are not guidelines, emphasized Amy Grau, director of communications for the archdiocese. Grau further added that pastors are being trusted to make the right decisions for their own parishes.

Also on March 13, the archbishop’s office issued further recommendations using stronger language, discouraging the reception of the Eucharist in the form of the Precious Blood, among other recommendations.

There are no expected disruptions to providing funerals or the administration of the sacrament of baptism, the archbishop clarified, adding that confirmations through April 15 have been suspended because of the large number of attendees such liturgies usually draw. That will be re-evaluated on April 1.

Archdiocesan schools closed

 Shortly after the press conference, the Department of Health, at the direction of Gov. Evers, ordered the closure of all Wisconsin public and private schools, effective Wednesday, March 18 — an order that applies to all archdiocesan schools, some of which had already closed.

Local Catholic universities have likewise made accommodations to conform to the advice of public health authorities. Cardinal Stritch has suspended in-person classes through March 31 and asked students who live on-campus and originate from Midwestern states to return to their homes. Marquette University has suspended in-person classes through March 20, to be followed by online instruction until April 10. Students who live in on-campus residence halls are directed not to return to campus.

Seminarians at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary have been excused to go home, if they wish, until the end of March.

 Priests echo Archbishop’s message

Pastors across the archdiocese are choosing to apply the archbishop’s recommendations in a variety of different ways. Many parishes reprinted excerpts from the archdiocesan recommendations in their bulletins for the weekend of March 14 and 15.

At Sheboygan North Catholic Parishes, in a county where there have been three confirmed cases of the virus as of press time, pastor Fr. Matthew Widder said “the mood completely varies (at the parish) depending on who you talk to, but what I’m telling people is, don’t panic, trust God.”

It’s appropriate that this trial comes during the Lenten season, he admitted. “Sometimes, Lent is given to you,” he said. “The whole world is doing Lent this year, whether we like it or not.”

He emphasized the need to “pray, don’t panic, and be responsible.” Attendance at his parish for this past weekend was down at least 50 percent, he estimated. “Which is smart, if anyone has any type of fear or health condition — that’s why the dispensation is there.”

At St. Francis Borgia Church in Cedarburg, Fr. Patrick Burns responded to the pandemic by offering expanded opportunities for the sacrament of Reconciliation. “Due to all of the sudden changes happening, I am offering this to minister to the needs of the faithful in this challenging time,” he said, adding that “the Church, especially through Her liturgy, provides a firm anchor for the faithful in times of uncertainty.”

The spread of the virus is “on the hearts and minds of everyone here in Fond du Lac, but I think the community is doing pretty well,” said Fr. Ryan Pruess, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Fond du Lac, a county where there have been 11 confirmed cases of the virus as of press time.

Fr. Pruess said the coronavirus situation had been “on our radar” for some time before this past week.

“Seeing what was unfolding out in Washington state and other areas led us to make sure that we were being proactive,” he said. “It’s a big responsibility caring for a little over 16,000 parishioners. Their health and well-being is definitely our top concern.”

Parish maintenance staff are “stepping up our game” in between Masses to clean and sanitize the worship space, said Fr. Pruess. Holy Family also streamed one of their Sunday Masses on YouTube, a service that many parishes throughout the archdiocese offered this weekend.

Being separated from the Mass is a great trial, he said, but it is also an opportunity to grow in gratitude for the accessibility of the sacraments that Americans enjoy.

“People are committed to coming to Mass and they love our Lord deeply … it’s tough when people are asked to change their routine,” he said. “I was having a conversation with a person today and she reminded me that people around the world don’t always get Mass every week. Some communities wait weeks and months to go to Mass with a priest. We are so blessed here to have weekly Mass, but through this difficulty (some are) asked to make a little bit of a sacrifice for the health and well-being of everyone, choose not to come to Mass with the dispensation and receive our Lord spiritually.”

Holy Family associate pastor Fr. John LoCoco also pointed out on his public Twitter account that this could be a moment for Catholics to reflect on the importance of receiving the Eucharist worthily, when regular life resumes. “If you think you might be infected from #COVID-19, everyone understands why you wouldn’t receive the Eucharist but make spiritual communion instead. Why should it be any different when we are not in a state of grace having committed a mortal sin?” he wrote. “Just as receiving the Eucharist while infected harms the Body of Christ, the Church, similarly, receiving our Lord profanely harms the spiritual health of the Church which remains altogether more important.”

The faithful are always free to make an Act of Spiritual Communion, and many parishes also printed a copy of that specific prayer in their bulletins. The Church has asked that individuals who decide to stay home from Mass for the period of the dispensation devote an equivalent time to prayer.

Fr. Pruess added the faithful should take solace in the knowledge that even if an individual is unable to attend in person, the sacrifice of the Mass is still offered virtually without ceasing by priests all over the world on their behalf.

“The Mass still continues. The priests are going to continue to celebrate Mass whether people are there or not, and we’re going to continue to pray for everyone.”

Ultimately, said Fr. Widder, trials like these tend to “bring to the surface things we are connected or attached to that are not of Jesus.”

“Trials have a way of boiling things down to the essentials,” he said. “The hope is that the essential we find is Jesus.”

Can’t attend Mass? How to stay connected

Sunday Mass is available in the archdiocese via broadcast in two forms: on the radio at 9 a.m. on Sunday mornings, on Radio 920 AM, W.O.L.F., and on broadcast television on WVTV, My24 at 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., and on WITI Fox 6, at 5:30 a.m. Call your parish office to see if there are any plans to livestream the Mass on Facebook or YouTube.

An Act of Spiritual Communion

My Jesus,

I believe that You

are present in the Most Holy Sacrament.

I love You above all things,

and I desire to receive You into my soul.

Since I cannot at this moment

receive You sacramentally,

come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace You as if You were already there and unite myself wholly to You. Never permit me to be separated from You.