Bishop Michael Duca temporarily released Catholics in the Diocese of Baton Rouge of the obligation to attend Sunday Mass as anxiety increases over the statewide spread of the coronavirus.

Those changes come in response to Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards' statements and executive orders to combat the spread of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that's become a global pandemic. 

Duca joins the bishop of Lafayette, the bishop of Houma-Thibodaux and the archbishop of New Orleans in relaxing the attendance requirement. 

"I am well aware that this is a hard time in the lives of our Catholic faithful and for our many brothers and sisters who, though not of our faith, like us observe the Holy Season of Lent," Duca said in a statement. "Perhaps we can embrace the sacrifices we are now experiencing and join them to our other Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving."  

On Friday, Edwards said public schools would close from March 16 to April 13 to try to slow the spread of the virus and asked people to refrain from gatherings of more than 250 people. 

"It is also our desire to try to maintain as best we can our Sunday and daily Mass schedules while allowing our parishioners the freedom to make guilt-free decisions as to whether to attend Mass at their parish churches," Duca said.

Catholics are dispensed from the obligation of attending Sunday Mass beginning the weekend of March 14 and ending April 13, though further dates may be added if the State of Emergency continues. 

Duca urged that all Catholics, even if they are healthy, should consider refraining from attending Mass, particularly if they care for or come into contact often with high-risk people. He emphasized that elderly and sick parishioners should not attend Mass for their personal safety. 

He emphasized Catholics should not "experience any pangs of conscience" as these changes go into effect. Daily and Sunday Mass times will remain scheduled as usual, though the decision is subject to change from week to week. 

The bishop also encouraged all parishes to discontinue unnecessary gatherings and noted that all Catholic schools in the Diocese would close as well. 

Previous guidelines, including not offering wine during Communion and halting handshakes during the Sign of Peace, would remain in effect, he said. 

"We pray we will be able to celebrate an Easter season free of the threat that is not only disrupting our worship routines but causing great suffering in so many peoples' lives," Duca said in closing. 

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