By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
US dioceses are beginning to introduce measures aimed at preventing swine flu outbreaks such as temporarily banning the cup at Communion, discouraging reception of Communion on the tongue, and eliminating the sign of peace during Mass.
According to reports by CathNews and the Catholic News Service, many diocese around the country are reacting to the potential swine flu epidemic by adding safety precautions to gatherings for Mass. This is especially true in dioceses closer to the source of the outbreak.
For instance, Bishop Gregory M. Aymond issued a letter to all parishes in the Diocese of Austin asking them not to “offer the blood of Christ at Eucharist until more is known about the virus. . . .It seems that having the public drink from the chalice may be an unnecessary risk.”
He also instructed ministers of Communion to make sure their hands are clean when handling and distributing the Eucharist.
Bishop Kevin J. Farrell in the Diocese of Dallas asked pastors “consider suspending in your parish the reception of the holy Eucharist under both species.”
While parishioners are obligated to attend Mass on Sunday, those who are sick are being told to stay home and avoid spreading the illness.
Father Michael Dugan, director of the Office of Liturgy for the Diocese of Dallas, also said that “members of our congregations should not be offended at this time if someone chooses not to shake the other person’s hand at the sign of peace.”
The Archdiocese of Chicago said in a statement that it is not mandating any changes to Holy Communion – but leaving it up to priests to decide. In parishes that will continue to make wine a part of communion, parishioners and priests who aren’t feeling well are asked not to take part.
Priests are also advising parishioners to be a little stand-offish these days.
“We are a huggy community, so we need to also limit our contact with each other,” Father Rene Mena, from St. Agnes in Pilsen, Illinois told NBC Chicago.
There will be no handshake of peace with church members at that Pilsen parish, and Fr. Mena will no longer greet and shake hands with his flock at the end of Mass.
The diocese of Fresno has implemented similar measures. While attending Mass reamins mandatory for Catholics, exceptions are being made during the epidemic.
“If people have flu like symptoms, they’re excused. Same if you have children who are sick, stay home with them or if you’re caring for someone who does come down with the flu don’t come to church,” said Monsignor Craig Harrison, pastor at St Francis Church in the diocese of Fresno.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Divine Worship has posted a list of questions and answers about how churches might modify the liturgy as a result of the contagion, suggesting measures such as using “an alcohol-based anti-bacterial solution before and after distributing holy Communion.”
While individual bishops may decide to enact whatever changes they feel are necessary, the Secretariat of Divine Worship does not believe that widespread liturgical adaptations are necessary at this time to prevent the spread of the swine flu.
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