As the nation deals with a severe flu outbreak, Catholics in some dioceses are being asked to abstain from shaking hands and drinking from a common Communion cup at Mass.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the current flu season is approaching the peak of the 2009 pandemic, with a high hospitalization rate and more than 53 pediatric deaths so far. The CDC says all U.S. states, except Hawaii and Oregon, are reporting widespread flu, and the number with a high incidence of flu-like illness has risen to 42, plus New York City and the District of Columbia.

In response, some dioceses are directing parishes to temporarily skip the sign of peace or instruct parishioners to exchange only verbal greetings instead of handshakes. Other measures being implemented include offering the Eucharist only in the form of hosts and suspending the use of the common Communion cup.

Among the dioceses that have issued such directives is Buffalo, New York, which, besides suspending distribution of the Precious Blood during Communion, has reminded extraordinary ministers of Communion to wash their hands before Mass and to avoid touching the tongue or the hand of each communicant. The sign of peace is to be offered without any physical contact, and the diocese has suggested bowing in place of shaking hands.

Parishes in the western New York diocese also are being told to drain their holy water fonts regularly and clean them with disinfecting soap before refilling them. Finally, parishioners are being reminded that if they have a contagious illness, they are absolved from the Sunday Mass obligation and should stay home.

“We felt this was a commonsense response to some of the news we had been hearing about how serious the flu had become statewide,” said George Richert, director of communications for the Diocese of Buffalo. He added that the guidelines mirror some of those offered by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and include a few of the diocese’s own.

Dioceses that have announced similar directives include Rochester, New York; Allentown, Pennsylvania; Sacramento, California; and Norwich, Connecticut. In addition to the other precautions, Sacramento has told parishioners not to hold hands during the Our Father, and Norwich is asking parishioners to receive the Communion host in their hand, instead of on the tongue.

 

A Doctor’s Perspective

Dr. Brian Linder, a physician with public health experience and training who lives in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, said he applauds such steps.

“In my opinion, the Church is wise to recognize the dangers this particular public-health crisis represents to certain members of the faithful and to take prudent, rational steps to avoid undue morbidity and potential mortality.”

His own archdiocese has asked local parishes to review and implement recommended liturgical precautions and common best practices provided by the Office of Worship and the USCCB.

Linder said this year’s flu outbreak has been particularly severe because one of the strains is especially aggressive, and the influenza vaccine is only about 25% to 30% effective in protecting against it. “All of these factors have led to a widespread, serious influenza epidemic the likes of which we haven’t seen in several years.”

This, he said, has meant more severe illness in children, the elderly and others whose immune systems are already weakened by other chronic conditions.

“The mortality rate in children and the overall hospitalization rate for all individuals during this influenza season are some of the highest rates we’ve ever experienced,” Linder said. “In short — it’s a very serious problem.”

However, some dioceses have issued recommendations, leaving implementation to the discretion of pastors, or are relying on the goodwill or good sense of people who are sick not to shake hands with others or drink from the Communion cup.

Michigan’s Diocese of Grand Rapids, for example, is making no changes in Communion practices and simply asking those who are sick to stay home from Mass.

 

High Risk for Some

In Ohio, the Diocese of Toledo is allowing pastors and pastoral leaders to determine if the seriousness of the flu calls for suspending the sign of peace and reception of the Precious Blood from a common chalice.

Denise McCroskey, a resident of the diocese and cancer survivor, said she would prefer that during cold and flu season all churches would cease the handshake during the sign of peace, along with holding hands during the Our Father. Once, while visiting a church in Florida during flu season, she said she was pleased to hear a simple announcement asking people not to shake hands or make physical contact with others during the sign of peace and to wave or nod instead. The same church, she said, suspended hand-holding during the Our Father.

Because she has lung and heart issues from her cancer treatment and cannot risk catching the flu or a cold, McCroskey said she feels compelled to take what she calls drastic measures when she attends Mass in her home diocese, leaving the church before the Our Father and returning after the sign of peace. During Communion, she can receive the host and decline the cup without being obvious, but she wishes there were some kind of signal to explain that, during the sign of peace, she prefers for medical reasons not to shake hands.

“I’ve tried many different approaches, and none work consistently. Explaining things takes too long in those few seconds you have,” she said, adding that she has had people grab her hand even when she has not extended it. “When I had a cold and told the person next to me, they grabbed my hand and said, ‘Oh, I’m not afraid of your germs.’”

 

Byzantine Communion

Since there is no sign of peace in the Byzantine rite and Communion is administered with a spoon that is emptied into but does not touch the communicant’s mouth, Father James Kubajak, pastor of St. Michael’s Byzantine Catholic Church in Oregon, Ohio, said he was not surprised that his bishop has not issued liturgical guidelines for flu season.

Giving Communion with a spoon, he said, actually was devised after the plagues as an alternative to the common cup, he said, and is the way most Eastern Orthodox Christians receive.

“Really, we simply have never had a problem,” said Father Kubajak, whose church is part of the Eparchy of Parma, Ohio.

Linder said although his own parish has not put any temporary measures in place in response to the flu outbreak, his personal approach has been to maintain a keen sense of awareness and vigilance regarding the nature of the disease and how easily it is spread.

“I’m also very diligent about personal hygiene measures, especially hand-washing, both before and immediately after Mass,” he said. “This flu season will be behind us in several weeks, and things will return to normal pretty quickly. I think most people understand and are actually grateful to the local Church for their concern regarding this issue and the temporary steps that many of them have taken to protect their congregations. I know I am.”

Register correspondent Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.