Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Catholics and the Flu

Yesterday Mark Shea linked to this letter from Austin Bishop Gregory Aymond, as posted on the Aggie Catholics blog; the bishop has decided that Holy Communion should be distributed under just one species for the present time due to the risk of transmitting swine flu through the common chalices used by the laity to receive the Blood of Christ at Mass.

Today, the Diocese of Dallas has issued its own guidelines:

The swine flu scare has prompted a number of recommendations from the Catholic Diocese of Dallas, including a big one about attendance at Mass.

"If you are not feeling well, especially during this time of concern, please stay at home and do not risk spreading infection to others," said the Rev. Michael Dugan, the diocese's director of the Office of Liturgy, in a statement posted on the diocese Web site.

Dugan added that parishioners who do attend Mass while feeling under the weather should bow or wave during the "passing of the peace" rather than shake hands with pew neighbors. Those who extend a hand and have it refused should not be offended, given the circumstances, he said.

The diocese also posted on its Web site a letter from Bishop Kevin Farrell, who said he has encouraged priests to consider suspending the use of wine during communion, because it's offered from a common cup. Farrell also said he has asked the priests to be sure that all Eucharistic ministers use "proper hygiene" when distributing the bread or host during communion.

The letter from Bishop Farrell is here. For the most part the recommendations are good, except the one about receiving communion in the hand if you are sick; the hands are no less likely to be a vector for the spread of the flu than the mouth, especially after the Sign of Peace, the obligatory but liturgically-incorrect practice of holding hands during the Our Father, etc.

Thus far my bishop, Bishop Kevin Vann, has not issued any guidelines for the Catholics of the Fort Worth diocese; I'll update this post later if he does.

For now, though, I have several observations to make about these guidelines.

In the first place, the direction to stay at home if you feel ill is the most important thing Catholics can do to minimize the spread of the flu. I've had to stay home on Sundays due to illnesses far more this year than in any other recent year I can remember, and it's never fun to miss Mass--we Catholics almost have this tendency to think that Mass just can't go on without us, and that it's better to drag ourselves, feverish and shivering, to church on Sunday than to stay in bed and try to get well. Unfortunately when we do that, we often cause a ripple effect in church, as family after family contracts the bug we were carrying and spreads it further. Until enough people stay home to recover, these darned viruses have a tendency to keep circulating through a congregation, often affecting our pastors themselves, not to mention the elderly and infant members of the parish who will be far more seriously affected by our viruses. And since this is certainly true for the ordinary run of winter cold and flu bugs, it will be just as true for swine flu; should the virus actually take hold in our communities, we will do no one any favors by continuing to take ourselves to Mass when we are feeling ill out of some misplaced sense of obligation, piety, or martyrdom.

In the second place, I've heard the line from Catholics before that they don't think illnesses spread through the common reception of the Precious Blood; there is a pious thought expressed, that He Whom we are receiving protects us from all harm, or at the very least the alcohol content of the accidents of the wine is good enough to wipe out ordinary viruses. But as someone pointed out in the comboxes at Mark Shea's, the alcohol content of rubbing alcohol is significantly greater than the alcohol content of the wine which becomes the Precious Blood; and rubbing alcohol itself is not an instant disinfectant, requiring a couple of minutes to kill germs, from what I understand. While our Lord can, if He wishes, protect from harm those who receive Him in the Precious Blood, there is no requirement upon Him to act in this miraculous way; if viruses aren't known to spread frequently in this way, it is hopefully because those who are actually ill will refrain from receiving under both species. In the presence of a significant viral threat, however, relying on the average Catholic to understand that he ought not receive from the chalice since he is achy and tired and possibly a little feverish may be imprudent, and suggesting instead that the ancient practice of receiving only the Body of Christ would be a more charitable practice for the time being is to be commended.

In the third place, the practice of Catholics seizing each others' hands at Mass is probably not the best one for times like these. I don't have a huge problem with the Sign of Peace, except for its placement, but it should be noted that in the rubrics no command exists to shake hands; in many cultures a simple bow to one's nearest neighbors suffices to express this moment of reconciliation, and I would strongly support American Catholics adopting this custom not only for the sake of not spreading swine flu (or other illnesses) but to retain the sense of reverence proper to the Mass. As for the other "custom" of grabbing hands to pray the Our Father, this custom is completely outside the rubrics, and is not one I am happy about (though I generally put up with it rather than make a scene out of my refusal; it isn't liturgically correct to draw attention to yourself, either, most of the time). Even absent swine flu concerns I would be happy for a correct posture to be assumed for the praying of the "Our Father" which remembers that we're addressing God, not each other, in this prayer; but the threat of the spread of swine flu is a good time for pastors to remind the congregation that all this extra hand-holding isn't the best idea during a time of illness.

While the World Health Organization may be acting prematurely in raising the pandemic level to a "5," and while it may yet be that the approach of warm weather will hold off this threat of a spreading flu virus for now, I still think it's a good time for Catholics to consider our duty to our neighbor when we, or some in our families, are ill. The best rule of all here is the Golden Rule; if you or someone in your family is sick, and you wouldn't want someone as sick as you or your husband or child is to sit beside you at Mass, hold your hand or shake it, and drink in front of you from the chalice of the Precious Blood, perhaps you should reconsider whether the sick person in your family should be coming to Mass in the first place.


opey124 said...

Sign of peace is optional too. The priest has the right to go right into the Lamb of God. It can be omitted.

Good advice.

I am still torn regarding which is better hand or tongue to fight the spread. Just last Sunday, the priest clearly touched my tongue. Now if it is done correctly, this is not an issue. But some just don't get it, the proper way to place the host on the tongue without touching the tongue. Or this is my experience.

Melanie B said...

I find that a babe in arms is a great way to avoid having strangers grab my hands at Mass. (Though I've found that New Englanders are not nearly as apt to want to hold hands at the Our Father as Texans.) Generally I just smile and wave peacefully at people nearby who don't get so put off when you are struggling with an armful of squirmy baby.

But yeah I agree, for my baby's sake please stay home if you're ill. I'm always amazed at the strangers who want to grab my hands after I've just finished blowing my nose. It's due to terrible allergies, not illness; but they don't know that.