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Diocese altering rituals in swine flu precaution

Urges no shared wine, handshakes

By Michael Paulson and Stephen Smith
Globe Staff / October 28, 2009

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The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, reacting to the hastening spread of swine flu, yesterday recommended the suspension of two central rituals of worship: It urged that priests stop sharing consecrated wine with parishioners at Communion, and that worshipers forgo shaking hands or hugging during the “sign of peace’’ at Mass.

The measures, which are supposed to start Saturday, are designed both to slow transmission of the H1N1 virus and to reassure disease-wary churchgoers that it remains safe to come to worship.

The Catholic Diocese of Worcester said yesterday it, too, was suspending the same practices. And leading Protestant denominations earlier this month urged congregations to embrace steps to protect the health of worshipers - one church provided vinyl gloves for ushers counting the offering.

Some hospitals have limited visits to patients, and a handful of universities last spring barred graduation handshakes, but the actions by religious groups are perhaps the most far-reaching attempts by major institutions to stanch swine flu’s spread.

The Rev. Jonathan Gaspar, co director of the Boston Archdiocese’s Office of Worship and Spiritual Life, acknowledged in an interview that the measures are “going to be jarring at first’’ for the nearly 300,000 Catholics who attend weekly services and are accustomed to the rituals.

“We are not doctors. We are following the recommendations of medical doctors,’’ Gaspar said. “As we see the threat levels of the H1N1 virus and the flu come to a lower level, we will quickly reinstate the common practices the church venerates as part of her public liturgy.’’

The archdiocese is also urging parishes to disinfect church fonts containing holy water and to regularly change the water.

Infectious disease specialists hailed the actions and predicted they will have implications beyond church walls, by signaling that swine flu constitutes a real threat and that precautions, such as covering coughs and sneezes, should be commonplace at home and on the job.

“The recommendations are commonsensical - they’re a responsible thing to do,’’ said Dr. David Ozonoff, a Boston University School of Public Health professor who presides over an online flu encyclopedia. “This is a good signal to send.’’

The archdiocese reached the decision to suspend the practices after detailed consultations with the top disease tracker at the Boston Public Health Commission, Dr. Anita Barry, who said Gaspar contacted her last week seeking the agency’s expertise.

“They were very willing to take public health advice as to the best way to minimize the risk of transmission,’’ she said.

Barry said she told Gaspar the biggest threat to parishioners’ health was posed by the sharing of the chalice. Catholics sip consecrated wine that is venerated as the blood of Christ.

The chalice is routinely wiped after each use, but disease specialists said germs can linger on the rim and also colonize the communal wine and water inside, exposing worshipers to pathogens.

“And not just influenza germs,’’ said Barry, adding that the church may want to permanently reconsider offering wine in a shared chalice. “If you look at it strictly from a disease transmission perspective, that use of a common drinking container always will carry some risk. But I appreciate that it has to be balanced with other things people believe are important in their lives, and that includes certain religious practices.’’

Some worshipers heading to a late afternoon Mass at St. Anthony’s Shrine in Downtown Crossing, including Tricia Cady, 48, of Allston, commended the archdiocese. “They’re just trying to be safe,’’ she said.

But Dino Giambartolomei, 78, of Revere, was critical. “I think we’re insulting God,’’ he said. “If God wants you to get the flu, you get the flu.’’

Boston is the largest US diocese to recommend major alterations in liturgy. Some smaller dioceses previously acted: The Brooklyn Diocese stopped offering wine to parishioners during Communion in late September.

“Like politics, the flu is local, so decisions have to be made locally,’’ said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. But, she noted, “both receiving from the cup and shaking hands at Mass are optional for congregants, so people who feel uncomfortable receiving from the cup should not, and those who don’t want to shake hands can nod respectfully to their neighbor.’’

In Worcester, Bishop Robert McManus yesterday issued recommendations mirroring those in Boston, while Fall River’s bishop expects to issue guidelines later this week. In Springfield, the bishop last month urged worshipers who weren’t feeling well to refrain from drinking from the cup but has not recommended the practice end entirely; in Providence, the diocese has deferred to individual pastors.

The local Greek Orthodox diocese has taken a different approach, arguing disease cannot be spread via Communion.

“The Church has always been clear in its belief that diseases are not transmitted from the Holy Chalice, which we believe contains the very body and blood of our Savior,’’ Metropolitan Methodios, the presiding hierarch of the Greek Orthodox Diocese of Massachusetts, said in a statement. He urged sick people to stay home but also said worshipers should “not panic, but carry on with their usual activities, including going to church and receiving Holy Communion.’’

Other denominations have already taken steps similar to those now being embraced by the Catholic Church.

Some Protestant churches offer Communion in disposable plastic cups, a practice that does not pose a risk of flu transmission. Others are warning against the shared cup practice.

The Massachusetts conference of the United Church of Christ, the largest Protestant denomination in the state, told its congregations this month, “If your church uses a common cup for communion, you should think long and hard about that.’’ The denomination also advised against embraces or handshakes.

At the Islamic Society of Boston mosque in Roxbury, mosque officials increased availability of hand sanitizer and urged worshipers to wash hands frequently, sneeze into their elbows, and get flu shots. The mosque is also planning to offer flu shots at Friday services next month, spokesman Bilal Kaleem said.

At Temple Israel, a large Jewish congregation in Boston, officials added hand sanitizers, promoted hand washing, and urged parents to keep sick children at home, but have not yet altered any programs, according to Rabbi Ronne Friedman.

Globe correspondent Abbie Ruzicka contributed to this report.