U.S. dioceses adopt wide-ranging plans to limit spread of coronavirus, flu

People exchange the sign of peace during Mass at St. Pius X Church in El Paso, Texas, Sept. 23, 2019. Dioceses nationwide are taking precautions to guard against the spread of the coronavirus and reminding parishioners to take commonsense steps related to hygiene in their personal lives. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

WASHINGTON—Dioceses nationwide are taking precautions to guard against the spread of the coronavirus and reminding parishioners to take commonsense steps related to hygiene in their personal lives.

Among the most common preventative measures being taken are urging reception of holy Communion in the hand, suspension of distribution of the Communion cup and exchanging the sign of peace without physical contact.

Diocesan leaders also asked people who are ill to refrain from attending Mass.

In the Diocese of Charleston, S.C., parishes were asked to suspend the distribution of the chalice to the faithful until the spread of the diseases has safely subsided, according to a statement. However, it stated, pastors may choose to lift that suspension on Holy Thursday and at the Easter Vigil.

The diocese also encourages the suspension of the “handshake/kiss of peace” during Masses, noting that parishes may “alter the exchange of peace to another gesture or acknowledgement of the Peace of Christ that still expresses peace, communion and charity.”

Bishop David A. Zubik of Pittsburgh, Pa., put it bluntly in a March 2 announcement to parishioners: “If you are sick, stay home until you are feeling better.”

From the East Coast to Honolulu, diocesan officials are implementing steps recommended by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship to limit the potential spread of the illness that by March 3 had reached about 70 countries including the United States. Health officials in the U.S. have confirmed more than 100 cases of the illness in 15 states, including at least nine deaths.

Worldwide by March 3, more than 92,000 cases and more than 3,100 deaths have been attributed to the coronavirus, with most in China, the epicenter of the outbreak.

At the same time, at least one bishop urged calm as people responded to the coronavirus, designated COVID-19 by world health authorities.

“Please encourage your communities during this time of uncertainty to prepare, but not panic,” Auxiliary Bishop Joel M. Konzen, administrator of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, said in a Feb. 28 memo. He said precautions preventing the spread of COVID-19 were similar to those to prevent the spread of flu.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of noon on March 4, there were at least 130 known cases of coronavirus across 16 states: Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin. As of this posting, there were no known cases in South Carolina.

In a Feb. 28 letter, Charlotte Bishop Peter J. Jugis urged clergy to remind parishioners to cover coughs and sneezes and throw away used tissues, to clean all “high-touch” surfaces daily, avoid shaking hands, wash hands often, and not share personal items such as cups and eating utensils.

Like diocesan officials across the U.S., Bishop Jugis encouraged priests not to extend the sign of peace, distribute Communion from the cup, or invite people to shake hands in greeting at Mass or other gatherings. Those who distribute holy Communion should wash their hands before Mass and clean their hands again before and after distributing Communion, he said.

Beyond those steps, the Archdiocese of Miami suggested that parishes empty the holy water fonts at church entrances. It also is allowing extraordinary ministers of holy Communion who feel uncomfortable in carrying out their ministry to temporarily step down.

Guidelines from the Ohio Department of Health for dealing with contagious illnesses were reviewed in a statement shared with parishes and posted on the Diocese of Cleveland’s website March 2.

The diocese’s Office for Worship also reminded priests, deacons and extraordinary ministers of holy Communion to continue practicing good hygiene including frequent hand washing.

Archbishop John C. Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico, updated liturgical practices introduced in January because of the severity of the flu season in Utah. In a March 3 statement, he mandated that holy Communion be received in the hand.

“What is important is that we receive our Blessed Lord in holy Communion,” he said. “How we receive, while very personal to the individual communicant, is not crucial. … Receiving Communion in the hand is every bit as respectful as receiving on the tongue.”

At the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Msgr. J. Brian Bransfield, general secretary, March 3 requested in an email to staff that they “refrain, until further notice, from planning any new international travel.”

He called on workers who had already purchased tickets for travel to “reconsider the necessity of the trip in consultation with your senior staff supervisor and determine an appropriate plan of action.”

Meanwhile, the Diocese of Honolulu in mid-February declined to put in place any restrictions at Mass. However, Father Pascal Abaya, rector of the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in the Hawaiian capital told worshippers the Communion cup would no longer be distributed, a step he called “precautionary” during flu season.

The practice continued during the first week of Lent, a diocesan official confirmed.

Editor’s Note: Guidelines developed by the USCCB for influenza and liturgy are posted online at www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/sacred-art-and-music/influenza-and-the-liturgy.cfm.

The Catholic Miscellany contributed to this post.