Guarding Against Swine Flu

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Guarding Against Swine Flu

ROME, 27 OCT. 2009 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: What is the bishop's authority when it comes to a pandemic such as the H1N1 virus? Our local bishop has not only removed the sign of peace at Mass in order to avoid handshakes, forbade the reception of the Eucharist on the tongue, removed the possibility for the faithful to receive the blood of Christ, and emptied the blessed water in all the churches of our diocese, but he has officially asked all parishioners to not attend Mass on Sunday if they have a cough. I find this measure a little extreme when our town has not yet had any real case of this virus and our province has had very few cases as a total. Is a cough really an excuse to not attend Sunday Mass? — M.J., Province of Alberta

A: There are really two questions involved. One regards the extent of the bishop's authority when it comes to responding to a pandemic, the other regarding a particular prudential judgment by a bishop.

With respect to the first question, all of the measures mentioned by our correspondent would fall under the bishop's general overall authority to regulate the liturgy and to dispense from disciplinary laws in particular cases. It is understood that most of these are temporary measures. The bishop would have the authority to permanently regulate some of these elements such as the gesture for the sign of peace and the availability of Communion under both species as the law already places the regulation of these elements under his authority.

Others, such as the prohibition against receiving Communion on the tongue, can be enacted as an emergency measure by the bishop but could not be made permanent or general without an indult from the Holy See.

The practices outlined by the bishop in this case are basically preventive measures that seek to avoid the spread of a possible pandemic and reduce the risk of infection.

In more serious cases, such as being in the midst of an actual pandemic, the bishop could even take more drastic action. Thus during the initial outbreak of this flu, when the malady was still poorly understood, the cardinal archbishop of Mexico City even went so far as to cancel all public Masses for a couple of weeks until the danger subsided.

With respect to the second question, I believe it is necessary to defer to the bishop's prudential judgment in reaching a decision. Since most bishops are not doctors of medicine they would usually consult with experts and with public health authorities regarding appropriate actions to take in the face on an objective risk. We have to suppose that your bishop took these steps and made his decision in the light of informed advice.

For example, in normal circumstances a mild cough would not necessarily excuse an otherwise healthy person from attending Sunday Mass. If, however, the person was as yet unaware as to the cause of the symptom (be it the common cold, regular seasonal flu or this new strain), he should prudently not expose himself and others to risk until the issue has been duly clarified.

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Follow-up: Guarding Against Swine Flu [11-10-2009]
Coinciding with our Oct. 27 piece on swine flu and the Mass, the Archdiocese of Boston published a series of directives, excerpts of which we report below. They may serve as models for other dioceses facing similar situations:
"The Archdiocese of Boston Office of Worship, in consultation with local health authorities and the Archdiocesan Office of Risk Management, continues to encourage the clergy and faithful to observe necessary standard precautions to protect the health of others during this flu season, and especially with the risks related to H1N1 influenza. The best way to prevent the spread of contagious disease is to practice good hygiene.
"Rev. Jonathan Gaspar, Co-Director of the Office of Worship and Spiritual Life, said, 'Given the extraordinary precautions being taken across the nation to prevent the spread of the H1N1 influenza, the Archdiocese has instituted a series of steps to be followed for the time being during the celebration of the Mass. We thank our priests, deacons, religious and parishioners for their understanding and support of these directives, which aim to protect the health of our people.' [...]
"In addition to practicing good hygiene, the Cardinal directs the following for the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy and for flu prevention:
"— The Holy Water fonts are to be drained, cleaned with a disinfecting soap, and re-filled with holy water on a regular basis. Please note that old holy water should be disposed of in the sacrarium.
"— The distribution of the Precious Blood for the faithful is suspended, with the exception of those who must receive from the cup due to medical reasons. The faith of the Church teaches that Christ, whole and entire, is received even under only one species.
"— The exchange of the Sign of Peace is to be offered without any physical contact. If the priest celebrant chooses to extend the invitation for the sign of peace, the faithful, instead of a handshake, may bow to the persons nearby.
"— While the faithful retain the option of receiving Holy Communion on the tongue or in the hand, all ministers of Holy Communion are advised to distribute the consecrated hosts with care, being cautious not to touch the tongue or the hand of the communicant.
"— Parishioners should be reminded that if they are ill or suspect they are ill with a contagious illness, they are not bound by the Sunday Mass obligation. They should remain at home and return to church when they are well.
"These directives are effective Saturday, October 31, 2009 and remain in effect until the cold and flu season has come to an end."
It is noteworthy that the archdiocese did not ban the reception of Communion on the tongue. Since these directives were made in consultation with local health authorities, it would appear that this usage is no more likely to spread infection than hand contact.
Some other readers asked if it was correct for the priest and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion to disinfect their hands immediately before distributing Communion.
While such a practice is well meant, it is probably unnecessary and might be counterproductive by making some susceptible people queasy about approaching the altar. If such a precaution is deemed worthwhile, it is probably sufficient to do so in the sacristy just before Mass, especially if the above-mentioned measures outlined for the Boston Archdiocese are also carried out.

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Follow-up: Guarding Against Swine Flu [11-24-2009]

After our comments on precautions against swine flu (see Oct. 27 and follow-up on Nov. 10), a reader asked: "At the monastery infirmary, because of their weakened health and the risk of getting the H1N1 infection, priest monks who are concelebrating the Mass do not receive the Precious Blood. I was wondering if that is permitted."

There are two questions involved. One is if it is possible for a concelebrating priest not to receive both species. The answer to this is positive, even though only in grave conditions. The only situation where this permission has been specifically granted is for those priests unable to take any alcohol. This is allowed only for a non-presiding concelebrant and never for a lone celebrant.

The second question is if the desire to prevent infection is a sufficient reason for concelebrating priests not to receive the Precious Blood. I would say that this is not a sufficient reason, even though it is possible that some of these infirm priests might fall into the category of those unable to take alcohol.

It should be a fairly easy task to develop a method for distributing both species that can practically exclude any danger of contagion while maintaining due reverence for the sacred species. For example, the priests could receive by intinction or even, if necessary, using suitable separate spoons.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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