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Flu outbreak spurs Catholic church in Greensburg, elsewhere to suspend Mass rituals

Natasha Lindstrom

Some Western Pennsylvania Catholic churches are altering or foregoing typical weekly rituals in response to mounting concerns over the spread of the flu virus.

Churches such as Our Lady of Grace in Greensburg have suspended the drinking of sacramental wine from common cups during Mass, Roman Catholic Diocese of Greensburg officials confirmed Monday.

Bishop Edward C. Malesic of the Greensburg diocese — which has 142,000 members across Westmorelan, Armstrong, Fayette and Indiana and counties — did not issue any diocesanwide directives specific to the issue, diocesan spokesman Jerry Zufelt said.

Malesic did, however, provide individual priests who run parishes the option to dispense with the practices of shaking hands during the Sign of Peace, distributing Holy Communion wine, or both — “based on circumstances in their parish,” Zufelt said.

Several Greensburg-area parishes have chosen to suspend the distribution of sacramental wine, Zufelt said. He could not provide a full count as of late Monday.

Replacing handshakes with smiles, head bows

The precautionary moves mimic steps taken by church leaders in recent weeks in response to flu outbreaks across the United States, from Santa Fe, N.M. , to Portland, Maine .

Last week, the Diocese of Portland — which covers the entire state of Maine — issued a set of protocols that included suspending the shared consecrated wine; urging priests and lay ministers to take extra care to sanitize hands; and encouraging all parishioners to receive the Holy Communion bread, or wafers, in the hand versus on the tongue.

“Breaking with custom, parishioners should not shake hands during the Sign of Peace and will be encouraged to offer a verbal greeting, smile or bow of the head,” the Portland diocese added. “Hospitality ministers should also not shake hands, but rather offer verbal greetings.”

Flu-related deaths climb

The trend comes as public health concerns intensify over the number of flu-related deaths and hospitalizations reported so far this season.

Of 17,786 cases in Pennsylvania as of mid-January, 32 people have died , the state Department of Health said.

Allegheny County health officials have confirmed nearly 3,000 influenza cases, and Westmoreland County has identified nearly 1,000.

Flu activity usually begins in October and peaks between December and March.

Some experts speculate this year’s vaccine may only be 10 percent effective against the flu strain — though those who get a flu shot and still contract the virus will most likely have less severe symptoms.

The Greensburg diocese’s Office for Worship “continues to monitor the situation and keep other diocesan leaders informed,” Zufelt said.

‘Don’t go to Mass sick’

Whether churches should halt practices such as sharing a common cup in the name of preventing the spread of germs and diseases has been debated for years.

The Rev. Ron Lengwin, spokesman for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, said people should take precautions year-round to avoid getting fellow churchgoers sick.

“This is an issue that we have been dealing with for a long time — it’s just as important during the summertime,” Lengwin said.

No suspensions on handshakes or communion wine have been reported within the Pittsburgh diocese, which has more than 600,000 parishioners across six counties.

“We hope parishioners will use common sense,” Lengwin said. “If they do feel sick, they shouldn’t be at Mass.”

The Greensburg diocese similarly expects “people not to share the cup or a handshake, whether they have the flu or some other illness” and to stay home when necessary, Zufelt said.

The National Catholic Reporter reported on a similar trend during the 2013 flu season.

The last time that the Diocese of Portland banned the sharing of wine was in 2009, along with a spate of others attempting to thwart the spread of the H1N1 virus known as “swine flu.”

Need for widespread changes ‘not evident’

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has devoted a section of its website to “influenza and the liturgy,” based on informational excerpts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The national body concludes that though individual bishops and priests may choose to do so, “the need for the introduction of widespread liturgical adaptations for the prevention of the transmission of influenza in the dioceses of the United States of America is not evident at this time.”

A 1988 research study published by the Public Health Laboratory Service Communicable Disease Surveillance Centre in London found that the potential to transmit harmful micro-organisms via a shared communion cup to be “rare” — and the chance of such a transmission leading to infection even rarer.

Researchers further found that the likelihood of spreading disease was “appreciably reduced” by the wiping of the lip of the communion cup with a cloth between sips.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.


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