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May 10, 2009

Parishes, schools take extra flu precautions

By Alicja Pozywio


Early indications raised questions about whether swine flu, now called H1N1 flu virus, could be the new plague of the 21st century, or just another flu virus that the media around the world has overblown as a threat to human life.

To be safe, the Office of Divine Worship in the Archdiocese of Chicago recommended that people and parishes take commonsense precautions at Mass, said Todd Williamson, the office’s director.

People should “use good judgment in terms of how they are feeling and how they enter into not just worship, but other social activities that put them in close contact with a large number of people,” Williamson said.

That’s because the H1N1 flu virus spreads like regular flu, through tiny droplets in the air, when people cough or sneeze.

The Office for Divine Worship received about a dozen telephone calls every day at the end of April and beginning of May regarding precautions during Mass, Williamson said.

The most common question the office received was about receiving Holy Communion from the chalice.

“There are no changes made to the liturgy but we encourage pastors and priests to caution their people. If they are feeling ill we encourage them not to receive the Precious Blood from the chalice,” Williamson said.

He said some callers think that not shaking hands with other Mass participants means they have eliminated the sign of peace, but the General Instruction of the Roman Missal doesn’t authorize any specific gesture to use in the rite.

“The handshake is a customary gesture,” he said. “The sign of peace can be shared verbally; people can simply change the gesture.”

However, the Office for Divine Worship did not recommend a blanket change.

The swine flu is not the first influenza concern the archdiocese has experienced. “We had a very tough season of flu [in 2004] that was almost an epidemic here in Chicago. We cautioned and we used this same strategy that we are using now. It is nothing different from the last time when we had a serious health concern in the area.”

Hand washing, sanitizer

At St. Peter’s in the Loop, 110 W. Madison St., where seven Masses are celebrated daily, the pastor didn’t want to take a chance. Franciscan Father William Spencer asked all the extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, including the priests, to wash their hands with soap and warm water and sanitize them with the alcohol-based sanitizer the parish provides. He made the request the day after news about the flu became public.

Before each Mass, an announcement was made asking all the extraordinary ministers of holy Communion who come up from the congregation to go to the sacristy during the Our Father to wash their hands. The priests wash their hands before Mass.

Schools cautious

Catholic schools in the archdiocese were watching the situation carefully, according to Ryan Blackburn, director of marketing and communication for the Office of Catholic Schools.

Schools, too, were advised to use caution and the superintendent’s office was in constant communication with the local public health departments.

“We are providing information to our schools’ administrators, so it can be shared with the school families as well as with others in their school community,” Blackburn said.

“We asked our schools to monitor the causes of student absences as reported by the families, particularly, if there is an increase of influenza like illnesses being reported,” Blackburn said.

So far there are no signs of a spread of the H1N1 flu in the Catholic schools. St. Ladislaus School in Chicago closed May 1 as a precaution. It was the only Catholic school closed as of press time.

The U.S. bishops offer tip sheet about the flu and liturgy at