As many local, state and national governments grapple with how to deal with, and prevent, the spread of novel coronavirus, churches that provide communion to parishioners at the altar are also coming to terms with addressing the potential epidemic.
Worldwide the virus has killed at least 2,800 people with reports of 82,000 global cases to date.
At the local level, several pastors at churches of the Catholic and Episcopal faith spoke of how they and their staff plan to keep their congregations safe when providing bread, as well as wine from a chalice, during communion.
At the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Bradford, Pa., the staff received a statement Friday from the Episcopal Dioceses of Western New York and Northwestern Pennsylvania.
The statement noted that there are “currently no known cases of the virus in Pennsylvania and only one possible case in New York, so right now, the risk to our congregations and communities is low. However, we can prepare to help slow the progress of the virus if it should spread to our region.”
The statement offered advice to congregations that included the use of hand sanitizers by clergy and worshippers when celebrating the Eucharist or distributing the elements. Congregants are also advised to avoid dipping the host or bread into the chalice or intinction; and to pass the peace, or greetings to others, by nodding or smiling, using fist bumps, an elbow tap or other signs that avoid close physical contact. Congregants who are ill are advised to stay home, and coffee hour should be provided by volunteers who wash their hands and handle food with plastic gloves or utensils, the statement said, in part.
The Rev. Stacey Fussell, rector of Ascension, said her congregation currently follows these rules, but reminders are good. She noted additional hand sanitizers will be provided to congregants during services.
“We always take the health of our congregants very seriously and the church also wants to be mindful of protecting the wider community by avoiding anything that might accelerate the spread of any kind of illness,” Fussell said. “But that being said, Christians have been celebrating communion using bread and a common cup for 2,000 years. Even during the days of the Black Death in Europe and the great influenza pandemic of 1918, there’s never been a single, reported case of spreading of disease through communion. So we would not stop offering communion during services.”
Instead, she said the clergy will continue to thoroughly wash their hands before communion, and the clergy will dip the parishioner’s wafer in the chalice, if desired. People should also be mindful, she added, that they need only take a wafer from the clergy to receive communion in full.
At St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Olean, the Rev. Kim Rossi said her church and congregation have used sanitary measures for many years, with hand sanitizer bottles provided at every pew, as well as at the altar.
“I think we might get a little looser in the summertime when we don’t worry so much about the flu, but this is a new thing … and it may not disappear when warmer weather comes,” Rossi remarked. “If you contact a lot of churches in Olean … the practices have kind of stuck and it’s a year-round thing.”
At St. Bernard Catholic Church in Bradford, the Rev. Ray Gramata said he received a statement on Friday from the Catholic Diocese of Erie that provided the following message regarding coronavirus.
“As we all know, numerous people have expressed concerns over the transmission of the common cold, the flu, and now the coronavirus. Prior to the weekend of March 7-8, the diocese will send out information and guidelines, including a page on our website containing helpful information and links. We are monitoring the situation, and as it changes, we will update things.”
The statement continued by noting that beginning this weekend, “all priests celebrating Mass should feel free to suspend the exchange of the sign of peace. Beginning the following weekend, the exchange of the sign of peace among the faithful will be formally suspended at all Masses in the Diocese of Erie until further notice.”
In addition, the statement said that “beginning immediately, based upon prudent judgment, all pastors should feel free to suspend the distribution of the Precious Blood (chalice) to the faithful at those Masses where it is currently being distributed. Also, starting March 7-8, it has been decided to suspend the distribution of the Precious Blood at Saint Bernard, Saint Francis, and Our Mother of Perpetual Help” churches in the Bradford area.
At St. Bonaventure Church in Allegany, the Rev. James Vacco said the Diocese of Buffalo had not issued a statement regarding coronavirus, as of yet.
“Whenever there is a season of contagious respiratory illnesses the diocese and (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) highlights that people should use common sense and good hygiene practices in dealing with a respiratory condition so to limit its spread and severity,” Vacco said.
(Contact reporter Kate Day Sager at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @OTHKate)