Flu Season Prompts Precautions During Masses

Faced with an unusually severe and deadly flu outbreak this winter, Catholic church leaders in Connecticut are restricting peace handshakes and other rituals of the Mass that could potentially spread the disease.

Church leaders said they hope the restrictions announced this month will reduce the potential for physical contact and ultimately the possibility that people will pass the flu to one another. According to the state Department of Public Health, 32 people have died from flu in Connecticut since October.

“We have put out a word of caution in the past few years during flu season but we stepped it up this winter,” said Michael Strammiello, a spokesman for the Diocese of Norwich. “What we are hearing is the severity of the flu this season and most of us want to be that much more cautious.”

Precautions the Norwich Diocese has taken were outlined in a letter read to parishioners at Masses Jan. 13 and 14. The diocese is suspending the sign of peace along with the distribution of consecrated wine, which represents the blood of Christ, according to the letter.

Holy Communion will continue in the Norwich Diocese, however people are encouraged to receive the sacramental bread, which represents the body of Christ, in their hands instead of on the tongue.

Washing hands is becoming more important than ever. Leaders of the Archdiocese of Hartford along with the dioceses in Bridgeport and Norwich are telling its priests and the people who work with them during Mass to wash their hands before and after Mass and to use hand sanitizer.

The Norwich Diocese covers the southeastern part of Connecticut and has 72 parishes with about 225,000 members, Strammiello said.

Leaders of the Archdiocese of Hartford and the Diocese of Bridgeport have not gone to the same lengths as in Norwich but are discouraging handshakes during the sign of peace, the distribution of the wine and other rituals that involve physical contact. Both issued guidelines to their parishes this month and officials said it is up to parish priests to implement them as they see fit.

“We are not going with an outright ban. We are letting the local parishes be the judge of their own community,” said Maria Zone, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Hartford. The archdiocese covers Hartford, Litchfield and New Haven counties with 127 parishes.

Brian Wallace, a spokesman for the Bridgeport Diocese, said many of the parishes have suspended the distribution of wine. Even where that has not been done, parishioners are taking precautions on their own.

“People may choose to receive the host but not the wine during Communion, they make their own judgment,” Wallace said. Parishioners in the Bridgeport Diocese are encouraged to give a greeting or nod rather than shake hands during the sign of peace and not hold hands when the Lord’s Prayer is recited during Mass. Those guidelines were given to the diocese’s 82 parishes earlier in January, Wallace said.

Diocesan leaders said the restrictions they are calling for will stay in place until it appears the flu outbreak is over.

“We will keep an eye on it. Bishop [Frank] Caggiono does not want people at risk or getting sick,” Wallace said.

According to public health officials, 1,911 flu cases have been reported in the state since early October and 824 people have been hospitalized.

By Ken Byron |