Bishop Robert Deeley of Portland issued a directive on Thursday suspending the distribution of Communion under both species and the exchange of handshakes during the sign of peace in response to an outbreak of influenza in the state.
Starting the weekend of January 11-12, and continuing until the end of the flu season, priests throughout the diocese will make announcements requesting that any parishioner exhibiting cold or flu symptoms skip Mass and stay home, and that they are released from their obligation to go to Mass on Sunday. In addition to prohibiting the distribution of the Precious Blood, extraordinary Eucharistic ministers are also being required to take extra sanitary measures.
Since December, six people have died from the flu in Maine. From December 28 until January 4, there were 368 new cases, marking a 40 per cent increase over the previous week. Additionally, 90 people have been hospitalized with flu-related complications.
There have been over 1,200 positive flu tests in Maine since the start of flu season. Officials say it is likely that even more people have had the flu, but have gone undiagosed.
“Encouraging people who are at risk to stay away from large church gatherings is an extra step intended to maintain their health,” said the directive. The release said that the instructions were developed after reviewing reports from state health authorities.
Instead of handshakes during the Sign of Peace, the faithful in Maine are “encouraged to offer a verbal greeting, smile, or bow of the head,” and hospitality ministers should refrain from shaking the hands of those entering the parish. “Hospitality ministers” will also be encouraged to sanitize their hands before and after Mass.
“Parishioners should not hold hands during the Our Father,” adds the directive.
During Masses, the chalice will only be distributed to people who are unable to partake in the consecrated hosts, such as those with celiac disease or other gluten allergies. Deeley is encouraging, but not requiring, Catholics to receive Holy Communion on the hand rather than directly on the tongue.
The directive states that all ministers of Holy Communion will be required to sanitize their hands before and after the distribution of Holy Communion, and those who distribute Holy Communion are advised to not touch the tongue or hand of the communicant while distributing hosts.
Any sponges found in holy water fonts are to be removed, and each Mass will include a prayer for those sick with the flu or other illnesses, their caretakers, and the community at large during the Prayers of the Faithful.
A statement from the Diocese of Portland said that these new protocols are “similar to those established during other severe flu seasons” and they will be “in effect until further notice.”
The Diocese of Portland is the only Roman Catholic diocese in the state of Maine.
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