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Catholics forgo peace handshake due to concerns over H1N1 flu
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Judy Olivera takes a sip of consecrated wine from a chalice as her husband Ed stands at her side during a packed Sunday morning mass at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church. - photo by GLENN KAHL

“Just nodding or smiling” during the sign of peace handshake at mass is sufficient –  if you feel you might be getting the flu, some 3,000 members of St. Anthony’s Catholic Church were told by priests at this weekend’s six religious services from Saturday night through Sunday night.

Pastor Pat Walker told parishioners at the packed 10:45 a.m. Sunday mass that Bishop Stephen Blaire and the Liturgical Commission have recommended suspending the sign of peace handshake and the need for sharing the consecrated wine from common chalices for those who fear they might contract the H1N1 strain of the flu.

Father Walker said St. Anthony’s has already been taking precautions in the safe distribution of the communion wine,  feeling that the alcohol content along with the turning of the chalice and wiping the lip of the cup after serving each of the faithful has made it safe for his parishioners.

He further urged using other ways to display the traditional sign of peace rather than shaking hands – with a smile, a nod, or a hug.  However, if church members feel comfortable with a hand shake – that is OK, too, he said.   Also the practice of just the greeting others with “Peace Be With You,” is also quite appropriate.

In a communication with all his some 35 churches, Bishop Blaire voiced concern in his effort to help contain the spread of the pandemic expected to peak in the late fall and winter months.  And it’s not just within the Stockton Diocese where the church is cautioning its flock, but all across the country and around the world.

Many pastors are reportedly given the option of just how far to go in directing changes within their own church communities.

In some churches on the East Coast, there was no consecrated wine distributed as the blood of Christ this weekend with no hugging or parishioners shaking hands – the church promising that holy water founts would be changed often over the next few months.

Father Walker noted that hand sanitizer dispensers were being placed next to each of the church doors for use by parishioners as they leave the building, urging his congregation to make use of them.   Priests are not expected to be shaking hands as freely with their flocks outside the front door of the churches after mass as they have in the past.

Judy and Ed Olivera – married for some 30 years – went through the communion line together as they do every Sunday.  Judy was the first to take the chalice in hand as her husband stood at her side with his head reverently bowed.

“I’m not a germ freak – it doesn’t bother me,” she said.  “You take precautions, but you don’t go overboard.  It’s the regular flu season.”

While there were numerous church members, who freely took the chalice in hand to receive the consecrated wine Sunday morning, the majority opted to receive only the Body of Christ, the host, in its traditional bread form.  The lay ministers, who routinely distribute communion, had already been using hand sanitizers before participating in communion over the past months.

Other Catholic churches around the country have suspended their longtime traditions including holding hands during the recitation of The Lord’s Prayer.  There has been a general consensus that people should use common sense in warding off the flu such as washing their hands often with hot soapy water and staying home when they feel they are getting sick.

It has also been noted that older parishioners with severe arthritis in the hands or shoulders often refrain from shaking hands, because of the pain and discomfort they suffer in the practice.  Church members have long been advised when someone refrains from shaking hands, it is often because it hurts them to do so – or they may be recovering from an illness they don’t want to spread.