In his latest television appearance, the Very Rev. David O'Connell, the president of the Catholic University of America, shared a painful story of when the H1N1 flu hit close to home.
Appearing on CNN on Nov. 21, O'Connell said his brother, who teaches at the Nazareth Academy High School in Philadelphia, was diagnosed with H1N1 and pneumonia in both lungs. He entered the hospital and shortly after went into respiratory arrest. He was put into a medically induced coma. He's so weak that he has to relearn to walk.
"It's been a nightmare," said O'Connell.
To help prevent similar pain among other Catholics, O'Connell said many dioceses have started avoiding the use of a communal cup and handshakes during Sunday services. In some areas, bishops have gone as far as to ban those practices until the threat of H1N1 infection lessens.
In Raleigh, N.C., for example, Bishop Michael Burbidge sent out a letter on Sept. 11, asking all churches in the diocese "out of abundance of caution" to avoid the sign of peace (handshakes or hugs) during mass and stop taking communion from the cup. The changes went into effect in the first week of October and have no expiration date.
At St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Cary, N.C., when the Rev. Michael Spurr prepares for holy communion, he readies 10 golden dishes filled with wafers representing the body of Christ -- and a chalice of wine representing the blood. He takes a wafer off the plate and a drink from the chalice, then passes the golden plates to church volunteers who distribute the sacrament to the congregation. The chalice, however, remains on the altar.
The practice is unusual for St. Michael's, where both sacraments, the wafer and the wine, are usually offered to everyone.
Burbidge's call to churches went out after he -- like many other U.S. bishops -- checked with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which offers suggestions on its Web site to dioceses about handling the H1N1 outbreak.
"Some recommendations are really a response to the concerns of the faithful," said the Rev. Rick Hilgartner, the associate director of the U.S. Bishops' Secretariat of Divine Worship. "Both [the sign of peace and the use of the communal cup] are optional elements of mass to begin with, so we aren't doing anything outside the normal realm of the application of the rules that are already in place."
North Carolina is one of 32 states where H1N1 is widespread, according to the Centers for Disease Control's weekly map.
So is Pennsylvania, where Catholic bishops gathered for a conference early this fall to suggest that each bishop limit the Holy Communion practices. All but one of eight Roman Catholic bishops of Pennsylvania issued directives to their dioceses, suspending the handshaking and the distribution of the communal chalice, enacted from Oct. 18 onward until otherwise notified.
'Not a Peep' From Parishioners
None of the dioceses have received much feedback from parishioners.
"Not a peep," said Matthew Kerr, the communications director at the Diocese of Allentown, in Pennsylvania. "They might have said something to their priest in the back of the church" but the comments haven't been reaching the diocese headquarters.
But it was, in part, the concerns of parishioners that began the move toward restricting various practices of mass. In the spring, when H1N1 began spreading in the U.S., guidelines that were less restrictive than current ones went out to local parishes from the Catholic Conference of Pennsylvania.
"I was receiving e-mails throughout the summer from people who were concerned," said Tony DeGol, secretary for communications with the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, in Pennsylvania. The parishioners actually asked the bishop to enact stricter guidelines -- so they wouldn't feel awkward refusing to shake an outstretched hand.
Parishes in other parts of the country have followed a path similar to the one taken by the Archdiocese of Detroit, where the bishop advised local parishes to refrain from the use of chalice or physical contact, but left the final call up to individual churches.
"We started hearing the drumbeat and people would call and voice their concerns," said Joe Kohn, public relations director with the Archdiocese of Detroit. "It appears that most parishes are taking it very seriously."
Hand Sanitizers at Church Combat Swine Flu
Like many, the Detroit archdiocese originally issued the suggestions and advice on preventing the H1N1 outbreak in April but has been posting and announcing reminders ever since. And Kohn couldn't predict when the guidelines will be loosened or dropped completely.
"We're going to play it by ear," he said. "Our hope is it's sometime soon, but it certainly doesn't look like it."
For now, the hand sanitizers are in place in churches, people with flu are advised to stay home and, even though some faithful brave it out and take the wafer on their tongue as part of the Holy Eucharist, many abstain and don't mind it.
"I think the public is more confident in knowing that all of us together are doing some responsible things to help avoid the spread of the virus," said Mary Anne Dunham, a parishioner and eucharist administrator at St. Michael's. "We miss nothing and it doesn't change our faith in any way."