Flu fears abating, church OK’s resuming rituals
Looking ahead to Palm Sunday
By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / February 5, 2010
As fears of the swine flu fade, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston is urging parishes to reinstitute two venerated rituals, passing the communion chalice and passing the peace, by Palm
Sunday in late March.
In an e-mail sent late Wednesday to its 291 parishes, the archdiocese announced it would soon be safe to resume the liturgical practices, which were widely suspended in October amid strong fears of the outbreak.
“We’re at a point now we’ve settled back into normalcy,’’ said Terrence Donilon, a spokesman for the archdiocese. “Everyone should be clear to be back to normal practices by then.’’
Many parishes have already resumed sharing communion wine and allowing worshipers to shake hands. Still, church officials urged those who have not to hold off a few more weeks.
“We just want to be careful and cautious and give people the best guidance possible,’’ Donilon said.
In the e-mail, Donilon wrote that “current data indicates flu activity has diminished and vaccinations for both H1N1 and seasonal flu strains are readily available.’’
“However, as public health officials continue to have concerns about a possible third wave and the potential resurgence of other flu strains through the remainder of the season, we would urge the return of the following liturgical practices throughout the Archdiocese by Palm Sunday.’’
Church officials had initially hoped to resume normal practices by Ash Wednesday, but local health officials recommended holding off until the end of flu season, Donilon said.
“Right now influenza activity is low, but it’s very difficult to predict,’’ said Anita Barry, director of the Infectious Disease Bureau at the Boston Public Health Commission, who spoke with church officials last week and recommended they suspend the two rituals last fall. Last year, flu season peaked in February, Barry noted. She urged people to be vaccinated and said doses are widely available.
The city’s Public Health Commission reported last month that children were most suspectible to the virus between April and July and that adults between ages 18 and 44 accounted for 44 percent of reported cases between Aug. 30 and Dec. 12. The same held true for hospitalizations.
In October, the church asked priests to stop sharing consecrated wine with parishioners at Communion and worshipers to forgo shaking hands or hugging during the “sign of peace’’ at Mass. The measures were designed to slow the spread of H1N1 and to reassure churchgoers who were nervous about contracting the virus.
The archdiocese urged parishes to disinfect fonts containing holy water and to change the water regularly. Disease specialists lauded the actions as responsible, although some worshipers call the changes unsettling.