Share the love, not the germs please

I’ve always dreaded Mass in the winter.  I naturally tend to feel overwhelmed in crowds but then add the coughing and sneezing that tags along with cold months and I’m a mental mess before service begins.  I try to choose our seats wisely, but there’s always a good chance that someone around us spends a good part of the Mass hacking away.  I’m like a beacon, calling the sick.  Or maybe I’m just hypersensitive to all the bodily noises around me (much more likely).  Either way, I hate that the one place I seek peace (and the one place peace probably actually exists) is the one place that peace alludes me…completely.  I spend the hour, suffering, wondering what funk we’re collecting this week.

Last winter, I read and re-posted a short article where the author begged her readers, “please don’t go to Mass this Christmas” if you’re sick.  She gently made her case and reminded readers, “I know that it’s painful to think about missing Christmas Mass, and you really are feeling better, but better doesn’t mean not-contagious. I’m coming to you as the mother of a child with an auto-immune disease and begging you to be merciful this Christmas. Your “almost better” could land her, the elderly, the very young, those on chemotherapy, etc in the hospital or, depending on the illness, even kill them.”  Her article seemed to be directed more at people who were at the tail end of an illness, not in the midst of one.  I think she was relying on common sense to dictate the obvious…if you are in the throes of an illness, you are better off staying home.  What appears to be a mild cold to an adult could be the croup or RSV to a child.  What is an annoying virus to you could be the beginning of a miserable experience, an illness plagued by complications, for someone with an auto-immune disease or an elderly person.  Common courtesy dictates that we share love, not germs.  I am, in no way, advocating a world where we all live in bubbles, but I am asking if you are sick, be kind and considerate.

Recently, we visited a church for Mass and were greeted, hesitantly, by a sick priest.  He still shook our hands, but warned us that he was sick.  I hastened to grab the germ-x to clean our hands after, but as Mass wore on and the poor priest continued to look and sound miserable, it occurred to me that the moment was quickly approaching when we would have to receive communion from his hands.  The same hands that had been covering his mouth each time he coughed.  The same communion that was being prayed over, while being coughed over.  I glanced over at the deacon and reassured myself that things might turn out fine because perhaps he would be handing out communion.  Perhaps Father would sit this one out.  Then the peace offering came.  I watched as the priest offered peace to the deacon and each of the altar servers and I cringed.  Those germs were being passed along to all the hands who were preparing to serve food to a congregation of elderly people and children.  The moment came.  While Dax, William and I managed to receive from the deacon, Joseph was one of the congregation who received the Body of Christ directly from Father’s hands.  But regardless of where Joseph received the Eucharist, the fact remained that Father had handed out the Eucharist to half of the people gathered there that day…half of the people gathered were now exposed to whatever bug Father had.

We left Mass and I felt utterly defeated.  Already I spend Mass worrying about who’s coughing around me, now I could add worrying about the Eucharistic ministers’ health to my list (this week it was the priest who was sick, next week would it be the deacon?).  I thought maybe this whole episode was a stark reminder of how as humans we often lack complete faith.  I thought maybe I misunderstood and perhaps the Body of Christ is protected from all germs.  I thought maybe this was a ploy by the devil to shake my faith.  After all, the moment I left church, I thought to myself, how will I ever receive communion again without worrying about what the hands that are feeding me are covered in?  This devilish ploy seemed to be working.

After arriving home, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  I wasn’t so much worried about us all getting sick as much as I was annoyed about the lack of common courtesy.  If I invite someone over for a meal, I always wash my hands before preparing food (and I’m not even going to put food directly into anyone’s mouth!).  Why should it be any different when serving the Eucharist?  In fact, you would think it would be even more important for everyone to wash their hands…it’s the Body of Christ, after all.  As Catholics we believe in transubstantiation…while it may look and taste like bread, it isn’t symbolic.  That is truly the Body of Christ.  Clean hands seem not only appropriate but required.

And truthfully, I’m not even just suggesting that those who are sick and handing out the Eucharist should wash their hands.  On the contrary, I am suggesting that those who are sick should abstain from handing out the Eucharist whereas those who are distributing, should be expected to wash their hands.  On their website about how flu is spread, the CDC states the following..

Most healthy adults may be able to infect other people beginning 1 day before symptoms develop and up to 5 to 7 days after becoming sick. Children may pass the virus for longer than 7 days. Symptoms start 1 to 4 days after the virus enters the body. That means that you may be able to pass on the flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick. Some people can be infected with the flu virus but have no symptoms. During this time, those persons may still spread the virus to others.

After reflecting a little more, I remembered that the last few times we visited the Austin area, each of the Catholic churches there had something in common.  After the peace offering, each person who would be distributing the Eucharist (the priest and deacon included and, of course, all extraordinary ministers) all washed their hands with a squirt of antibacterial alcohol sanitizer.  After a little digging, I found that, while there is no Diocesan policy in Austin regarding hand washing, many of the churches there have chosen to adopt a sanitizing rule of etiquette between the peace offering and distribution of communion.

I visited the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website and found this:

What measures should be taken in Roman Catholic liturgies in the United States of America during flu season?

Priests, deacons, and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion should be especially reminded of the need to practice good hygiene. Ministers of Holy Communion should always wash their hands before Mass begins; a further precaution suggests using an alcohol-based anti-bacterial solution before and after distributing Holy Communion.  The faithful should be instructed not to receive from the chalice if they feel ill.

Hmm, ministers of Holy Communion should always wash their hands before Mass begins?  I asked a few extraordinary ministers I know if that is a practice they follow.  The resounding answer was no, so either that rule has changed or it’s not a rule that’s followed (shoot, maybe it’s not even a rule at all, just a suggestion).  Regardless of whether the rule is followed or not, the fact that the USCCB even addresses the issue and suggests hand washing and even anti-bacterial solution leads me to believe that there is no miraculous germ killing happening between sick hands and the Eucharist.

Also, the faithful should be instructed not to receive from the chalice if they feel ill?  While to me it seems like common sense, I can say with absolute certainty, that this is the first time I have ever heard (or, in this case, read) that.  I know what it is to love the Lord and crave Holy Communion, but in the case of illness, perhaps we should look outside ourselves and remember that there is a collective audience out there who has come to receive the graces bestowed through Communion…not a communicable disease.

I agree wholeheartedly with RebeccaIf we’re kind-of under the weather, should we still be going to Mass?  Can I just say how much I love you people who ask this question? You’re sick enough to have the Get-Out-of-Mass-Free card right there in your grasp, and yet your love of God, hunger for the Eucharist, and sense of duty have you yearning to be there.  Here’s how I see it – if you’re (or your kids are) sick enough to be asking that question, then please stay home.  Rebecca’s article seemed geared toward those of us in the congregation, however, I’d like to extend the sentiments to those who are serving the Mass….the priests, the deacons and the extraordinary ministers.

I humbly implore anyone who is sick and considering Mass, to please remember that having a contagious disease is a valid excuse for missing Mass, as stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin” (CCC 2181, emphasis added.) but if you feel that you absolutely must be there, then remember to be courteous.

This blogger does an excellent job of summing up the choice of attending Mass…One mother may stay home with a colicky teething nursing infant; another may go to Mass, expecting to stand in the back for much of it, but needing to be present as best she can be. One person battling a winter cold may stay home either for his own sake or for the sake of those fragile parishioners whom he may endanger with his virus; another may feel well enough to go to Mass, but will prudently bow towards those near him instead of shaking their hands at the Sign of Peace. One person with a four-wheel drive vehicle may venture out on uncleared roads in a snowstorm; another may pray at home, aware that the family’s old car in need of new tires isn’t safe under these circumstances. And so long as none of them takes the obligation to attend Mass lightly, or is, as the Catechism says, “deliberately fail(ing)” in the obligation to attend Mass, they needn’t worry about the specifics of their prudential decision. 

If you’re still unsure of whether you should be at Mass, Michelle does an excellent job of what constitutes a reason to miss Mass and she gives common courtesy reminders if you choose to still attend like not shaking hands during the peace offering and not taking the cup at communion.  She explicitly points out that It should go without saying that anyone who is even the slightest bit ill should not be distributing Communion as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion.

One last thought before I come off sounding like a know-it-all lay person. I understand that there are some people that are more crucial to Mass than others and I can imagine extenuating circumstances that might make missing Mass a more difficult decision for someone in charge.  After all, if I stay home to nurse a sick kid or two, chances are no one will miss us that week.  And if I do choose to attend, I can easily avoid shaking hands or sharing germs in other ways like sharing a communion cup.  But it might not be so easy for a priest.  If the priest has to miss Mass, then the congregation may have to miss out completely if there is no one to fill in or they may only be able to celebrate with a communion service.  The priest may feel this unnecessary and therefore he finds himself celebrating Mass.  There are still options available for a sick priest:  He could choose to sit out at communion and allow the deacon and other extraordinary ministers to distribute the Eucharist in order to avoid passing on germs or, as suggested by the USCCB, he could use alcohol based sanitizer.  It seems reasonable to say that deacons and extraordinary ministers should sit out, especially if sanitizer is not available.  And, of course, it goes without saying that just like the rest of the congregation, simple courtesies like covering your mouth and not shaking hands (before and after Mass and at the peace offering) can go a long way.

All in all, it just comes down to showing a little courtesy…share the love, folks, not the germs.

P.S.  A little aside…Joseph did end up getting sick, although most likely he caught it from Katie who showed signs the night after Mass, so it’s probably safe to say that we caught our funk elsewhere and while it was blessedly mild for those two, Andrew was not so lucky.  He’s still hacking away, hunkered down on his little bed, kleenex nearby.  Just goes to show that what’s mild for some is miserable for others.

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