Swine Flu Pandemic: A “teachable moment”?

A good bishop knows that he is called to teach “in season and out of season” – even if that season be the flu season.

Swine Flu has hit Melbourne. At last count we have over two hundred cases in Australia, with more than 170 of those here in Melbourne. The prediction is that in the end, one in five of us will get it.

The response of the community has been everything from panic to amusement. The Age has been having fun – Michael Leunig especially – in its cartoon section.

From The Age, May 27 2009

From The Age, May 27 2009

From The Age, May 29 2009

From The Age, May 29 2009

But while our cartoonists are using the swine flu outbreak for a bit of fun (and seriously, the symptoms haven’t been serious – quite mild apparently, even in comparison with the ordinary seasonal flu), one still has to take one’s hat off to our local ordinary in excelsis, Archbishop Denis Hart, for finding a “teachable moment” in the current situation.

Archbishop Hart yesterday issued a statement to all priests of the Archdiocese of Melbourne with new protocols to be followed at Mass for the prevention of the spread of the H1N1 virus. I became of aware of these when our parish priest read them out at the beginning of Mass tonight. Here they are from the Archdiocesan website:

Statement by Archbishop Hart regarding human swine flu
Friday 29 May 2009

Dear Father,

Re: Impact of H1N1 Influenza (Human Swine Flu) on Liturgical Practices

You will be aware that the H1N1 Influenza (Human Swine Flu) is extending into our community.

My advice at this time is that currently confirmed cases of H1N1 Influenza are exhibiting mild symptoms of illness, typical of the usual seasonal influenza virus. My advice is not to be alarmed but to consider the implications of swine flu in your parish and communities and to keep up to date with the latest information on the outbreak.

If parishioners are unwell they should seek medical attention for the best possible advice and avoid public places and close contact with others.

I remind priests, deacons and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion to practice good hygiene. Ministers of Holy Communion should be encouraged to wash their hands before Mass begins or to use an alcohol-based antibacterial solution before and after distributing Holy Communion.

During the Sign of Peace instead of shaking hands, kissing or embracing, as is practised in some parishes, it would be best to simply nod your head and avoid bodily contact.

When praying the Our Father do not hold hands, as may be practised in some parishes, but simply extend hands toward heaven or fold your hands.

Holy Communion should only be distributed under the species of the Consecrated Host and not the Chalice to limit the spread of germs during the H1N1 epidemic.

Prudence suggests that the reception of Holy Communion be on the hand but with respect for the freedom which the Holy See provides in this matter.

The manner of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is unique. The body and blood of Christ, along with His soul and divinity are truly present. (CCC n.1374) Christ is present whole and entire in each of the species. (CCC 1377)

Thus, to receive Christ present in the host is truly to receive the body and blood of Christ.

I encourage you and your parish community to pray for all those affected by Swine Flu and to join with me in doing our part to prevent its spread. We should accept the advice of the health authorities and wash our hands often and if we are sick, sneezing or coughing we should all stay home. Any other queries regarding H1N1 Influenza can be directed to:

The Swine Influenza Hotline – Phone: 180 2007
Nurse-on-Call – Phone 1300 606 024 – For expert health information and advice (24 hours, 7 days)
Your doctor (GP)
The situation will be kept under review and these guidelines revoked when the situation improves.

For those who are unable to attend Mass I draw your attention to the availability of “Mass For You At Home” telecast each Sunday at 6am on Channel 10.

The really neat thing about this statement and the recommendations (all which show a great deal of prudence and wisdom for dealing with the current situation as one would expect) is the way in which His Grace has skillfully used the present situation to teach priests and people a few things about the Eucharist and liturgy:

1) The order in which he names the Eucharistic ministers: The “ordinary ministers” (Priests and deacons) first, and THEN “extraordinary ministers”

2) The way he suggests the simple “nod” of the head as sufficient for the ritual of “passing the peace”. GIRM Australia (2007), while noting that “in Australia the most common form of the gesture of peace is the handshake”, also calls for “he sign of peace only to those who are nearest and in a sober manner”. A good opportunity to discourage indiscriminate hugging and kissing (“as is practised in some parishes “) outside of family groups. One cannot get more “sober” than a respectful nod! No more personal-space invasions!

3) Another one of these personal-space invasions “as may be practised in some parishes” is the old seventies “let’s-all-hold hands-during-the-Our-Father”. Thanks to swine flu, that one’s out too – although the extending of one’s hands “toward heaven” gets approval. (Thank goodness. I do that.)

4) Then the biggy: Communion under one kind until further notice. I was a bit surprised at the school mass on Friday that it was only in one kind, contra usual practice (but sensible in the school context). I thought it was the decision of our new priest, but perhaps he had already received this notice. In any case, I think tonight was the first time in living memory that a Sunday mass was celebrated in our parish in one kind only. I am sure that most parishioners had forgotten that communion in the Latin Rite is still normally under one kind only (“didn’t that go out with Vatican II?”). His Grace quotes the Catechism not once but twice to assure the faithful that “to receive Christ present in the host is truly to receive the body and blood of Christ”.

5) The next one is interesting. Whereas the Archbishop declares that all communions “should be” in one kind only until further notice, he merely notes that “prudence” might lead the communicant to decide to receive the host in the hand. “What?” I hear most people in the pew asking, “There is another way of receiving communion?” Yes, indeed there is, and that “other way” must be treated with due “respect for the freedom which the Holy See provides in this matter”. Just making the point. (Nevertheless in deference to the Archbishop’s directive, I received communion in the “prudent” manner tonight).

Of course, when I was a Lutheran pastor, I spent endless hours explaining that one really couldn’t catch something like the flu from using the common cup (although the big fear back then was HIV/AIDS), as long as you were using alcohol and a silver or gold chalice and the extraordinary minister knew how to use a purificator properly. But then, I never had the option of distributing the sacrament in one kind.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Swine Flu Pandemic: A “teachable moment”?

  1. Matthias

    speaking as a nurse ,and with some epidemiological background,these recommendations by the Archbishop are good common sense,being an example of what are called Standard precautions,which is NHMRC recommendation to ‘ treat all blood and bodily fluids as being potentially infectious’.
    I wonder Schutz, how Communion will be distributed in Byzantine Rite Catholic churches?

    • Now there’s a good point – about the Byzantines. I doubt if they will change the way they do things just because of a little influenza. But then, I expect that had we not had a “back up tradition”, so to speak, we wouldn’t be changing our practice either. The fact is that nothing the Archbishop recommends is outside our tradition in the Western Church. He has simply chosen (of the various options, legal or otherwise), the most prudent of the legal options in the circs. I expect that were the Byzantines to recommend anything, they might recommend not coming forward for communion if there was the slightest possibility that you might be carrying infection. They don’t, after all, have a tradition of communing every Sunday (a fairly recent “tradition” in the west too, for that matter). Alternatively, they might just invest in some special fumigation incense…

  2. If you get an e-mail from the Department of Health about swine flu, telling you not to eat tinned pork, ignore it: it’s spam.