One of the traditions of the Catholic mass just before communion is to exchange the sign of peace. It's a moment when all the parishoners turn to the people beside them, in front of them and behind them, shake their hand and say "peace be with you."  For people who weren't brought up Catholic it's a little odd to turn to strangers, look them in the eye and start talking to them.  Would you do that on a train or at an airport gate?  Most people feel uncomfortable doing that, but in a Catholic mass it's a symbol of unity.

The other problem with exchanging the sign of peace is the health aspect.  Some people just don't want other people touching them for fear of being infected with germs.  This year at Christmas eve mass where after exchanging the sign of peace with a family in front of me the mother pulled hand sanitizer out of her purse and gave a squirt to her husband and two young sons.  I couldn't help but laugh as I thought it was so ironic that it was ok to exchange the sign of peace.....but you better not give me any germs.

Well during the flu season the Buffalo Catholic Diocese has issued some new rules to protect against spreading germs.  Bishop Richard Malone has issued an official directive to all of the diocese's 163 parishes and 50 schools:

  • Holy water fonts are to be drained, cleaned with disinfecting soap, and re-filled with holy water on a regular basis. Sponges should be removed.
  • Ministers of Holy Communion should take special care not to touch the hands or the tongue of parishoners.
  • No physical contact should take place during the exchange of the sign of peace.
  • The distribution of the Precious Blood is suspended.

That last one is the big one.  I've always wondered about the sanitary aspect of allowing a long line of people to drink wine from a metal chalise and the only safeguard is to take a napkin and wipe the chalise.  Temporarily that custom is out.  For years I always thought small Dixie cups or little cups you use in restaurants for ketchup would be a better idea.

The bishop is also advising that children and staff at Catholic schools should stay home if they show signs of illness.

According to the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases this year's influenza virus is the most widespread outbreak since public health authorities began keeping track more than a dozen years ago. The State Health Department reports that cases of influenza rose by 54% last week and new cases were diagnosed in all counties of the state.