Catholic diocese in Vermont insists on `flu-free' services

Rules forbid sharing of wine, handshakes


BRATTLEBORO, Vt. - When it came time for the communion offering in Thanksgiving Mass at St. Michael's Roman Catholic Church, the Rev. Stanley Deresienski blessed the sacramental bread and wine on the altar, preparing it for distribution among the 40 or so congregants.

But the wine never touched the parishioners' lips, for in the war against the flu here, not even the sacred is spared.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington is the only one in the country that has formally asked priests to refrain from using the communion chalice and parishioners to avoid the usual handshake, hug or kiss when they make the sign of peace during Mass until the end of flu season, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said.

Other dioceses are taking measures such as encouraging hand-washing, requesting that sick people refrain from taking Communion and encouraging those uncomfortable with shaking hands not to do so, a spokesman for the conference said.

"Let's give one another a flu-free sign of peace," Deresienski said from the altar Thursday. With the exception of a few spouses pecking each other on the cheek, parishioners waved and smiled at one another.

Bishop Kenneth Angell requested the guidelines in late October, after Vermont officials said that the state was short 50,000 doses of flu vaccine. After discussing it with diocesan officials, Angell, 74, issued the edict.

The ban began Oct. 31 and will end Easter Sunday, March 27.

Diocesan officials say parishioners are generally pleased with the request, though some are disappointed that they are unable to complete Communion or fully exchange the peace.

"The bishop didn't want to make people feel out of place if they did not want to offer their hand. And we're concerned that if a good flu epidemic is going, it would be very hard to deal with," said Gloria Gibson, director of communications for the diocese.

The ban mirrors one that government and church officials in Ontario enacted last year during the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in Canada, after 29 people in a Catholic prayer group contracted the disease.

Dr. Arnold S. Monto, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan, said there was no evidence that the ban would stop transmission of the flu. Sitting in a pew with a sick person for an hour is probably riskier than the kind of contact covered by the edict, Monto said.

"In terms of the chalice, there is little evidence or no evidence that this is transmitted, such as hepatitis A in terms of oral transmission," he said.

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