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Mounting flu fears change way some Catholics celebrate Mass

Tawnya Panizzi
| Monday, Feb. 5, 2018, 3:27 p.m.
The Most Reverend David A. Zubik, bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, gives the homily at a Mass of Jubilation on Oct. 15, 2017 at St. Mary Church in Sharpsburg.
Jan Pakler | For the Tribune-Review
The Most Reverend David A. Zubik, bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, gives the homily at a Mass of Jubilation on Oct. 15, 2017 at St. Mary Church in Sharpsburg.

A rampant flu season is changing the way Catholics celebrate Mass, with religious leaders encouraging common sense to prevent the spread of the virus that so far has killed 65 people across the state.

The Rev. Michael Decewicz, pastor at St. Juan Diego in Sharpsburg, told parishioners this week they can forego a handshake during the sign of the peace.

“There is no single gesture required,” he said. “A bow is perfect at any time of year.”

The Rev. John McKenna, pastor at St. Januarius in Plum, was hard hit by the flu bug last month and is still recovering.

“I feel better but I'm still achy,” said McKenna, whose experience led him to postpone the ritual of sharing consecrated wine from the chalice during Holy Communion.

“People aren't getting slighted. It is always an option whether to take it or not,” said McKenna, leader of the Renton Road church for about one year.

McKenna couldn't remember a time when religious observances were suspended across the diocese, but he believes it is necessary for his parish.

“I'm certain everyone will understand,” he said.

The communal cup will return to Mass on Holy Thursday, March 29, just before Easter.

Bishop David Zubik, leader of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, has not issued a mandate on how parishes should handle flu fears. He is head of 600,000 parishioners in six counties.

“Each parish follows established guidelines,” said Monsignor Ron Lengwin, spokesman for the Pittsburgh Diocese. “We do not know what decisions parishes have made.”

Likewise, Greensburg diocesan spokesman Jerry Zufelt said there have been no directives from Bishop Edward C. Malesic for his 142,000 members across Westmoreland, Armstrong, Fayette and Indiana counties.

But in a letter mailed to parishes Jan. 31, Malesic asked leaders to be prudent in their practices. Priests should evaluate parish situations and modify liturgical practices if necessary.

Some, like Our Lady of Grace in Greensburg, issued new protocol during flu season.

Drinking from the chalice or other common cups during Mass is temporarily suspended, leaders said.

Allegheny County has been hit particularly hard by the flu epidemic.

As of Saturday, county officials had confirmed 6,102 cases, 513 hospitalizations and 11 deaths during the 2017-18 flu season. That's up from 2,684 cases, 252 hospitalizations and six deaths at the same time last year.

Armstrong has had 160 reported cases and Westmoreland 1,544, according to the health department report.

With two months left in the flu season, Monsignor Michael Begolly of Mount St. Peter Parish in New Kensington, is urging people to use common sense.

“We are still giving the chalice,” Begolly said.

“We trust that if people know they're sick, they shouldn't take from the chalice.”

From cleaning the holy water fonts to replacing handshakes with head nods, parishes across the country are faced with mounting flu concerns.

“I think the conversation is out there among everyone,” said the Rev. Thom Miller, pastor of St. Joseph Parish along Dorseyville Road in O'Hara.

“We're still giving out the chalice, but whether they take the body or the blood, people can make up their own mind.”

Decewicz said the decision to receive the wafer or wine always lies with each person.

“Christ is real and truly present under each species,” he said.

Anyone feeling uncomfortable drinking from the chalice should not obligated.

Similarly, he encouraged common sense hygiene practices.

Everyone should be reminded to have clean tissues or handkerchiefs with them and dispose of them properly, he said.

Also, he asked that people who are feeling sick should stay home.

Lengwin added that people should take precautions year-round to prevent the spread of germs.

“It's just as important during the summer,” he said.

Tawnya Panizzi is a staff writer for the Tribune-Review. Reach her at 412-782-2121, ext. 2, tpanizzi@tribweb.com or @tawnyatrib.

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