Flu and Church

The flu season is at its height. I hope you got your flu shot. It’s not only for your protection, but also for the good of those around you.

The church is not a very significant place for transmitting the flu. The workplace, public transportation, schools and families, where many people are in prolonged contact with each other, are the more likely places to get it. Nonetheless, “where two or three are gathered” anywhere, including church, the flu virus takes advantage of its opportunity to travel.

If you are sick, please stay home.

Giving it to others is not something God likes; it is not a virtue to drag your fevered body with its runny nose and constant coughing and sneezing to Mass. If you’re sick, “Mass obligation” is suspended; it’s a greater obligation not to pass it on.

There are two things we do in church that expose us to the flu bug. One is to breathe, the other is to touch things. We can’t avoid either of those, so the trick is to minimize the risk of getting an infectious dose, a sufficiently large quantity of the virus to temporarily overwhelm our immune system and thereby make us sick as the immune system rebuilds its strength and fights off the invaders.

The virus needs a moist medium. Therefore you want to minimize contact with the medium that carries the virus. The moisture from someone else’s cough or sneeze gets in the air that you breathe, but more importantly it gets on your hands and then you touch your eyes, mouth, and nose – and, bingo, you’re infected. Touching our eyes, mouth and nose with our hands is something we do instinctively, and it’s unrealistic to avoid it altogether.

For if you’re coughing or sneezing you should never do so openly or into your hand. (Droplets from a good sneeze can travel more than six feet, and then they settle on whatever surface happens to be there, including another person’s breathing system.) The best advice, though it may sound gross, is cough or sneeze into your elbow. A tissue may stop the droplets, but doesn’t do much for your hands, unless you wash your hands before you touch anything or anyone else.

Frequent washing of hands for everyone is the most important thing you can do. Soap and water is best, and every bit as effective as disinfectant. However, use those dispensers outside church as you come and go, and it’s advisable to keep some moist towelettes in pocket or purse – and use them frequently. (The problem with hand disinfectants is that they either contain alcohol, which is harsh on the skin, or an antibiotic, which is valueless against viruses and helps create resistant strains of bacteria. Remember those buggers reproduce – and evolve adaptively – at a very fast rate!)

At the Sign of Peace during Mass, I have a motto: “A hug is better than a handshake.” Not only is it more hygienic, a modest embrace is actually the ancient liturgical tradition for what was originally – when people to knew and lived the power of symbols – the “Kiss of Peace” at Mass. If you’re not into hugging, perhaps a light touch on the forearm will provide a meaningful gesture. Or, at least smile and acknowledge the other person’s dignity as a fellow Child of God!

One thing we are not going to is to stop offering the Precious Blood of Christ at Mass. There is minimal risk of spreading respiratory infections this way, and many studies have shown that this is true. (I’ve read most of the sources for this over the past thirty years, and have written several widely published articles on the subject.) The Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion cleanse their their hands before Communion, to minimize whatever small risk there may be. The people who may want to avoid receiving from the chalice are those with a compromised immune system for whatever reason, and those who actively have the symptoms of illness, for obvious reasons.

While there are many ways you can get sick in church, if you are otherwise reasonably healthy, sharing the Blood of Christ, along with your sisters and brothers in Christ, is not one of them.

Therefore, I encourage you in celebrating the Eucharist to remain faithful and obedient to the three-fold command of Christ which we hear at the heart of our prayer: “Take and eat . . . Take and drink . . . Do this in memory of me.”

I love you,

Fr. Tom Welbers

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