Cold and flu season has been upon us for a while now, and with brutal winter temperatures repeatedly slamming the Eastern half of the country, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. But let’s face it, the possibility of catching something at Mass is a year-round affair – and there are reasons for that.
Most Catholic churches, especially older ones, are not giant megachurch-type auditoriums, with comfy seating, wide aisles, excellent ventilation, and a multiplicity of bathroom stalls. We’re usually on hard pews, packed close to each other at the most popular Masses, and in-church bathrooms – when there is more than one – are often on the small side.
Also, Catholics tend to have kids. It is a positive good to bring children to Mass, but it does increase the risk of germ transfer – and let’s not even think about what goes on in the small crying room when it starts to hit maximum capacity.
And we have common practices at Mass that can also exacerbate the problem: the possibility of communal hand-holding during the Our Father; shaking hands at the Sign of Peace; and then, after both of these, taking Holy Communion in the hand.
The consecrated Eucharist is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ, but it is not an instant germ-zapper.
Fortunately, there are ways to work around this.
First, if you are sick, just assume you’re contagious and stay home. You will not incur any penalty from doing so (and that goes for a person who must miss Mass to take care of you). Watch Mass on EWTN, or, if you really desire the Eucharist (or will be sick for some time), arrange with your parish to have a priest or deacon visit and give you Communion.
Second, there’s hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes. Since hand-washing in the middle of Mass is difficult if not nearly impossible, they are your friend. Now, while pulling out a wipe and dealing with your child’s runny nose or the Cheerios crumbs all over their face and hands is socially acceptable, some adults may worry that sanitizing themselves will give the wrong message to their pewmates.
Basically, they believe it says, “Pewmate, you are a Child of God and my Brother or Sister in Christ, but I think you have cooties.” Trust me, don’t worry about that. They’re probably thinking the same thing about you. And if you sanitize before and after the Sign of Peace, you’re not only protecting yourself but them as well.
Of course, there is a simpler solution to this – don’t touch other people, and take Communion on the tongue.
Regarding the Sign of Peace, while the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) says we should mark this moment “typically by shaking hands,” it’s by no means an edict. Also, it’s not supposed to extend to every person within a 100-foot radius.
According to liturgical rubrics, while the manner of the Sign may change from place to place, “However, it is appropriate that each person, in a sober manner, offer the sign of peace only to those who are nearest.”
So, we could cut down on people edging back and forth across pews, doing yoga stretches to lean over pews, crossing aisles, and actually walking up and down the aisles, to give the Sign of Peace to every other parent in the third-grade class in their child’s parish school.
Also, it’s been my experience that very few people can do a proper handshake anymore, and I’d rather they not bother to try than halfheartedly extending limp digits. It doesn’t seem to be any fun for them, and it sure doesn’t do anything for me. If you’re going to put out your hand to be shaken, for Pete’s sake, actually be prepared to do it.
Better yet, how about putting your hand on your heart, making eye contact with everyone in your immediate 360-degree circle, smiling and saying, “Peace be with you”?
I suspect a lot of people who don’t care for shaking hands and are tired of either feeling compelled to do it anyway or having to somehow beg off will be silently very grateful.
As for the hand-holding among the entire congregation during the Our Father, if you want to do it among your friends or family, have at it, but it’s not proper to compel people to do it as a congregation. If nothing else, sensitivity to not pressuring someone into unwanted physical contact with a stranger should mitigate against it – not to mention the health issues.
But even if you’ve had palm-to-palm contact with half the congregation, and have no way to sanitize your hands, taking Communion on the tongue solves that problem neatly.
Or, third, you could avoid all of the touching issues and – provided your archdiocese contains a parish that offers it – simply go to the Tridentine Mass, a k a the Extraordinary Form of the Mass (as opposed to the Ordinary Form of the Mass, a k a the Novus Ordo, a k a what you get in most parishes). The Tridentine is also colloquially known as the “Latin Mass,” as it’s not sometimes, but always, done in Latin (but most missals have an accompanying English translation).
The congregation does not extend the Sign of Peace to each other, there is definitely no Kumbaya group hand-holding, and Communion is always on the tongue. As a bonus, though, there is a great deal of “Catholic calisthenics” – getting up and down and kneeling – so it’s a good workout. After one Tridentine Mass, my fitness tracker said I’d climbed three floors.
Here’s to your physical and spiritual health!