CONCERNS about the spread of an Australian flu virus that has arrived in Ireland has led to Roman Catholic churches in two dioceses to suspend the sign of the peace during mass.
Clergy in the RC diocese of Down & Connor have been asked to call a temporary halt to the exchange of a handshake between members of the congregation at the Peace. And priests are being urged to wash their hands or use alcohol gel before mass and after distributing holy communion.
The diocese says that its precautions are based on medical advice to reduce the risk of spreading the infection. It also recommends that the distribution of wine in chalices to more than one person is suspended. The same measures were taken in churches across much of the UK during the H1N1 swine flu pandemic of 2009 (News, 5 November 2009).
The parish priest of St John’s, Belfast, Fr Martin Magill, said that everyone knew of the pressures being placed on hospitals, and the need for action to help ease the problem would be readily understood. “This is an effort to do something that will make a difference. It is precautionary more than anything else”, he said.
Across the border in Co. Donegal, the parish priest of Kilbarron, in Ballyshannon, Fr Cathal Ó Fearraí, has said that he has taken similar action and suspended the traditional shaking of hands at masses. The suspension would remain in place, he said, until the risk period was over.
The decision comes after the RC Primate of All Ireland, Dr Eamon Martin, said in his homily for New Year and World Peace Day that “the handshake we give nowadays at the sign of peace during mass is not any ordinary friendly gesture or greeting: it is a solemn exchange of the peace of Christ.
“It is a prayer for unity within the Church herself, and a plea for peace in the whole human family.
“The sign of peace makes a statement, just before holy communion, that we are brothers and sisters, one family in Christ the Lord. It is also a pledge that we will go out from the eucharist in charity and in love, to build bridges and to heal hurts and divisions within the wider human family. . .
“I have heard that some people apparently do not like the sign of peace at mass, and, for various reasons, would prefer not to be invited to offer it.
“That would disappoint me, but I think we should be far more troubled by the reality that Christ’s peace is needed so much and by so many, with all the threats to unity and peace within the Christian community and the world.”