Q: After the swine flu epidemic last year, it became the practice in many of our diocesan parishes to use hand sanitizer before the extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion distribute Communion. In one parish the presiding priest is even given a squirt of the sanitizer prior to his distribution of Communion as well. Am I being overly concerned or is this a strange practice? It is very distracting. -- C.M., Springfield, Massachusetts
A: I do not think there is necessarily a right or wrong answer to such a question. Health situations and concrete possible dangers change from year to year, and the pastoral response must change according to the situations.
I would agree that a severe situation in one year should not be an avenue for the introduction of emergency practices on a permanent basis, as this is likely to lead to distractions for the faithful.
In periods of severe danger of contagion a bishop could even go so far as to exempt his flock from the Sunday obligation and even order the cancellation of public Masses. In recent years, and for different classes of infection, such situations have arisen in Ireland and Mexico.
In less severe situations lesser precautions may be taken, such as discouraging handshakes during the sign of peace, or a prudent and discreet use of disinfectant such as that described by our reader.
If the use of a hand sanitizer is deemed necessary, then it would be better for the extraordinary ministers to use it in the sacristy before beginning their services.
In the case of the priest, unless he has some cold symptoms himself, it is probably enough for him to use the sanitizer immediately before beginning Mass. It is unlikely for him to become contagious during the celebration itself, and this gesture is likely to make people more, rather than less, wary at the moment of receiving Communion.
For example, in my own experience, many long-term care centers for the elderly require visitors to sanitize only on entering the premises even though they might be spending some time in contact with the residents.
In spite of this, however, such means could be used immediately before communion if the situation warranted it. If the diocese has not issued particular norms, then the parish priest could ask for medical opinion with respect to taking reasonable precautions.
The faithful should also be aware that suffering from severe cold or flu is a sufficient justification for not attending Mass.
In more acute cases refraining from attending a crowded Mass could even be considered an obligation of charity, by not placing others at risk.
Finally, we must remember that, while prudence is necessary, most people who catch colds and flu don't do so at Mass but rather at home, at work and at school where they spend most of their time and in close contact with others.
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Follow-up: Shades of Violet in Advent
Gauging from the response, it appears that our Dec. 4 comments on different shades of violet has struck a nerve for some readers. One Illinois priest wrote, "I was happy to see that you indicated that a parish is not required to buy different shades of violet/purple vestments in relation to the so-called appropriate hues for Advent and Lent."
Another priest, from Canada, commented, "I have come to realize that many who would distinguish Advent and Lenten violets do so because they do not properly recognize the penitential character of Advent. This is why, so they say, it should not be the same shade of violet. As you have rightly stated, the Church makes no such distinction between the two seasons. However, I believe it would be acceptable to hold that Lent has a stronger penitential flavor than Advent, or at least it's more obviously so."
Our correspondent is correct in saying that the Church makes no distinction between Lent and Advent with respect to shades of violet, but that it does distinguish between the two seasons in many other ways such as the possibility of celebrating saints and votive celebrations, the use of flowers and of the organ, and the singing of the Alleluia.
Therefore, while we could say that Advent has a certain penitential character it is far less marked than that of Lent. We could say that the accent of Advent is more centered on spiritual purification and preparation to receive the Lord. Lent, on the other hand, is geared more toward repentance for sins and freeing ourselves from the bonds of earthly attractions.
I desire a blessed and holy Christmas to all our readers.
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Readers may send questions to [email protected]. Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.