Catholic churches across Europe are suspending the sign of peace during Mass in an attempt to halt the spread of coronavirus.
Updated guidance issued by the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales recommended a range of new measures to prevent the transmission of the virus, similar to those already implemented in other countries. The English and Welsh bishops also advised parishes affected by cases of the virus not to pass around collection plates or baskets.
Besides dropping the sign of peace, they included the suspension of Communion under both species, with the host to be given in the hand only. They also include the removal of holy water fonts, the suspension of the use of shared hymn books and missals, and of large parish gatherings where people might use shared utensils or plates of food and drinks.
Elderly and weak people, as well as those who are showing any signs of sickness, should be advised to stay at home, says the guidance, which was published on the bishops’ conference website.
The guidance also tells Catholics to wash their hands before and after taking part in a church liturgy. It advises against kissing or touching of crosses, statues, pictures and relics in Holy Week.
Italy announced on 10th March that it had more than 10,000 people infected with COVID-19, as the specific coronavirus is named, within two weeks. It said 631 people had died from the disease there.
The United Kingdom has nearly 350 cases of coronavirus, with six fatalities by 10th March.
Dr Jenny Harries, the UK chief medical officer, has told media, however, that a large-scale outbreak is inevitable with “many thousands of people” expected to become infected “in due course.”
The guidance from the English and Welsh bishops represents an update to the second of three phases, with the final phase envisaging the suspension of Sunday Masses.
Similar advice was issued by the Catholic Church in France, Germany and Spain in early March.
The German bishops are advising Catholics to avoid the sign of peace and any other direct contact with fellow worshippers.
KNA, the German Catholic news agency, reported no church services will be held in parts of the western city of Bielefeld until 20th March because priests have been ordered to self-isolate. This follows the discovery that a member of the pastoral team of a parish in Bielefeld Ost contracted the coronavirus during a trip to the Holy Land.
Churches are continuing to celebrate Masses, however, in the Heinsberg district of North Rhine-Westphalia, the worst-hit part of Germany, where there are more than 150 confirmed coronavirus cases.
Throughout Germany, there have been nearly 1,200 coronavirus cases. There have been nearly 1,250 coronavirus cases in Spain with more than 30 deaths. Similarly, in France, there have been about 1,400 cases with more than 30 deaths.
In France, advice issued on 5th March by Fr Thierry Magnin, the general secretary of the French bishops’ conference, also advised the suspension of the sign of peace and the emptying of holy water fonts. He said that during Masses concelebrated by several priests the practice of “intinction,” whereby the host is dipped in the chalice, is acceptable among the celebrants.
Picture: A man prays inside an empty Catholic church in Milan on 1st March 2020. European churches have begun guidance for Masses in attempt to halt the spread of the coronavirus. (CNS photo/Yara Nardi, Reuters).