Ditching Communion Wine, Avoiding Handshakes: Here's How 5 Churches Are Avoiding the Flu

Expand | Collapse
(Photo: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)Jimi Nash drinks communion wine during a Sunday service at Bella Vista Assembly of God church in Bella Vista, Arkansas, November 8, 2009.

The United States is experiencing an increase in influenza infections this winter compared with recent years, leading many churches and dioceses to take extra precautions amid reports of hundreds of Americans dying of flu-related complications, including more than 50 children.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta has estimated that nearly 15,000 people have been hospitalized since October, which is double the number last flu season.

Congregations across the denominational spectrum are giving advice and warnings to their members and are even changing certain aspects of their rituals and ceremonies.

Here are five examples of local congregations and regional bodies that are altering communion and church activities to help ease the worries of some and hopefully curb the infection rate.

Immaculate Conception Catholic Church

Expand | Collapse
(Photo: Facebook/Immaculate Conception Catholic Church - Traverse City Michigan)Immaculate Conception Catholic Church of Traverse City, Michigan.

Father Anthony Citro of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church of Traverse City, Michigan, told a local news outlet that his congregation was taking precautions, among them being that they were no longer serving wine as part of communion.

"When we serve the body and blood of Christ we no longer serve under the species of the wine, we've stopped drinking from the cup," said Citro in an interview with UpNorth Live. 

"As long as this epidemic is continuing we are doing a month-to-month basis seeing what we need to do."

St. John's Episcopal Church

Expand | Collapse
(Photo: Facebook/St. John's Episcopal Church, Charlestown)St. John's Episcopal Church of Charlestown, Massachusetts.

In a pastoral letter sent out last month, the Rev. Thomas Mousin of St. John's Episcopal Church of Charlestown, Massachusetts, told congregants it was OK to miss church if they were sick.

"First and foremost, if you are sick, or feeling sick, stay home if you can. It is OK to miss a Sunday at church if you have any reason to believe that you might be catching the flu or are capable of spreading it," wrote Mousin.

In keeping with the theme of good neighbor activity, Mousin also wrote that refraining from taking communion wine or shaking hands during the passing of the peace was acceptable.

"Wash hands often, smile rather than shake hands as needed, and avoid crowds when not feeling well yourself — all are ways of being a good neighbor," continued Mousin.

The Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn

Expand | Collapse
(Photo: Facebook/Diocese of Brooklyn)The insignia of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn.

To combat the bad flu season, which has hit New York City especially hard, the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn has told its parishes to suspend the serving of wine during communion.

In an interview with local media, St. James Cathedral Basilica rector Fr. Peter Purpura explained that they were trying to take measures to keep their members safe.

"This is all about making sure we are playing our part in keeping people safe and in keeping people healthy," said Purpura.

"The challenge with distributing holy communion with wine is you actually have to use a shared chalice. So that could be a moment where people could contract illness."

Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart

Expand | Collapse
(Photo: Facebook/Official Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart Page)Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Houston, Texas.

Downtown Houston, Texas' Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart announced that they were also changing their way of distributing communion.

Co-Cathedral Deacon Leonard Lockett explained to local media in an interview published earlier this week how they were going to change things for the time being.

"Normally we would have eight to 16 cups at different stations throughout the sanctuary and individuals will come out and receive the precious body followed by the reception of the precious blood from the cup," noted Lockett. "But because of the flu outbreak and the church being cautious on that, we received the precious body but we didn't distribute the precious blood."

The Rivers Church

Expand | Collapse
(Photo: Reuters/Dave Kaup)Low-gluten prayer breads fill a container at the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration monastery in Clyde Missouri December 18, 2014. The Sisters have made communion wafers since 1910 and began making a low-gluten version in 2003 and have gone from 143 customers in 2004 to more than 11,000 customers from around the world.

Ginger Moore, director of women's ministry at The Rivers Church of Paducah, Kentucky, explained to local media about some of the things her congregation was doing to fight the flu. 

Items listed by Moore in an interview with WPSD News Channel 6 included those serving communion wearing gloves and doing the "elbow bump" instead of shaking hands during the passing of the peace. 

"While we're a church that likes to give out hugs, for me personally if I know that you've had the flu or a cold, you're going to be getting the elbow bump from me," said Moore. 

"Sometimes, you know, when you're passing the tray you might have someone not realize they picked up somebody else's empty cup. That's just another way to spread germs."

Moore added that for members who have the flu she advises that they "just stay home," and assures them that "Jesus still loves you" even if you miss church. 

WPSD also reported that a nearby church, First Missionary Baptist Church in Benton, Kentucky, set up many "sanitization stations" that had each hand sanitizer, glozes, masks and Kleenex.

Follow Michael Gryboski on Twitter or Facebook