During the week of March 2, I put out at least three notices describing the Diocese of Baton Rouge’s response to the possible arrival of the coronavirus here in Louisiana and the Diocese. By the time you read this in The Catholic Commentator there may already be a confirmed case. The fact that I put out three notices and all of them a little different was because of how fast the perceived concern grew in just a few days. I also began to hear of some misinterpretation of the changes we were making to our celebration of the Mass and the guidelines we were suggesting as best practices in this situation. I thought it would be helpful to put on paper where we are at this moment in our response to minimizing the possible spread of this virus in our community.  

Our main response now is primarily with the celebration of the Mass because we gather so many people from the area on Sunday and often times have guests that have travelled to our diocese and are looking for a Mass to attend. For example, last Sunday I met a man from Quebec, Canada who was visiting the area. In order to reduce the spread of the virus we are making two changes to the Liturgy: 1. We will temporarily throughout the diocese stop offering the common Communion cup at all Masses; and 2. We ask that the congregation not hold hands at the Our Father and to refrain from handshaking/touching at the sign of peace. The sign of peace will still be introduced and we can by a nod, a smile or a gesture convey the peace of Christ to one another. Of course within a family more physical gestures could be shared.  

I strongly suggest that if you are sick that you do not come to church. It is never a sin to miss Mass when you are sick but in these times even if you feel that you are not that sick and could come to church, reconsider, not for your sake but for the sake of others.  

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I also suggest that you consider receiving Holy Communion in the hand rather than on the tongue. This is a suggestion that has caused some of you concern for which I am sorry. That was not my intention. This suggested change has been proposed to us from a medical point of view as the better way to diminish the transmission of the virus. Obviously receiving on the hand does not eliminate the risk either. Please, brothers and sisters, know that I am not for or against either way of receiving communion. I am simply trying to pass on what seem to be best practices for controlling the spread of the virus. So to be clear you are still able to receive communion as you prefer without any problem. But if you do not have a strong preference we suggest receiving in the hand.  

My last thought on this is for us to have the proper spirit in accepting these changes to our liturgy even if it feels a little strange. I know that it is a little awkward to just smile at someone at the sign of piece. You might also wonder why not shaking hands is so important but we then turn around and touch the pew in front of us that everyone has been touching all day. The temporary change we are making in the sign of peace (and in some churches holding hands at the Our Father) is important when you consider what happens when you stretch out your hand to the other person. Immediately the person may feel obligated out of kindness to shake your hand while they are in fact very afraid they might get sick. You may not be concerned because your health is strong but the person you offer your hand to may not be so healthy, may even be very fragile in their health and they are concerned, maybe even afraid. This temporary change to the sign of peace and the Our Father is being made so that everyone will feel comfortable coming to church knowing they can maintain a healthy distance and still be with their Catholic family for Mass. This change is about us all being sensitive to the needs of others and doing something that will put many people at real peace and feel more welcomed and respected.  

During this time of concern about the coronavirus let us act with real charity to one another. Also, don’t focus on what is changing but what is UNCHANGED. Remember that when we gather for Mass we still hear the Word of God proclaimed and we receive the very body and blood of Christ that strengthens us. If we focus on the unchanging reality of the Mass, we will find that these temporary changes in the way we celebrate the Mass actually changes very little of what is most important. If we then focus our minds and hearts on what is most important and wonderful in the Mass, we will rediscover the comfort and peace that God is with us in these unsettling times. May this peace be with you now and always.