Maine churches are suspending traditional rituals such as sharing communion wine and shaking hands to try to prevent the spread of flu as cases of illness and hospitalizations increase rapidly around the state.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, which covers all of Maine, announced Thursday that parishes would be directed to suspend the sharing of consecrated wine, holding hands during the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and shaking hands as a sign of peace, among other things. The directives came after Bishop Robert Deeley reviewed reports about influenza from state health authorities, the diocese said.

“If you have watched the news at all, you will know the whole country is in the midst of this flu,” the Rev. Gregory Dube said Thursday during Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland. “We pray for those who are afflicted with this flu, and we will do our best to mitigate our exposure as well.”

It’s not only Catholic churches that are responding. Other churches also are advising against holding or shaking hands, or are keeping hand sanitizer accessible to worshipers.

Churchgoers in Maine are being discouraged from holding hands, a Roman Catholic custom during recitation of the “Our Father.” Staff photo by Gregory Rec

There is “widespread” flu activity in all 16 counties, according to the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Maine had reported 1,187 cases of people who had tested positive for flu through Jan. 13. Almost all of those cases were H3N2, a virulent strain of influenza A that is more likely to result in hospitalization. By the end of last week, 327 flu cases in Maine required hospitalization, or about 28 percent of the positive flu tests reported to the state.

The number of cases surged last week, with 391 positive tests and 105 hospitalizations reported for the week ending Jan. 13. There are probably more cases that were not reported.

This is the first time since 2009 that Maine’s Catholic bishop has directed parishes to follow the protocols, although individual priests have done so on their own in recent years.

According to Deeley’s directive, parishioners who are sick should stay away from large church gatherings and are not obligated to attend Sunday Mass. Parishes will suspend the sharing of consecrated wine, with the exception of those who must receive from the cup because they can’t receive the host for medical reasons.

Parishioners also will be urged, but not required, to receive Holy Communion in their hands rather than having wafers placed on their tongues. Priests are being advised to be careful not to touch the tongues or hands of communicants.

Deeley also is asking parishioners not to shake hands with each other during the Sign of Peace and instead offer a verbal acknowledgment, smile or bow of the head.

The Rev. Peter Kaseta, parochial vicar at the Parish of the Holy Eucharist, which includes churches in Falmouth, Yarmouth, Gray and Freeport, said the parish implements these changes every year as a precaution. The staff there decided to begin flu season protocols last week.

When Kaseta was ordained 50 years ago, it was rare for parishes to take such steps during flu season. But the announcements have become more common in the past 10 to 15 years, he said.

“I think it’s a good idea,” Kaseta said. “It tells people the bishop is caring and concerned for the health and the welfare of the people in the diocese.”

At daily Mass at the Cathedral in Portland, Rev. Dube announced the protocols would begin Thursday.

When Peter Doyle, of Portland, went to the altar to distribute communion, he took a pump of hand sanitizer from a side table. Doyle said he tries to clean his hands before and after giving out communion at all times of the year.

“I generally avoid shaking hands in the winter anyway,” he said.

Julie Rice of Portland said she is on alert during flu season because she doesn’t want to get her young grandchildren sick. She said most people follow the bishop’s suggestions to prevent spreading germs.

“This is feeling good,” she said.

Carolyn Willard, of South Portland, said the changes during flu season are a way for parishioners to look out for each other, especially the elderly.

“I think it’s more than reasonable,” Willard said. “There are other ways to greet each other and praise God.”

Other churches in Maine also are taking extra precautions to keep members healthy.

At the First Parish Congregational Church in South Portland, anti-bacterial hand sanitizer is placed at both sanctuary entrances year-round to help stop the spread of germs.

The Rev. Deborah Breault of the First Parish Congregational Church of Saco said she plans several steps to encourage members to help prevent the spread of illness, including a reminder to children to cough into their elbows instead of their hands.

At the end of each service, the Saco congregation sings a parting song, “Go in Peace,” and many church members hold hands. Breault said she will include in the weekly bulletin a note suggesting people stop holding hands during the song until flu season is over.

“We want to keep everyone safe and healthy so they can be here,” she said.

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: megan_e_doyle

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