WASHINGTON – There’s a hesitation after the priest says it.
“Let us offer each other the sign of peace.”
Traditionally, worshippers extend a hand to strangers. Maybe a hug and kiss on the cheek for family and friends.
Today, it’s just a nod. A group of school children flash each other two fingers in a V-shape.
While the threat of the new coronavirus may not be imminent here at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, changes are being made. And it’s not just in Washington: Across the nation, Catholics have altered their worship practices in an abundance of caution and concern over COVID-19.
At the Basilica, priests have started asking worshippers not to shake hands at the sign of peace, which occurs around midway through the Catholic service. Most Masses here normally don’t offer wine during communion, but those that do are suspending the use of the shared chalices for now.
William Bowman isn’t too concerned, though. He comes to Mass most days and that’s not about to change.
“Snow didn’t stop us,” the 71-year-old Boston transplant said in the crypt of the Basilica after morning Mass. “I think basically we put it in God’s hands.”
He wasn’t surprised as the priest asked parishioners not to shake hands, and he still received communion on his tongue. “The graces that come with communion are enormous,” he said, smiling.
Communion is central to every Mass. It’s when Catholics receive bread and wine that have been consecrated into Christ’s body and blood. Some parishioners opt to receive the host on their tongue while others in their hands.
“As much as you try, you can still get saliva on your fingers,” said Sister Anne O’Donnell, 80, who has been a Eucharistic minister before. “It’s hard to be sanitary.”
O’Donnell tries to quell her fear of the virus, telling herself she’s OK now as she lives on the East Coast. Her great uncle died of the Spanish flu, and given her age and health, she says she’s glad churches are being cautious.
However, for others parishioners, the fears seem overblown.
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“It doesn’t make any sense,” said Stacy Robinson, 39. “You’re more likely to get it on the Metro.” Asked if the coronavirus would affect whether he comes to Mass or how he worships, Robinson said, “Not at all.”
Throughout Washington, the diocese has urged churches to take precautionary measures. Those who are sick are encouraged not to drink from a communal chalice or attend Mass altogether. “If you need to refrain from Sunday Mass, you are dispensed from the Sunday obligation,” the diocese said in a statement.
According to Pew Research, roughly 20% of the U.S. population is Catholic. The new precautions come during Lent, a season in the Church that marks the 40 days and nights Jesus Christ fasted in the desert and was tempted by the Devil. It ends on Easter, one of the most important holidays in all Christian faiths.
In Memphis, Bishop David Talley sent a letter to pastors, administrators and chaplains calling it “prudent” to offer only bread and also momentarily suspending the use of communion wine.
In Peoria, Illinois, the Catholic Diocese announced it would suspend offering communion from the chalice during services. Bishop Daniel Jenky also strongly suggested recipients take the host in their hands rather than on their tongue.
Holy water has been replaced by hand sanitizers at St. John Neumann Catholic Church in West Lake Hills, outside of Austin. Bishop Joe S. Vásquez requested all local parishes around Austin remove holy water from stoups at church doors, among other measures.
The Archdiocese of Detroit recommended its parishes and Catholic schools take precautions as well.
Michelle Pierron, president of the Parish Council at St. Mary Catholic Church in Detroit, said these measures make sense.
“Churches don’t close like schools. They are going to be open. It is the same thing with the influenza threat or threat of some other illness,” she said. “I am maybe not going to shake hands, make sure I’ve got my hand sanitizer, wipe my hands a little more often.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the COVID-19 virus appears to be spreading easily and has begun expanding within affected communities in the United States.
The virus is thought to spread primarily person-to-person, especially between people in close contact with one another and through respiratory droplets.
The CDC says that while it’s possible for the infection to spread from contact with infected surfaces or objects, it does not appear to be the primary way the virus is transmitted.
As of Friday morning, more than 230 people have been infected in the U.S., leading to at least 12 deaths, according to a coronavirus dashboard run by Johns Hopkins University.
Bowman said he’s glad that Mass intentions have included those affected by the virus in recent weeks. It’s important to pray for them, he said. Otherwise, until people start coughing and sneezing all around him, he’s not going to stress too much.
“At some point, you have to have faith,” he said.
Contributing: Katherine Burgess, Memphis Commercial Appeal; Kristen Jordan Shamus and Meredith Spelbring, Detroit Free Press; Nick Vlahos, Peoria Journal Star; Eileen Flynn and Philip Jankowski, Austin American-Statesman
Follow USA TODAY’s Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller