Guarding Against Swine Flu

And More on Venerating Relics

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ROME, OCT. 27, 2009 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: What is the bishop’s authority when it comes to a pandemic such as the H1N1 virus? Our local bishop has not only removed the sign of peace at Mass in order to avoid handshakes, forbade the reception of the Eucharist on the tongue, removed the possibility for the faithful to receive the blood of Christ, and emptied the blessed water in all the churches of our diocese, but he has officially asked all parishioners to not attend Mass on Sunday if they have a cough. I find this measure a little extreme when our town has not yet had any real case of this virus and our province has had very few cases as a total. Is a cough really an excuse to not attend Sunday Mass? — M.J., Province of Alberta

A: There are really two questions involved. One regards the extent of the bishop’s authority when it comes to responding to a pandemic, the other regarding a particular prudential judgment by a bishop.

With respect to the first question, all of the measures mentioned by our correspondent would fall under the bishop’s general overall authority to regulate the liturgy and to dispense from disciplinary laws in particular cases. It is understood that most of these are temporary measures. The bishop would have the authority to permanently regulate some of these elements such as the gesture for the sign of peace and the availability of Communion under both species as the law already places the regulation of these elements under his authority.

Others, such as the prohibition against receiving Communion on the tongue, can be enacted as an emergency measure by the bishop but could not be made permanent or general without an indult from the Holy See.

The practices outlined by the bishop in this case are basically preventive measures that seek to avoid the spread of a possible pandemic and reduce the risk of infection.

In more serious cases, such as being in the midst of an actual pandemic, the bishop could even take more drastic action. Thus during the initial outbreak of this flu, when the malady was still poorly understood, the cardinal archbishop of Mexico City even went so far as to cancel all public Masses for a couple of weeks until the danger subsided.

With respect to the second question, I believe it is necessary to defer to the bishop’s prudential judgment in reaching a decision. Since most bishops are not doctors of medicine they would usually consult with experts and with public health authorities regarding appropriate actions to take in the face on an objective risk. We have to suppose that your bishop took these steps and made his decision in the light of informed advice.

For example, in normal circumstances a mild cough would not necessarily excuse an otherwise healthy person from attending Sunday Mass. If, however, the person was as yet unaware as to the cause of the symptom (be it the common cold, regular seasonal flu or this new strain), he should prudently not expose himself and others to risk until the issue has been duly clarified.

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Follow-up: Venerating Relics at Mass

After our comments on the veneration of relics (Oct. 13), a reader inquired: «I have a relic of a blessed placed in a new marble altar which was consecrated on the day that the new church was consecrated and blessed. Would it be correct to include her [the blessed’s] name in the Canon of the Mass, just after the apostles?»

If, as appears to be the case, the church is dedicated to this blessed, then her name may be mentioned in those Eucharistic Prayers, such as the Third, and the Prayer for Various Needs, which allow for the addition of the patron’s name. The name may not be added to Eucharistic Prayers which do not have this option.

Even if the church is dedicated to another title, the presence of significant relics in the altar would probably justify allowing this special mention of the blessed. The relevant rubric says that the mention is of the saint of the day or the patron without going into much detail. For example, «saint of the day» could be the saint celebrated in the universal calendar or any saint inscribed in the Roman Martyrology on that day, especially if he or she is remembered in some special way. The patron could also include secondary patrons or saints whose relics are found in the church.

Another reader commented: «I recall going to the Vatican basilica on All Saints’ Day in the 1990s and witnessing the dozens of reliquaries on the main altar. I don’t know if that is still being done, but I thought it should be noted.»

This custom of displaying all of the Vatican basilica’s movable relics upon the papal altar is still practiced about two or three times a year. This basilica has many long-standing customs which are legitimately preserved in virtue of its unique history and status.

The same reader added a note regarding the follow-up on the translation of the Nicene Creed: «It should be remembered that the English translation of the 1970 Missal translated the Credo directly from the original Greek under the translation principles then in effect — treating the Greek conciliar text as the ultimate source. The council fathers wrote the original Greek symbolum in the first person plural (at least in the redactions I’ve read). Hence, ‘We believe’ for the 1970 Missal in English. The first person singular is a feature of the Apostles’ Creed because it is, for Latin Christians at least, a staple of the baptismal ritual. The Latin of the Roman Missal thus might be said to have adapted the Greek symbolum to the style of the most Latin of creeds, the Apostles’ Creed. But both the first person singular and first person plural have ancient and venerable roots. It’s high time we stop making a shibboleth of the issue.»

Our reader is correct. I erred in affirming that the original Greek version was in the singular. It is, in fact, in the first person plural. Likewise most, but not all, Eastern Churches use the «We believe» form of the Creed.

I am not sure that the 1970s translators used the original Greek or were simply inspired by its use, because they obviously include the translation of the expression that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (Filioque), the latter incision being a later and exclusively Latin addition.

We must also remember that the incorporation of the Creed to the Mass of the Roman rite occurred several centuries after its introduction into the Greek Divine Liturgy.

Finally, I fully agree with our reader that too much has been made of this issue and it should be no cause of division. Neither is more correct nor orthodox than the other, and both usages have full claim to citizenship in the Church.

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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