Diocese steps up measures to cope with Wuhan coronavirus outbreak

Father Thomas Law demonstrates how to place the face mask on a clean tray covered with tissue when a priest needs to remove it to take Communion at the altar.

HONG KONG (SE): Priests, pastoral care workers and parish representatives gathered to look into the precautions they should take during the Mass under two guidelines, issued by the Chancery office on January 27 and February 6, in view of the Wuhan coronavirus (Covid-19, formerly Novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV), at a briefing organised by the diocese at the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception on February 8. Doctors were also present to explain the nature of the virus and give advice.

John Cardinal Tong Hon said at the start of the gathering that although attending Mass is the source of strength for the laity, they should also take care of their health and avoid possible infection, which is the main concern at present.

Father Lawrence Lee Len, the diocesan chancellor, explained the pastoral measures spelled out in the chancery notices of January 27 and February 6 saying, “Such measures are not only for personal hygiene, but also for public health. They are to be followed by the clergy as well as the laity,” adding that following them is not against the faith as God asks us to safeguard our health.

Under the new guidelines, in order to minimise crowds, people may watch the Sunday Mass webcast and receive Communion spiritually. They can also meditate on the Sunday liturgical text, read the Bible or recite the Rosary as another alternative.

Father Lee said watching the Sunday Mass online addresses the needs of those who feel sick or are unsure whether they are infected with the virus. 

Under the new guidelines, singing is suspended, except for the Alleluia and the Mystery of Faith, so that a choir will not need to take off its masks to sing.

He also highlighted some points in the guideline issued on January 27, such as the silent giving and receiving of Communion without saying “The Body of Christ” or “Amen” and reception in the hand.

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He said that people who have travelled aboard, as well as those who have been to China or other affected areas, should not attend Mass within 14 days of their arrival. 

Priests are also required to cover the Eucharist with a clean piece of cloth and be the last one to receive Communion. 

Father Thomas Law Kwok-fai demonstrated in detail how to receive Communion with clean hands. Communicants are first required to sanitise their hands with alcohol gel provided by liturgy representatives and receive the host with one hand. After leaving the queue, they can remove one loop of their mask with another hand. They are then advised to place the host into their mouth with the clean hand which has had no contact with their mask, put their mask back on and clean their hands with alcohol afterwards.

Father Law also pointed out that it would be good for the congregation to join the queue from the back so that they can clean their hands with the sanitising gel provided in an orderly fashion before receiving the communion.

A team of doctors were on hand to give medical advice. Jonpaul Zee Sze-Tsing, a specialist in infectious diseases, explained that the novel coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets so proper ventilation should be maintained in churches. He said that Mass participants, if possible, should sit on alternate rows and seats. He made some further suggestions to prevent the spreading of the virus: cleaning frequently touched areas, such as door handles and pews, with diluted bleach after every Mass; cleaning hands before and after removing masks; providing enough covered rubbish bins in the church and hand wash gel in toilets; measuring Massgoers’ temperatures before they enter the premises. He pointed out anyone who felt sick with fever and other symptoms should be invited to leave and rest at home. 

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Chan Kwok-keung, another doctor, shared the risks involved during the Mass. He said surgical masks normally may not be able to provide adequate protection if an invisible carrier is present in the congregation. It is also difficult to know who may have sat next to a virus carrier if they are later confirmed infected, as Mass attendants leave no records and tend to move around during the liturgy. 

He added that what is more worrying is that many Massgoers and even priests are older people with weaker immune systems, which makes them relatively vulnerable to the virus. 

Rebecca Yeung Mei-wan, also a doctor, said that during this critical period, Massgoers need to understand that thorough preparation does not mean the virus will not be spread.

In a later part of the talk, Father Lee explained the chancery notice issued on February 4 concerning the administration of the sacraments to patients in hospitals during the outbreak.

While normal hospital visitations were prohibited after January 25 as the Hong Kong government raised the response level from “serious” to “emergency,” an in-patient who is terminally ill or his family can make an application to the Pastoral Care Unit of the hospital for a visitation from a priest. 

Ivy Choi Siu-wai, executive secretary of Diocesan Commission for Hospital Pastoral Care, said that as a number of patients recently confirmed to have the novel coronavirus are Catholics, the commission is looking into the possibility of visitations.

Author: SundayExam