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Texas Dioceses Modify Mass Practices During Ebola Outbreak

Nurse with ebola protective gear


Brian Fraga - published on 10/22/14

People attending Mass will be receiving Communion in hand

The two dioceses in Texas that have been the most directly affected by Ebola have taken several recent steps to serve and protect the Catholic faithful, including instituting some minor changes during Mass.

"It’s something we’ve done in the past. We did it last year, and the year before that too," Pat Svacina, communications director for the Diocese of Fort Worth, said regarding a "liturgical adaptation" the diocese announced on Oct. 15 aimed at stemming the spread of infectious diseases such as the flu.

Effective immediately, Catholics in Fort Worth are encouraged not to hold hands during the Lord’s Prayer and to avoid physical contact during the Sign of Peace. They are also being told to receive holy communion in their hands while Eucharistic ministers are instructed to use a hand sanitizer before and after distributing communion.

Svacina told Aleteia that the diocese issued the adaptations in response to the upcoming influenza season as well as questions that the faithful have had about communicable diseases such as Ebola after a local nurse, Nina Pham, contracted the disease while caring for an infected patient in a Dallas hospital.

"It applies to all communicable diseases. Pastors out there are seeing more people with colds in their parishes. There are no issues in our diocese with Ebola," Svacina said.

The Diocese of Dallas has instituted similar measures, which are based on guidelines that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship has provided in the past during flu season. The Dallas guidelines were issued after some parishes and pastors expressed concerns about serving the Precious Blood at Mass.

"If Catholics suspect the onset of influenza or are simply not feeling healthy, then they should make the decision to refrain from using the cup. Receiving the Body of Christ (consecrated host) is advised until the person feels well again," the Diocese of Dallas’ Office of Worship said in a weekly email to parishes and schools in mid-October.

The Diocese of Dallas’ Catholic Schools Office also sent a letter to parents on Oct. 15 ensuring them that Catholic school officials are aware of the symptoms and protocols related to diseases like Ebola.

"Please know that we remain in close contact with Dallas County Health and Human Services to ensure that we have the most up-to-date information on cases of Ebola in our area. We will share any actionable information with you as we receive it," Sister Gloria Cain, Superintendent of Catholic Schools, wrote.

Local concerns about Ebola spread in the Dallas-Fort Worth area after Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian national, became the first person in the United States to be diagnosed with Ebola. Duncan was visiting family in Dallas when he became sick and was treated at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas in late September. Duncan’s condition deteriorated and he died on Oct. 8 from Ebola virus disease.

More than 4,400 people have died this year from an Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The most severely-impacted countries are Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, which have severely underfunded public health systems and a relative lack of clean water.

"Throughout Western Africa, the Catholic Church is involved in health care, treating patients in its clinics and hospitals. All churches and faith communities have a vital role to play in promoting good hygiene and safe funeral practices to prevent the spread of this virus," said Bishop Michael J. Sis of the Diocese of San Angelo, Texas. In a prepared statement, Bishop Sis advised people not to panic and to use good hygiene.

Two nurses who cared for Duncan in the Dallas hospital — 26-year-old Nina Pham and 29-year-old Amber Vinson — contracted Ebola and were quarantined. Both were flown to facilities outside Texas for further treatment. Pham who was taken to a special clinical studies unit in Maryland, has been upgraded to good condition, the National Institutes of Health announced 
on Tuesday.

Pham, a devout Catholic according to several published reports, received spiritual counseling from a diocesan priest while she was quarantined at the Dallas facility, said Annette G. Taylor, the communications director for the Diocese of Dallas.

"He was ministering to her over the telephone. He prayed with her, counseled her, and he met with her parents and prayed with them," Taylor said.

Pham, a 2006 graduate of Fort Worth’s Nolan Catholic High School, issued a statement in early October through Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital saying that she was doing well and that she was thankful for the prayers and support. Her home parish, Our Lady of Fatima Church in Fort Worth, has also organized prayer services for Pham. In a recent online parish bulletin, Pham said that people had warned her to stay at home rather than expose herself to Ebola in the hospital, but she said that she did not want to shirk her professional responsibility as a nurse.

"This situation reminds me of the countless hours of selfless service that nurses, doctors and other healthcare professionals and institutions provide in protecting us and our community. This is a time for our community to respond with calmness and compassion," Dallas Bishop Kevin Farrell said in a prepared statement. 

In an Oct. 17 email to priests, Bishop Farrell encouraged all pastors to have special prayers during weekend Masses for those affected by Ebola. The bishop, who said he was confident that local, state and national officials will take necessary steps to protect the public and care for the sick, also asked priests to do all they could to ease the fear and anxiety sweeping through the community.

"He also asked his priests to remind their parishioners that we, as Catholics, should always have compassionate hearts in accepting back into our communities those who indirectly or directly have been linked to Ebola. That includes those who have survived the virus or, after the required incubation period, suffered no symptoms," said Taylor, who added: "Bishop Farrell’s great desire is to help our people remain calm, reasonable, compassionate and prayerful during this trying time for Dallas and our country."

On Oct. 20, Bishop Farrell announced that Thomas Eric Dunson’s fiance, Louise Troh, her son and nephews were quarantined for several weeks at the diocesan Conference and Formation Center in Oak Cliff, a district in Dallas. They stayed in a remote corner on the grounds after Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins asked the diocese to offer them housing.
Asked during a press conference why he agreed to the request from Rawlings and Jenkins, Bishop Farrell said he realized that he had to help after asking himself, "What would Jesus do?"

"Certainly the Catholic Church has a long history of helping those in need and Ms. Troh and her family were and remain in need," Bishop Farrell wrote on his blog. "Another reporter referenced the fact that the family is not Catholic. I explained that we don’t help because someone is Catholic. We help because we are Catholic and that is what we are called to do."

Brian Fraga
is a daily newspaper reporter who writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.
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