Pray together. Shake hands. Share food.
These are all parts of typical religious services, but the spread of the coronavirus has worried congregations and has temporarily changed age-old religious practices.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced new rules to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, which include slightly modifying Holy Communion. Wine is usually shared from a communal chalice, but since germs can spread quickly this way, parishioners will not drink wine during Communion, said the Rev. Dennis Gill, the rector of the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul. Those seeking Holy Communion will instead only eat the bread, a practice he says is fairly common during flu season.
“We’re hearing the invitation from health officials to respond to the situation as carefully and responsibly as we can,” Gill said.
Gill said that the archdiocese is telling priests, deacons, and Communion ministers to wash their hands before Mass. They should also use hand sanitizer before Communion, he said.
The archdiocese plans to let each congregation decide how it will handle the sign of peace. When signaled during Mass, parishioners tell one another “Peace be with you” and shake hands. Gill said that each church can decide whether it will continue the handshakes, replace them with head bows, or discontinue the practice altogether.
Gill said he hopes coronavirus doesn’t distract people from their worship.
“Even in the midst of this possible coronavirus crisis, the emphasis still needs to be on keeping focus on the Lord,” he said. “That’s always, but even now more so.”
Some synagogues are also modifying parts of their services, and, like many organizations, are sending notes of precautions. Kol Ami in Elkins Park, for example, told its congregation to refrain from hugs and kisses. “We know this is hard. We suggest waving, smiling, or putting your hand on your heart to greet your neighbors,” read the email.
Fort Washington’s Or Hadash has changed how it distributes challah bread. The congregation normally gathers around the challah, with each person placing a hand on the bread or on another member who is touching it.
Now, everyone will gather without touching the challah, and the rabbi will slice and distribute it while wearing gloves.
“It’s a difficult call,” said Barbara Weisman, Or Hadash’s education director. “We don’t want to throw out ritual traditions for the sake of panic.”
Rabbi Alanna Sklover said Or Hadash is looking into starting a live stream of its services so people can join remotely. This option, she says, would be valuable even after coronavirus passes.
Sklover believes a sense of community helps people get through tough times.
“At the heart and the core of all of this is ‘How do we keep the value of the community?’ ” she said. “It would be so easy to fall down a rabbit hole of isolation.”
Some Philadelphia Muslims are concerned with how coronavirus could affect the hajj, a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca that takes place during the last month of the Islamic calendar, this year starting in July. Last year, more than two million people made the pilgrimage.
Last week, the Saudi government temporarily banned voluntary pilgrimages to the country’s holy sites and is offering refunds to Muslims whose plans were canceled by the policy.
The ban temporarily stranded a few local Muslims at John F. Kennedy International Airport, according to Philadelphia’s chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Ahmet Tekelioglu, CAIR’s outreach and education director, said he understands anxiety about coronavirus. He sees mosques sending more health reminders, but is determined to not let the disease thwart religious practices.
“We are not stopping all life,” Tekelioglu said. “Everybody needs to take precautions like a sensible person to keep clean.”