ASK FATHER: Father was sick, we went to Mass, now we’re sick too!

From a reader…

Our priest simply announced “I have the flu ” and proceeded with his sermon. Only a few , like me, refrained from receiving Holy Communion. My wife received and several days later she and I had it also. Since we are in our seventies and I am undergoing cancer treatment and many others are vulnerable to this life threatening illness it seems to me he should refrain from distribution entirely rather than recklessly infect a trusting group. What say you ?

First, I am really sorry that you have cancer.   If I had it my way, no one would have to suffer with cancer.   We can blame Eve for that.  Then blame Adam.   I am also sorry that you are ill.  Blame Eve.  Etc.

You have no idea where you picked up that flu bug.  No. Idea. At. All.

The priest is, however, a convenient target.

What is ironic in this is, had someone announced before Mass was scheduled to begin that Father was sick and he couldn’t make it, people would then grouse that he was coddling himself, that other people with real jobs can’t just take days off, that when parents get the flu, they still have to show up and be counted.  Or, had Father come, sick or not, then all sorts of people who were themselves sick, would then want to talk to Father about A, B or C.  They’d cough into their hands a few times and then want to shake Father’s hand after Mass, and even hang onto it for a while as they told him something.  But then when Father didn’t show for Mass the week after, because he was sick, they tisk and say that he ought to take better care of himself.

I am just getting over a nasty case of something that took me three weeks and antibiotics to shake.

Everyone… if you see that Father is ill, and you are concerned about picking up what he has, then don’t go to Communion if you are worried that that’s how diseases are transmitted, and, please, leave him alone after Mass.

Also, people are not obliged to receive Communion.  And yet so very many people today think that somehow, if they don’t go to Communion, they haven’t “been to Mass” or the haven’t “gotten anything”.  Communion is reduced to something … well… that everyone does because… well… that’s what you do.   You go forward, someone puts the white thing on your hand, and then you sing the song.  Okay… go to Communion when Father is sick and “get something”.

I repeat.  No one is obliged to go to Holy Communion.  Make a spiritual Communion.

I hope you feel better very soon.  Blessings.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Supertradmum says:

    I just finished cancer treatment. I think that this priest was brave and true to his call to say Mass when not feeling well.

    As a teacher, I was not allowed to take off unless I found a substitute myself and was in the classroom two weeks after my cancer operation.

    Flu can be caught in grocery stores, on the handles of carts, waiting in line for anything, and especially in clinics and hospitals. God bless this priest, and I, too, am sorry about anyone who suffers from cancer. We put up with a lot of disruption in our lives for many reasons, and to be honest, I would rather have the flu.

  2. John Grammaticus says:

    Perhaps Father could have refrained from distributing Communion and instructed people to make a spiritual communion instead?

  3. celpar says:

    Pleased to see that there’s no mention of a flu-free EMHC. I wonder, perhaps uncharitably, if they refrained from the handshake/hug of peace? In the UK, by the way, vaccination against flu is available free of charge to over-65s and other vulnerable people- including priests!

  4. Rachel K says:

    Prayers for the dear reader and his wife. Such a difficult call when one is ill or one’s child. Fr Z, I will pray for your recovery, I am getting over a chest infection followed by bronchitis which has taken three weeks so far and two courses of antibiotics and oral steroids (I am asthmatic). Are the bugs getting more virulent? I am trying honey and lemon in warm water, which apparently alkalises the blood to fight infection. Anyway, it tastes good!
    Blessings to all for good health. Can’t wait for St Blaise…..

  5. Hank Igitur says:

    I don’t see a way out for the priest here. He may be well aware he is infectious but I do not see where the rubrics allow for him to not potentially spread contagion by not distributing Communion (espec at an EF Mass). Suppositions by members of the faithful who offer that “infections cannot be transmitted via the Sacred Species” are at best sentimental and not supported by fact. Of course we can avoid receiving in this setting but in reality the rubrics need to somehow account for our knowledge of the transmission of respiratory and other viruses in 2015 based on scientific facts. I expect emotional reactions to these comments but I am a physician MD and stand by these remarks.

  6. Joan M says:

    I just read some things on google about flu incubation period, and how we get it. It is practically impossible to determine who gave us the flu – unless we were within arms distance from only one person for a period of 1 to 4 days!

    People are infectious from one day before they have any symptoms at all to 5 days after the symptoms appear, so you could get it from someone who does not appear to be sick.

    When people cough or sneeze, the virus floats on the droplets in the air and you breathe in the droplets. So, just because Father is sick does not mean that you got the flu from him! You may have got it from someone who coughed or sneezed during Mass, and some of their droplets floated in your direction, or you might have got it from someone you met before or after Mass – anything.

    Perhaps Father should have had someone else distribute Communion. Would some people have still got the flu? Probably – he may not have been the only one in the church with, or coming down with the flu.

  7. Imrahil says:

    I’m rather surprised that he really made it out of bed having the flu (not a cold, but really the flu). That said, I think he should have stayed at home (not for containment alone, but even principally for the sake of his own person, to get back to health soon).

    I also think that if he appears, and if in the parish EMHCs are an established practice, it would be acceptable in this specific case to have an EMHC-only distribution of Communion. Salus animarum suprema lex esto. (But of course the EMHCs themselves would need to receive from the priest.)

    I do not think he is at any rate guilty for everything. He said what was to be said, and if anyone approaches it’s his own responsibility.

  8. Kerry says:

    Hit and return later, meh. Flu…? “Stop the presses!”

  9. Cafea Fruor says:

    But it’s not like illness can’t be spread that way. About 13 years ago, I was at a Mass where Father had a stomach flu and either didn’t yet know it himself or just didn’t say anything (which is likely – he was elderly and didn’t like to say when he was sick because he didn’t like the fuss people made over him). Well, a little more than halfway through Communion, Father vomited, and, well, let’s just say that, with few exceptions, all of us who received Communion before he threw up got the stomach flu. Ugh. [I don’t think you can know for sure that you got what you got from him. There are multiple possibilities.]

  10. Germs.

    1) Everyone’s got them.

    2) Sometimes you give them.

    3) Sometimes you get them.

    As you were.

  11. fionam says:

    And then, of course, there is also the added pressure of “If I don’t go up to Communion, people will wonder why and look askance at me” syndrome. Particularly, as Fr Z has often mentioned elsewhere on this blog, when the usher-guided row by row system is in place. Another good reason to do away with it.

  12. Cafea Fruor says:

    Father, I forgot to add that those of us who did not receive after Father vomited did not get sick. The line of demarcation was pretty clear.

  13. aviva meriam says:

    Our entire family just recovered from FLU A. First, we were stuck in the house with fever during Christmas, and only now no longer sound like barking seals (the nasty cough lingered for days). Take this flu seriously people, but understand that you can get it anywhere. Be charitable.
    Second, one of the flu A viruses out wreaking havoc this year mutated after the vaccine was formulated, thereby diminishing the effectiveness of the vaccine.
    Third, I don’t see a way out for this priest either… if people were smart and capable of exercising self restraint, they should have stayed back and made a spiritual communion.
    Fourth, and this is the one that gets me… Priests are human beings too. Viruses happen. Stop nitpicking or attacking these men….

  14. The Masked Chicken says:

    “I don’t see a way out for the priest here. He may be well aware he is infectious but I do not see where the rubrics allow for him to not potentially spread contagion by not distributing Communion (espec at an EF Mass). ”

    Well, there is nothing in the rubrics, I suspect, preventing the priest for using an alcohol-based hand cleaner before distributing communion and, in rarer cases, using a surgical mask. Since, during the winter months, when the humidity is low, the flu is more likely to be air-borne, a simple suggestion is to humidify the Church with cheap humidifiers. High water concentration in the air causes the water droplets to attach to the flu viruses in the air and drag them to the ground by gravity. That is why the flu is virtually unknown in humid climates.

    As for whether or not the priest gave one the flu, this is like finding a dead body in a room with six people standing around a gun. Who knows who fired the shot? Oh, I suppose one could do forensic biochemistry to see if the virus has any protein markers of the priest, but to what end? The priest has a responsibility to take ordinary precautions if he knows he is infectious, but since one is infectious with the flu a day before symptoms occur, this would be a really good example of invincible ignorance. Still, there is a burden on both priest and laity after symptoms occur to take at least minimal precautions, since the probability of being a legitimate source of infection goes up.

    Of course, this works both ways, since the laity can infect priests and the ratio of possibly infectious laity to possibly infectious priests at any given time in a large parish can be 20:1. So, use common sense and humidify, humidify.

    The Chicken

  15. gracie says:


    “And then, of course, there is also the added pressure of ‘If I don’t go up to communion, people will wonder why and look askance at me’ syndrome.”

    With all due respect, may I put this urban legend to rest? Since getting back into the habit of going to Confession, I refrain from receiving Holy Communion if my soul is not in a fit state to receive Christ. The first time I did this, I wondered what the response would be. Guess what? There was no response. People really don’t care. They really don’t. They climb over you, or squeeze past you and go on their way. They come back and pray or sit or whatever but what they don’t do is stare at you or even secretly glance at you to try to penetrate into your soul to see what dastardly deed you’ve done. They just don’t.

    Think about the reverse. If you saw that someone didn’t go to Communion you would note it for a second or two. And then what? In my own case when I see that, I conclude either that the person 1) takes their faith seriously or 2) isn’t a Catholic – which, btw, I happen to know is true in some of the people I do know about. In any case, I urge everyone to take the leap and *not* go to Communion just to confirm for yourselves that the roof does *not* fall in on you and people do not stare or whisper about you to their family and friends. It’s when you discover, once again, that in the eyes of the world you’re just not that important to other people. It’s really quite liberating! Added bonus – you feel God’s companionship within you – I think He might be pleased when you respect Him.

  16. jflare says:

    I’m not certain about all the means of transmitting flu, but I’m pretty sure that one can catch a cold from having breathed in particles after someone has coughed. If someone had even a small degree of susceptability to disease, Father’s flu would not need to be transmitted by the Sacred Species. Simply breathing the same air likely would give one a chance at a cold; the weakened immune system would be much more prone to contract flu, from almost anyone.

    ..And that’s even before we factor in the cancer concern.

  17. Suburbanbanshee says:

    gracie – I have had people push or try to convince me or people I know to go up and receive. My Dad has always been United Methodist, so he always stays in the pew if possible, but he often gets nudged or urged strongly. Likewise an Evangelical friend in a wheelchair, who sometimes goes along to Mass with me, has had to physically cover her mouth, explain verbally, and shake her head violently to prevent well-meaning folks from forcing Communion upon her. (To be fair, there’s no universal sign for “I can’t move easily and need somebody to bring me Communion” versus “I don’t need somebody to bring me Communion. Please don’t.”)

    So yeah, it’s not an urban legend.

    OTOH, those of us who are Catholics over the age of reason are certainly supposed to be able to resist a little peer pressure (or even a lot). And if we refrain from Communion for not being well-disposed, not having gone to Confession yet, eating too close to Mass times, etc., we will be less uncomfortable not receiving for other reasons. You don’t have to get scrupulous about it; just make a decision and stick with it, and offer it up if people look at you weird. (Or better yet, keep your eyes closed while you pray and you’ll never know. Heh.)

    I have enough different gookinesses all year ’round that I seldom receive from the chalice. For me, it’s better not to take the chance of giving anything to anybody.

  18. RAve says:

    We love our priests. Thank you for putting up with us even when we do complain as Father Z has described.

    A priest friend recently texted me to ask if I could buy some lemons and bring them to him because he had a bad head cold. I was glad we had just been given a large supply from people who bought a ton of them in bulk. Of course realizing how I need pampering when I am sick – and wondering who was supposed to pamper Father if I didn’t, I decided to go to the store anyways and buy every little thing that has brought me comfort when I had a bad cold. Zinc lozenges, Ricola, Alka seltzer, tea, honey, nyquil, club soda, orange juice (the good kind), oranges, etc. It was fun to bring it over to him as an early Christmas present.

    It was a small gesture to make toward one who, all week long and all year long for me and my family and my parish, confects the Eucharist (both novus ordo and usus antiquior), offers excellent homilies, hears Confessions for hours, and otherwise tends to our spiritual needs.

  19. Anne M. says:

    gracie, It’s definitely not an urban legend. I have had ushers motion for me to get in the Communion line when I was clearly not inclined to do so. I also once had an older woman ask me LOUDLY why I wasn’t going to receive Communion. Perhaps this sort of thing occurs more in smaller parishes vs. larger ones. I don’t know. My parish is pretty small.

    As for getting sick from receiving Communion from a priest, we had that situation today at Mass. Our priest announced he was sick and that he was going home as soon as Mass was over. I chose not to receive Communion today.

    I also no longer shake hands during the Sign of Peace. I am the primary caregiver for my elderly mother and I really can’t afford to get sick so I try to avoid those situations which put me at risk. There’s nothing like sitting behind someone sniffing and coughing and littering the pew with tissues, only to have them turn around with hand extended and expect a handshake. Ugh.

  20. Elizium23 says:

    gracie, I had a run-in with a busybody a few years ago. I declined Communion and she asked if I was in RCIA. Perhaps she didn’t mean to be rude, but I assumed bad faith and was mightily offended that someone would try to ferret out the reason behind my refusal. So yeah, some people don’t know any better. I have noticed that some people around me habitually decline Communion but I understand that it isn’t any of my business and that’s not a topic for polite discussion after Mass.

  21. ChristoetEcclesiae says:

    Gracie, it’s all too real, I’m sorry to say. A couple of years ago a deacon approached me after daily Mass and told me he had noticed I sometimes didn’t receive Holy Communion. Then he asked me why. Yikes. When I declined to explain my choice, he assured me I was a terrific person and that my sins were absolutely forgiven after the penitential act and that it was an affront to Jesus for me not to receive when I could/should. I thought his comments assumed a lot. This isn’t the only time I’ve been approached by someone, but it was maybe the weirdest. The legend lives ….

  22. Mike says:

    I agree with this post–we should really give priests the same benefit of the doubt we give peers in our profession. As well, there are literally countless ways to get the flu.

    I do remember once receiving from the chalice at my parish and a few days later getting hammered by a terrible flu. I don’t receive from the chalice anymore when at NO Masses.
    I also don’t get chummy with our priests after Mass. I leave quickly and quietly. I wish they would adopt the practice–at least at daily Mass–of going into the confessional after Mass, for their sakes and ours!

  23. gracie says:

    Wow! I’m sorry to hear about those of you who were pressured into going to Communion when you didn’t want to. Maybe it depends on where one lives. Here on the East Coast (in the NYC area) people are pretty reserved – maybe it’s an upside to what visitors see as unfriendliness. People don’t really get into your business here. I say that as one who grew up in the Mid West, where people talk to strangers more freely. It took about two years after moving here to learn, from the natives, what I call the “the dead stare” – when someone bugs you, you look him up and down like you think he’s a psychopath – make it a long look. People here do it all the time if someone’s bothering them. Anywhere else it would be rude – otoh, it usually works.

  24. Rachel K says:

    Supertradmum : I am sorry to hear that you have been ill with cancer. I will keep you in my prayers for a full recovery.

    celpar: “In the UK, by the way, vaccination against flu is available free of charge to over-65s and other vulnerable people- including priests!”
    I am wary of the ‘flu vaccine, although I have been offered it as an asthmatic. It is a live vaccine and there are many reports of it making people quite ill, possibly even finishing them off. Sometimes answers are not so simple. And of course, a vaccine can only protect (and in a limited way ) against one strain of a virus or bacterium. Pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine only protcts against one strain I believe and there are dozens of others.
    I think it is good for us all to protect and boost our immunity by healthy eating and living-honouring our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit includes caring for them physically as best we can.
    I’m off to find the vitamin C tablets…

  25. I also once had an older woman ask me LOUDLY why I wasn’t going to receive Communion.

    You know what? A pungent ‘Mind your own $#%&@#$ business’ would take care of it. Or telling the person very frankly just why you aren’t receiving Holy Communion, using the more popular demotic terms for the sins in question.

    Of course I would never do this in real life; I just fantasise about it in my worse moments.

  26. Hank Igitur says:

    How do you use alcohol gel in the EF Mass before communion distribution when your thumbs and index fingers are apposed from the Consecration onwards?

    Respiratory viruses spread more easily in humid environments as practitioners of tropical medicine will confirm so your suggestion about humidifiers is not really very helpful, in fact the reverse is true.

    In terms of reverse transmission of respiratory viruses in the church our priest asks us not to attend Mass when we are infectious as we are ill and our obligation is negated in this instance and the risk of transmitting infection to the young, elderly and immune compromised is significant.

    No-one is obliged to receive communion at Mass regardless of the urging of anyone or implied pressure to do so for whatever reason.

    Is it practical for a priest to say Mass wearing a facemask? I think not. In any case, he would probably not have access to one which would be of a medical standard to prevent virus transmission. Home Depot masks are designed to keep wood dust out of your nose, not microscopic virus particles.

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