On Actions in Relation to the Spread of Influenza A (H1N1)

16 Jun 2009 | LITURGY

A Pastoral Letter from the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference

'We Catholic have a deep love of the Mass. It is at the heart of our Catholic life, identity and practice.'

When we gather in our churches each Sunday, we do so not as individuals, but as the Body of Christ, God’s holy Church. It is as the sisters and brothers of Christ that we attune our ear to the Word of God that gives us life. It is as the sisters and brothers of Christ that we draw near to the Altar of the Lord to be nourished by his Body and Blood. It is as the sisters and brothers of Christ that we go forth to live what we proclaim.

This is what we do as Catholics. This is who we are as Church.

Restrictions on certain practices during Mass

Because the Eucharist means so much to Catholics, bishops are charged by the Holy See with ensuring that the Church’s liturgy is celebrated with the utmost care. We take this responsibility very seriously. Only for a serious reason would we ever consider placing restrictions on certain practices during Mass.

As bishops we have a responsibility of care for both the members of the Church and for people in the wider community. When there is a health threat in the community which has the potential to reach, or has reached, pandemic status, we need to take steps to manage the potential risk to the public, and safeguard those in our communities who are most vulnerable because of age or pre-existing medical conditions.

We have taken medical advice in relation to the health issues facing our country at present. We are concerned about the good of our parishioners, and we must also be concerned about the good of the community at large. One infected person at a Mass, possibly not showing signs of infection, may result in a number of other participants carrying the virus out into the community. As the convenor of regular, often large, public gatherings, the Church has responsibilities to the community with regard to health.

Given the spread of the H1N1 influenza virus which is now occurring in the community, we ask that priests and parishes cease the following actions:

  • Distribution of Holy Communion from the chalice (this includes intinction);
  • Giving Holy Communion on the tongue;
  • Holding Anointing Masses for the Sick.

It is important to remember that Christ is truly and fully present even when we receive only the sacred host.

Where concelebration takes place it should be done according to instructions which bishops will communicate to their priests. Bodily contact during liturgical celebrations should be avoided eg during the Sign of Peace.

People who are unwell should stay home rather than attending Mass, and Ministers of Holy Communion who are unwell should not take communion to the sick. If you feel the need to cough or sneeze during Mass please take care to cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve. Be aware that when you cough or sneeze into your hands they become a potential source of infection for someone else if you touch them. We cannot stress enough the importance of washing hands, and we urge all priests and Ministers of Holy Communion to use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer before and after distributing communion.

Options for those who receive communion on the tongue

For some in our community, not being able to receive Holy Communion on the tongue will be a big sacrifice. We ask that, for the common good, those who would normally receive communion on the tongue accept the need for this action to cease during the time of the emergency. This does not mean that you cannot receive Holy Communion. We ask that you receive Holy Communion on the hand until the restrictions are lifted.

Should the reception of Holy Communion on the hand still present a difficulty for some Catholics, then we recommend that you make a ‘spiritual communion’, a practice that is a centuries old tradition in the Church. A ‘spiritual communion’ can be made by making a heart-felt prayer expressing your faith in Christ present in the Holy Eucharist, and uniting yourself to him.

Infectivity and consecrated wine

The question has been asked: ‘If the bread and wine truly become the Body and Blood of Christ at Mass, how could God allow people to get sick from receiving Holy Communion?'

The Church has always taught that during Mass the ‘essence’ or substance of the bread and wine changes: they become the Body and Blood of Christ. However, the ‘form’ of the bread and of the wine do not change: the bread and wine continue to look like bread and wine; and taste like bread and wine. Because the ‘form’ does not change, the elements retain all the properties of bread and wine. For this reason the consecrated bread and wine can carry bacteria and viruses, and people can become sick.

Some people have asked if dipping the host in the consecrated wine (intinction) can be used. This action risks contact between fingers and the lip of the chalice and with the consecrated wine, so should not be used.

More serious phases of an epidemic

If a virus being transmitted in the community becomes a threat to life or the health system is overwhelmed by cases, health authorities may take further steps in order to limit deaths and serious illness. Should this happen, health authorities may ban all public gatherings. This will mean that the Church must make the added sacrifice of not gathering for Mass or receiving the Lord in Holy Communion. In such an event, all of us will be required to make a ‘spiritual communion’.

This does not mean, however, that we as Church cease to pray. More than ever, we will need to pray for those who are sick, those who are dying, those who have died, and those who have lost loved ones.


In parishes Ministers of Holy Communion should be regularly reminded of the importance of hand hygiene, and parishioners should be reminded not to receive from the chalice if they are even slightly unwell.

If further restrictions are to be put in place, or the restrictions are to be lifted, an emailed instruction will be sent directly from the President of the Bishops Conference (Bishop Denis Browne) to all parishes and institutions where Mass is regularly said. Priests will also receive an individual message by email if they have an email address. Parishes should not institute additional restrictions unless they receive an instruction from the President of the Bishops Conference.

The provisions of this pastoral letter replace the 2006 “Protocols to be followed in the Event of an Avian Influenza Epidemic in New Zealand”, and take effect immediately.


Our response to the threat of an epidemic gives us the opportunity to show what we do as Catholics in times of difficulty, caring for others and responding with compassion to the needs of the vulnerable. When people’s health and safety are at risk we have an opportunity to witness to who we are as Church.

Denis Browne
Bishop of Hamilton
President, NZCBC

John Dew
Archbishop of Wellington
Secretary, NZCBC

Colin Campbell
Bishop of Dunedin

Peter Cullinane
Bishop of Palmerston North

Patrick Dunn
Bishop of Auckland

Barry Jones
Bishop of Christchurch

Robin Leamy
Bishop Assistant in Auckland