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noses and mouths and hands oh my fly around the font at St Agnes Church

Noses and mouths and hands (oh my!) fly around the font at St Agnes Church. Photo collage by Julie Seyler.

BY BOB SMITH

With the flu at epidemic levels, and as I edge closer to the “over 65” at-risk age group, I’ve become a lot more careful. Of course, I’ve been getting the flu shot – and not the flu – for the last 10 years. But there’s always a chance. So I also obsessively wash my hands, like Lady Macbeth, twelve times a day, and avoid sick people – which includes skipping the infection festival at Sunday mass.

The facts: flu virus can survive on surfaces for anywhere from a few minutes up to 48 hours or more. It also tends to live longer on hard nonporous surfaces, and it thrives in wet environments.

Glued to the wall next to every door in our church is a stone finger bowl filled with holy water. As worshipers enter, they dip the potentially germ-smeared fingers of their right hands into the water and bless themselves by dabbing their foreheads and both shoulders. The font is hard, nonporous marble, and because of splashes or drips from sloppy blessers, the area around the bowl is always a wet environment. Essentially, the holy water fonts are flu ponds – grab a dose, anoint your face and body, and take a seat.

Another fun fact: It’s easy to catch the flu or a cold from rubbing your nose after handling an object an infected person sneezed on a few moments ago. But personal contact with an infected person ā€” a handshake, for example ā€” is the most common way these germs spread.

Guess what? Later in the service you’re expected to extend a sign of peace by shaking hands with the people surrounding you in your pew – who just a few minutes ago dipped the fingers of those hands into the flu ponds. Last week, as I dozed through the sermon, the woman directly behind me hacked and wheezed every couple of minutes – clearly an infected person. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her coughing into her right hand. When the “sign of peace” came, I simply ignored her. Let someone else give her peace by taking the flu off her germ-laden hands.

Then there’s the ritual of dispensing wafers that represent the body of Christ. Apart from the priest, the wafers are handed out by Eucharistic ministers – regular churchgoers who have been deputized to dispense communion. Given their dedication to service and the faith, I’m sure these good folks both dip in the flu pond upon entering church and enthusiastically glad-hand everybody in their pew during the sign of peace.

After all that infectious fun, they use that hand to pick up a wafer and place it in your palm. If you’re really old school, they’ll slap the wafer directly onto your outstretched tongue. Either way, I suspect that any flu virus hitchhiking on their hands will readily transfer over to you, and vice versa.

Finally, there’s the (hard, nonporous) silver goblet of wine offered to anyone that wants a sip after they eat the wafer. Fifteen people or more may take a swig before it’s your turn, so the server (another Eucharistic minister) passes a linen napkin across the damp rim of the goblet after each sip, presumably to wipe off germs. But after more than a dozen swipes, isn’t it just as likely to wipe germs onto the goblet as it is to wipe them off?

And do I trust the wine in the goblet to somehow disinfect the rim? Not really – the area below the rim isn’t coated with wine, it’s only been touched by the damp lips of devout sippers. As I look around the church, I ask myself: “Would I want to kiss all these people? No. Then why on earth would I drink from that cup?”

So I refuse to dip in the flu pond. During the sign of peace, I flash the peace sign from afar, and I entirely eschew communion and the goblet of germs. Better safe than holy.