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Nov 10, 2009 - Barbara Ferreira uses hand sanitizer before attending mass at St Michaels Cathedral. From toothpicks in communion bread to bleach in holy water, religious congregations are going to extraordinary lengths to ensure they spread the faith, not the flu, among parishioners this season. Religious services across Canada are placing cleanliness next to godliness -- with Purell at altars, elbow bumps in the pews, and waves instead of handshakes at the house of worship�s door. It�s all part of the attempt to keep the faithful safe. And in a day of public-health worries, ancient religious practices like sharing from a common cup are a disaster. Photo: Charla Jones/Globe and Mail

Charla Jones/Charla Jones/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Call it worship without worry: An Italian inventor has devised an electronic holy-water dispenser to reduce exposure to the H1N1 virus.

The device, already inspiring interest worldwide, uses an infrared sensor like those found in bathroom soap dispensers to squirt blessed water into parishioners' hands. The inventor, Luciano Marabese, said he dreamed up the idea to preserve religious tradition in the face of the flu pandemic.

The high-tech creation underscores how the H1N1 virus is reshaping religious rituals as ministries struggle to spread the faith without spreading the flu. Houses of worship everywhere, including in Canada, are deploying inventive solutions to traditional rites.

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At Runnymede United Church in Toronto, for example, communion bread last Sunday was served on toothpicks, like canapés. The servers didn't wear white cloth gloves, but they did wear surgical gloves.

"We brought in the toothpicks so people weren't putting their fingers in the bowl," said Rev. Lillian Perigoe, one of the ministers at the church.

Rituals are important, she said, but in a day of heightened flu awareness, they need to be balanced with public-health precautions.

"We want to come together as a community and be supporting one another, but we need to visibly indicate that we're trying to be as careful as possible, to make it safe for people to come together," Ms. Perigoe said.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Montreal has issued H1N1 directives to reduce flu risks. They call for priests to give communion on the hand, not the tongue, and to cease having parishioners drink from a communal chalice.

The practice for parishioners of dipping their hands into holy water from the font to make the sign of the cross is being temporarily suspended.

But one priest in Montreal was so intent on continuing it in his parish that he added bleach to the water. The effort, though well-meaning, backfired.

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"He had good intentions - he made sure there were no germs in the water - but other problems arose," said Monsignor Jean Fortier, vicar-general at the Montreal archdiocese. "Was he ready to pay for the clothing stained by bleach?"

At the Shaare Zion Synagogue in Montreal, Rabbi Lionel Moses has done away with the traditional practice of letting people kiss or touch the Torah scroll as it's carried through the aisles during services.

Instead, worshippers raise their hand toward the scroll without touching it. And rather than a handshake, the rabbi offers an elbow bump.

"I kid people that I'm not trying to elbow them out of here," Mr. Moses said. "It's all preventative. We don't know who's carrying the virus, and we don't want to spread the virus unnecessarily."

Mosques around Montreal, where worshippers pray shoulder to shoulder, have also been encouraged to step up preventive measures, said Salam Elmenyawi, president of the Muslim Council of Montreal. He said imams are urging worshippers to increase ritual hand and face washing before prayers.

Hand sanitizers have become standard features inside houses of God. And passing the peace has been modified into a myriad of hygienic ways. Instead of shaking hands or embracing, churchgoers are bowing, fist-bumping and throwing arms over their neighbour's shoulder, being sure to stand side-to-side without facing one another.

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Younger members of an Anglican church in Kamloops, B.C., adopted elbow bumping as the greeting of peace. "There was a sense that if we shouldn't hug or embrace one another, we want to signify a sense of fellowship among us," said Ven. Paul Feheley of the Anglican Church of Canada.

Some churches are already pondering how to organize religious gatherings if the pandemic gets worse. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John's notes that the last time it drew up a pandemic plan was in 1918, in response to the Spanish flu - at which time, all churches were closed.

This time, however, churches have 21st-century technology at their disposal. Some Canadian churches and synagogues offer podcasts of their services, and are ready to take their message to the masses if need be - directly in the sanitized safety of their own homes.


Anti-flu measures

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, like several religious organizations across Canada, has issued guidelines to prevent the spread of the H1N1 virus. This month, the archdiocese upgraded its anti-flu measures, calling on parishes to implement the following changes at all masses.

Temporarily suspend communion from the chalice.

Temporarily suspend communion on the tongue.

Provide hand-cleaning stations near church entrances.

Refrain from shaking hands during the sign of the peace. A nod, bow or other appropriate gesture should be encouraged.

Those distributing communion are asked to wash their hands before mass. An alcohol-based sanitizer should be provided so that all ministers can sanitize their hands before and after distributing communion.

Remind parishioners that if they're feeling ill, it is best to stay home.

Ingrid Peritz

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About the Author

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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