South African Church Reacts to Covid-19
*This updated article replaces the lead in the print issue of this week’s Southern Cross and features in the digital edition – Subscribe to receive The Southern Cross
With confirmed cases of the coronavirus, Covid-19, now in South Africa, various dioceses have issued guidelines to be implemented as preventive measures concerning the celebration of the Mass and liturgical services.
This came after Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) president Bishop Sithembele Sipuka asked the bishops to give health precaution guidelines in their own dioceses.
“All of the situations are different in each diocese and the bishops may have different ways of dealing with it. The coronavirus is a serious disease, and we may seem to be too fastidious, but not saying or doing anything will come back to haunt us,” Bishop Sipuka told The Southern Cross.
“I encourage people to adhere to the directives given by their bishop and the health authorities and take the necessary precautionary measures. We also need to pray for the wellbeing of all who have been infected and that a cure may soon be found,” he said.
Bishop José Ponce de León of Manzini in Eswathini instructed parishes in his diocese to omit the Sign of Peace and Communion on the tongue for the duration of Lent. By doing this, he said, parishes go through this Lenten season “in communion” with those affected in other countries.
Bishop Ponce de León also asked that “a prayer is said at every Mass for those infected, those who care for the sick, and those who are working towards finding a cure”.
Among dioceses which have issued directives are those of Durban, Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town. Their guidelines include all or most of the following:
- Stop the practice of holding/shaking hands during the liturgy, possibly to be replaced with a bow of the head or other appropriate gestures.
- Remove holy water from fonts (the archdiocese of Durban advises to drain and refresh the water more frequently if not emptied).
- Suspend the distribution of the Precious Blood. According to Catholic teaching, the whole Christ — in both his body and his blood — is present when only the Host is received. Special provisions should be made for Catholics who can receive only the Precious Blood because of celiac conditions.
- • Holy Communion is to be received in the hand only.
- Hand sanitisers are to be available before and after Communion for priests and all those who assist with the distribution of communion.
- Parishioners are advised to cough and sneeze in the elbow rather than into a handkerchief or into their hands. Importantly, those who are sick or are experiencing symptoms of sickness are not obliged to attend Mass.
Bishop Victor Phalana of Klerksdorp was reluctant to issue directives but said he would be meeting with the clergy and will send out a decree after consultation. “We must not create panic and go to certain extremes which undermine our faith and Catholic rituals and practises. We must not abandon our Catholic rituals in the name of corona,” Bishop Phalana said.
“But we must also not put people’s lives and health in danger. The coronavirus is a challenge for our times but we must be reasonable, realistic and responsible,” Bishop Phalana said. The director of the Catholic Health Care Association of Southern Africa (CATHCA) also noted that it is not useful to panic. “The best form of prevention is to wash hands frequently with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser,” said Thomas Joseph. “Covid-19 is spread by droplets which stay on surfaces and transfer from the hands to the face.
Those with a cough or cold should cover their mouths with their elbows while coughing or sneezing or dispose of tissues used safely. The less one touches one’s face, the less likely that the virus will be transmitted,” he said.
“The coronavirus has been reported in many countries but relatively few people have got it,” Mr Joseph noted. Most fatalities are among those with a weakened immune system or other underlying illnesses. “Whether one shakes hands or not in Mass or liturgical services should be a personal decision given that the incidence is still so very low,” Mr Joseph said