Grosse Pointe Farms — Fear of the coronavirus outbreak has prompted Detroit-area Catholic churches to change the way they celebrate Mass.

At St. Paul on the Lake Catholic Church in Grosse Pointe Farms, the new normal — for now anyway — was spelled out in a letter from the Rev. Jim Bilot, and played out in 10 a.m. service Sunday.

The first difference is the lack of a welcome at the beginning of Mass, Bilot wrote, "because of the tendency to shake hands."

After Sunday's Mass, Bilot told The News that he accepts handshakes but does not extend his own hand, for now, because he doesn't want people to feel obligated.

The second difference is the sign of peace no longer is encouraged to be a physical embrace with one's neighbors in the pews.

The third, and perhaps biggest change, is the cup of wine is no longer encouraged to be offered to parishioners during communion.

Bilot said the bread of communion is the body of Christ, and as the body contains the blood, it's all that's necessary for communion.

The changes were carried out Sunday without fanfare or public announcement, beyond the church newspaper containing both Bilot's letter and a letter from the Rev. Jeff Day, vicar general and moderator of the curia for the Archdiocese of Detroit, outlining the changes.  

Liz Boyd, 68, of Lansing, came to St. Paul Sunday morning because she had been out Detroit way visiting a friend.

Boyd, formerly the spokeswoman for Gov. Jennifer Granholm, said the threat of contagion has made her change her ways. 

"The coronavirus doesn't make me think twice about coming to Mass, but I am concerned about it," Boyd said. "I've changed my personal habits, really taking to heart the things we should all be doing for the seasonal flu: washing our hands, being careful of open spaces, or being close to people who might be ill. And if you have to sneeze or cough, cover your mouth. Just use common sense."

Boyd said she recalls a time when the sign of peace was not a regular part of Mass, and had no particular bad feelings about seeing that custom fade away, for now.

"I remember growing up in the Catholic Church, and we never shook hands," Boyd said. "The blood of Christ was never offered as part of us as part of communion."

All three changes made — one possible change, which was unnecessary in St. Paul's case, is going away from hand-holding; the church already didn't do it "because the liturgical norms don't call for it," Bilot's letter explained — were made on the advice of Archdiocese of Detroit leadership. 

In a Feb. 28 letter to pastors, Day offered guidance to church leaders. That letter was published just before the first Sunday of Lent. Among the changes Day's letter recommends:

  • "Urge the faithful to stay home from Mass if they are experiencing any signs of individual does not commit any sin by avoiding Mass to protect others..."
  • "We recommend congregations suspend the practice of shaking hands during the sign of peace or elsewhere, and of holding hands during the Our Father
  • Empty and clean holy water fonts
  • "We recommend our parishes suspend offering parishioners the cup of the most precious blood during Holy Eucharist, out of an abundance of may help to remind the faithful that the Consecrated Host is the full body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ, meaning an individual does not need to receive from the cup in order to achieve full communion with Christ."

According to the World Health Organization, COVID-19, as the coronavirus is called, caused symptoms of "fever, tiredness, and dry cough" in most cases, along with "aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat or diarrhea" in others. Some 80% of people who get it will not need special treatment, WHO says, but older people, people with heart problems or high blood pressure or diabetes could take the illness even harder. 

As of March 7, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention says there have been 164 confirmed cases of coronavirus in America, with 11 deaths. Cases have been confirmed in 19 states. In 110 of the 160 cases, the origin of the virus is still "under investigation." 

Michigan is working to expand its coronavirus testing capacity, which is at 300 at last report. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has also created a coronavirus task force. Whitmer announced Friday that the Michigan Medicaid Program will waive copays and cost-sharing for testing and health care treatment related to coronavirus.

More: Mich. Medicaid, many insurers to cover coronavirus costs

There are also concerns that Michigan, home to three of the world's largest automakers, and at the end of deep, global supply chains, could be particularly affected by the virus, even if it never physically reaches the Pleasant Peninsula.

More: Michigan manufacturing expected to be especially hard hit by coronavirus

President Donald Trump has signed an $8.3 billion measure to combat the spread of the virus in America. 

Despite all that, the public is taking its own precautions.

Fear of the virus led to the cancellation of the popular SXSW festival in Austin, Texas and of the two-week Women's World Hockey Championships, which were to be held in Canada.

Carl Jarboe, a judge at Grosse Pointe Park Municipal Court, has been a parishioner at St. Paul's for 35 years and an usher for 30.

He thought there were fewer people than usual at Mass Sunday but wasn't ready to pin coronavirus as the culprit, given that service came on the first morning of daylight savings time, after Michigan "sprang forward" and lost an hour.

Bilot said the adjustments Catholic churches are making in response to the panic could help people appreciate the way things were, before such concerns were top of mind.

"You get used to tradition. And when you get used to the ritual, when it's not there, it throws you off," Bilot said.  "At the same time on a positive side, it helps us to appreciate what we do have.

"When you don't have something it makes you step back to think about how you miss this thing, or how it's beautiful. 'This is something good and I do miss it,'" Bilot added. "So it has a positive effect and it creates an awareness of why we do what we do."

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