When worshipers arrived at Our Lady Help of Christians church here today for Good Friday Mass, they did not dip their fingers into holy water for a blessing. As they knelt on the red carpet for communion, they did not receive the blessed bread on their tongues, but in their hands. Instead of kissing the cross, they bowed to it.
"People just understood it is not done," the Rev. Valentin Batic, pastor of the Roman Catholic church, said after the service, attended by 300 people.
It is not done because a virus that causes a deadly new respiratory disease is on the loose in Toronto, and health officials worry that certain ancient rituals of the church could help spread it. So, at government request, churches throughout the city are moving through Holy Week, which culminates with Easter services on Sunday, with many of those rituals dropped or modified.
Worshipers are being asked not to touch holy water or kiss icons. Communion bread and wafers should be touched by a minimum number of people before being consumed. The sharing of a cup of wine, consecrated as the blood of Jesus, is being avoided altogether until the disease has subsided.
Choir members who have coughs or sore throats have been asked to refrain from singing because saliva, potentially containing the virus, could spread as voices are projected. Until the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) has subsided, some priests have decided not to hear confessions in closed confessional booths.
Easter is the most important celebration in the Christian church, and some worshipers believe it is a sin not to attend services that day. But Bishop John Boissonneau of the Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto excused from attending Easter Mass those who are sick or in isolation due to SARS.
"I want to stress that despite this being the Christians' Holy Week, people must stay at home in isolation as directed by public health authorities," Boissonneau said. "Some people may feel tension or stress between what they regard as their religious duty and public health duty. Let me tell you: Public health duty is their religious duty. Their responsibility before their God and in the community is to safeguard the common good."
Church officials say that those who aren't sick are coming despite the concerns. "Nobody had fear," Batic said of the service at his church. "People have come. It is no less than last year."
One worshiper said that not everyone approved of the changes and that there was some nervousness in the congregation. "Somebody said: Why take away the holy water from the church entrance? The people who like to touch holy water, let them do it. The people who are scared, well, don't let them touch it. Some people are scared for everything."
With the highest number of SARS cases outside Asia, Canada is desperately trying to contain the spread of the disease. The effort dates to March 5 when a woman who returned home from a trip to Hong Kong died. The disease spread to her family and to dozens of health care workers at Scarborough Grace Hospital, which has been called the epicenter of Toronto's outbreak.
Dozens of hospitals in Ontario have been closed to visitors, and elective surgeries have been canceled. Although officials say the outbreak is under control, the number of cases continues to rise, as well as fear that officials might not be able to contain it. Three hundred and three people have been sickened by the disease in Canada.
Officials continue to emphasize quarantine as a method of controlling spread and have urged those in voluntary isolation to stay for 10 days, thought to be the incubation period of the disease. Officials repeated the message to ensure that people did not violate isolation to attend Easter services.
Churches can protect healthy people who do attend with changes in the service, officials said. Health officials warned that utensils such as cups, spoons or plates should not be shared during ceremonies. "A limited number of people should touch a consumed item, such as a loaf of bread," an official statement warned. "It is possible that SARS could be spread by touching such things as religious icons or holy water. After touching such objects, you should immediately disinfect your hands," the statement said.
Concerns about worship services as places of infection rose after officials discovered that a member of Bukas-Loob Sa Diyos, a charismatic Catholic group, possibly spread the virus to 29 members at a prayer service, and to two doctors who treated them. About 370 members of the close-knit group have been ordered into quarantine.
U.S. health officials now believe that among the people infected in the group is a Pennsylvania man who attended one of the group's events in Toronto. The man was hospitalized at the Lehigh Valley Hospital in Lehigh Valley, Pa., on April 14 after returning home. Today, officials said he had tested positive for the SARS virus, and that his condition was improving.
State and federal health officials are closely monitoring everyone the man came into contact with for symptoms of SARS. Five hospital workers who came into contact with him before he was diagnosed have been furloughed for 10 days.
Meanwhile, officials have asked more than 450 people in Montreal to go into isolation after a man traveled from Toronto to Montreal, where he attended a business conference, despite having symptoms related to SARS. Officials said that when the man returned to Toronto, he checked himself into a hospital.
Officials in Toronto are also investigating a potential infection at an apartment building after two residents began showing symptoms of SARS.
"What we have identified here are two cases that do not appear to have a direct link to one another," said Sheela Basrur, medical officer for the city of Toronto. "That raises a concern for us. There may be potentially others that may be ill."
Basrur said officials were looking for people who might have been "casual contacts" with the two patients.
The requests by churches to avoid offering communion wine from a common cup have set off debate in the religious community, with some people arguing that God had promised that He would protect against germs in a chalice. They cite a verse in the Bible that promises believers that when they drink deadly poison it will not hurt them.
But other church leaders have told worshipers not to worry if they are not able to drink from a common cup of faith. The Anglican Diocese of Toronto has asked that only priests consume wine during communion.
"The ancient teaching is that the whole Christ is received whether one receives only the consecrated bread or both bread and wine," said the Rev. Terence E. Finlay, the Anglican archbishop of Toronto.
In case parishioners conclude that they could protect themselves by dipping consecrated bread into the wine, rather than sipping from the cup, he also ruled out that practice. And he asked that at the sharing of the peace, in which worshipers greet one another, people do it "through words and smiles and similar gestures, rather than handshakes and hugs. It is more important that everyone feel comfortable."
Last night, at the Anglican Church of St. James' Humber Bay in Toronto, the Rev. Debbie Dennis explained to her congregation why, for the first time in her church's history, the priest alone would drink the wine. She then explained how to wash hands with Purell, an anti-bacterial disinfectant, before breaking off a piece of bread from a common loaf.
"I sent out an e-mail on Wednesday and said there would only be bread on Easter Sunday," said Dennis, who called the reaction favorable. She said the message was unprecedented in the church where the custom is for the worshipers to sip from a single silver chalice, which is wiped between each use with a white linen cloth called a purificator. Traditionally, the cup is given a quarter turn between sippers.
"It is better to be prudent," Dennis said. "We want people to feel comfortable. We will do everything we can to make it safe."
Edwin Morris, the parish's lay reader, said many people in Toronto are torn between two fears, a new fear of SARS and an ancient fear of condemnation due to forgoing communion on Easter Sunday. "My wife, who is Catholic, would tell you it's a mortal sin if she doesn't," Morris said. "She went to church and confessed. But she is not going to go to church on Sunday."
Staff writer Rob Stein in Washington contributed to this report.