By Charlene Giannetti
Offering fellow Catholics the sign of peace has always been a confusing part of the mass. Some people hug, even kiss. Others offer a vigorous handshake, while a few hold up a hand and wave. A year ago, Pope Benedict XVI asked bishops for their views. “The meaning of this gesture is not understood,” Cardinal Francis Arinze, admitted as he was quoted in the Religion News Service. “It is thought to be a chance to shake hands with friends. Instead it is a way to tell those nearby that the peace of Christ, really present on the altar, is also with them.”
Now, however, no matter the meaning, the sign of peace is becoming a sign of the times, a sign that we are now afraid to touch each other because of the fear of spreading the H1N1 influenza. During the summer, my husband and I attended mass in Las Vegas. Before the sign of peace, the priest officiating at the mass told the congregation that it might be better to avoid shaking hands. A couple sitting in front of us would have none of that. The wife grabbed my hand with vigor while telling me that she was from Texas where several cases of the flu had been reported. “And we’re fine,” she said. Not to be outdone, I told her we were from New York, another city where people were diagnosed with the virus. You think you’re tough in Texas? We’re tougher in New York!
On Friday, the New York Times ran an article, “This Could be the End of Civility,” that could have been subtitled, “The End of Touching.” No more giving the sign of peace, high-fives, air kisses, whatever. Forget about holding hands or sharing a bag of popcorn at the movies. We will all be channeling Monk, carrying around those antiseptic wipes and sanitizing our hands whenever we come into contact with another human being.
Next week our children will start school and teachers will be faced with a Herculean task— keeping children from spreading the virus. How do you prevent a teeming mass of grade school kids from touching each other, sharing food, drinks, stuffed animals? How do you prevent middle schoolers from passing around their iPods and cellphones? What about high school kids who are known to exchange bodily fluids at an alarming rate? Will a young girl’s memories of that first kiss be clouded as the time she caught swine flu from her first crush?
We’ve been here before. In 1976 the Ford Administration predicted there would be a return of the 1918 swine flu that caused the deaths of half a million Americans. Fearful of an epidemic, the Center for Disease Control asked Congress for enough money to immunize at least 80 percent of the population. The program became a political football. We lived in Washington, D.C. during that time and each day’s headlines brought new accusations, reaching a fever pitch when three elderly people died after receiving the vaccine. In short, the epidemic never happened and Gerald Ford was voted out of office. (Read Patrick Di Justo’s excellent “The last great swine flu epidemic” on Salon.com).
Whoever thought that President Obama’s popularity ratings would plummet, not because of Iraq or the economy, but because of health care and swine flu? He’s not a scientist, but he has access to the best scientific minds in the country. Yet no one from his Administration has been able to explain in simple steps what will be done to prevent the spread of the virus. (Go to the CDC website and you will be overwhelmed with the information you can download, each paper more confusing than the one before). A trickle-down effect already is taking place. Rather than those on top reassuring the health care professionals who will deal with the public, these officials are being revved up and will be passing along their fears to an already fearful populace. Where is the voice of calm, the voice of reason amidst all this hysteria?
It’s always better to err on the side of caution, so the Obama Administration has no choice but to go down the same path traveled decades ago by President Ford. We can hope that history will repeat itself—1976, not 1918—and that we will once again escape an epidemic. In the meantime, reach out and touch someone, if not with a handshake, with a smile.
Photo above is of the angel in the Bethesda Fountain, Central Park.