Coronavirus (COVID-19) Guidance for Religious Services



Coronavirus (COVID-19) guidance for religious services

27/02/2020 v1.2 Last reviewed: 27/02/2020


In late December 2019 Chinese authorities identified a cluster of novel coronavirus infections in Wuhan City, China. The name of the virus is SARS-CoV-2 and the name of the disease it causes is COVID-19.

The outbreak has evolved rapidly and further global spread is likely. Because of the risk of the disease spreading to Ireland, we must take all possible action to prevent the potential spread of the disease in the community.

COVID-19 can be a mild or severe illness.

The symptoms of COVID-19 include:

  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fever (high temperature)

COVID-19 can also result in more severe illness including:

  • Pneumonia
  • Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome
  • Kidney Failure

Further information on COVID-19 is available on the HSE website at:

The SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 is spread mainly through droplets produced by coughing or sneezing. You could get the virus if you:

  •  come into contact with someone who has the virus and is coughing or sneezing
  • touch surfaces or objects that someone who has the virus has coughed or sneezed on, and then touch your mouth, nose or eyes.

This guidance document gives general advice about preventing the spread of COVID-19 during religious services. While the guidance describes several practices specific to Christian religious services, people from other religious groups can adapt the advice to their specific requirements.

High risk groups

Those considered to be at higher risk for COVID-19 include the following:

  • People aged 65 years and older
  •  People with long-term medical conditions – for example, heart disease, lung disease, diabetes or liver disease

Reducing the spread of infection-leaders and congregation

You should always practice good hand hygiene and respiratory hygiene. Hand hygiene and respiratory hygiene are a series of actions to take which are designed to reduce the spread of disease, including COVID-19, to yourself and others. These actions include regular handwashing and covering your mouth and nose with a tissue or the bend of your elbow when you cough or sneeze.

Hand hygiene:

Wash your hands regularly. You should wash your hands:

  • after coughing or sneezing
  • before, during and after you prepare food
  • before eating
  • after using the toilet
  • before and after caring for sick individuals
  • when hands are dirty
  • after handling animals or animal waste

Wash your hands with soap and running water when hands are visibly dirty. If your hands are not visibly dirty, wash them with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand rub.
See HSE hand hygiene guidance at

Respiratory hygiene:

Cover your mouth and nose with a clean tissue when you cough and sneeze and then promptly dispose of the tissue in a bin and wash your hands. If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into the bend of your elbow instead, not into your hands.

Posters on preventing spread of infection are available on the HPSC website.

Settings where religious services take place, including churches, should take the following actions

  • Advise religious leaders/clergy and congregation not to attend if they are ill.
  • Have a plan for dealing with religious leaders or members of the congregation who become ill with symptoms of COVID-19 during a service, including isolating them from other people and seeking medical advice without delay (e.g. phone a GP/ Emergency Services).
  • Supply tissues and alcohol based hand gel at religious services/gatherings.
  • Provide bins for disposal of tissues at religious gatherings.
  • Ensure hand-washing facilities, including soap and disposable towels, are well maintained.
  • Ensure all hard surfaces that are frequently touched, such as door handles, hand rails, taps and pews are cleaned regularly with a household detergent.
  • Have a plan for how the church will continue or suspend its activities in the event of religious leaders/clergy becoming ill with COVID-19.
  • Religious leader/clergy administrations to sick laity should be carefully managed

To date, there have been no cases of COVID-19 in Ireland. If there is a case, it is highly likely that the patient will be treated in a hospital and their pastoral care can be provided in the hospital according to established protocols and with full compliance with infection prevention and control guidance and in close consultation with their treating doctor.

People at increased risk of getting COVID-19, including people who have been in close contact with a person with COVID-19, may be asked to limit their social interactions for 14 days, including staying at home and not attending work or religious services. In order to reduce the possible spread of infection, these people should not be visited by religious leaders/members of the clergy while they are in self isolation. Pastoral care can be provided over the telephone/skype if resources permit.

Physical interaction during religious services, e.g. Sign of Peace

Most physical interaction during religious services, e.g. shaking hands while exchanging the ‘Sign of Peace’ in Christian religious services, involves a low risk of spreading the virus especially if members of the congregation who are unwell do not attend religious services while they are ill.

However, because COVID-19 is a new disease that has not been seen in people before, we need to exercise extreme caution to limit the spread of the virus. Current information suggests that COVID-19 can spread easily between people and could be spread from an infected person even before they develop any symptoms. For these reasons we suggest that physical interaction during religious services, including the Sign of Peace, should be suspended.

For Christian religious services, the priest may choose to give the congregation permission to carry out an alternative Sign of Peace that does not involve hand contact (such as smile/ nod/ bow) if so wished.

The practice of shaking hands on greeting and departure at religious services/ gatherings should be suspended for both religious leaders/clergy and laity.


Holy water fonts

Because COVID-19 is a new disease and appears to spread easily between people, we advise that holy water fonts should not be used.

Holy Communion

Using communal vessels for food and drink during religious services, e.g. drinking from the Chalice during Holy Communion in Christian services
To minimise the risk of spread of infection, the use of communal vessels should be suspended. For example, during Holy Communion in Christian religious services only the celebrant should drink from the Chalice. No one else should drink from the Chalice – this includes other priests, ministers of the Eucharist and members of the congregation.

Alternatives to direct sharing of the Chalice should also be AVOIDED including:

  1. Intinction, i.e.:  the Communion wafer is dipped in the Chalice and administered into the hand
    or the Communion wafer is administered into the communicant’s hand and they dip it into the Chalice.
  2. Distribution of Communion wine through individual small cups

Arrangements for parochial activities/social religious gatherings

Parochial activities/social religious gatherings on church premises should follow sensible practices, including hand hygiene and respiratory hygiene as described in this guidance. Posters/notices formally stating any guidance or changes in practice should be clearly displayed and appropriate leaflets should be circulated.

Everyone administering Holy Communion should wash their hands or use alcohol based hand gel before beginning.

Holy Communion should be administered into the hands only and NOT onto the tongue


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  1. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    To refuse a genuine handshake in most circumstances could be highly insulting. Jesus commented on the kiss of Judas in Gethsemane, but he did not refuse it.

    When I participate in Mass when the Sign of Peace is not invited, I feel something important is missing: it is an act of Communion in itself: it is a personal contact with other members of the Body of Christ. In the early church, the term “Mystical Body” referred to the Eucharist. The community of disciples, the Church, was seen as “Real Presence.” For both regular members of the congregation and for visitors, to leave at the end of the celebration without having had any human contact with anyone (apart from sharing a bench) is a sad experience, the contradiction of the event as a community celebration and as an experience of communion. We would have reverted to Mass as individual experience and Communion as “me and Jesus” rather than the Body of Christ in the full sense.

    Precautions to avoid spread of infection are sensible, and the caring and loving way of acting. This applies not just in the present circumstances of COVID-19, but generally. Even apart from the present situation, it is good that people be aware that when they have an infection, precautions should be taken. There may also be people in the congregation whose immune system is compromised, either by a medical condition or by medical treatment – it is important to respect those who decline physical contact, even if I am not aware of the reason.

    Usually, when a person in Confession mentions not coming to Mass, I normally enquire whether it was for good reason, like illness, or inability to find a celebration. In most cases in the past, there has been good reason, so I can offer reassurance that they can use their good judgment. It could in fact be wrong for a person to come to Mass, however much they desire it, if it would be detrimental to the person’s health or to the health of others.
    Apart from infection, I dread a handshake where the other person tends towards the “bone-crushing” end of the spectrum – I have arthritis in my hands, and it can be painful. On the other hand, the “wet-fish” style of handshake is, to say the least, inadequate!

    One possible danger in the current circumstances is that the Sign of Peace will be omitted totally, which I consider would be very regrettable. A formal bow with a smile and the words of peace can always be given.
    Another danger is that the temporary arrangement due to health concerns will become permanent. We would have lost an important element restored to our celebration following Vatican II. However long it takes for the current danger of infection to be overcome, it would be good to review the recommendations perhaps monthly with a view to restoration of the Pax Christi.

  2. Joe O'Leary says:

    I think the virus will impose a huge Lenten discipline on everyone.

    Here in Tokyo, people are not going out unless they must. The majority of people wear masks, even if their necessity or effectiveness is not apparent. Schools are closed and many events are cancelled.

    Beyond individual self-protection, it’s a collective enterprise of the entire human race to block or slow this pandemic, which doctors do not hesitate to compare with that of 1918-19 that infected a quarter of the world’s population and killed between 40 and 100 million (death toll of World War I was 20 million).

    Given the 2% mortality rate (20 times that of an ordinary flu) caution can hardly be excessive, though devastating for business (including tourism and the Olympics).

    A long-term reform could be to ban huge assemblies such as academic conferences with thousands of participants. Air travel could be reduced through more intensive use of video-links, which could also benefit the environment.

  3. Eddie Finnegan says:

    During the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia 2014-15 the ‘elbow bump’ replaced the handshake. A sort of safer alternative to the ‘fist bump’, though it’s said that even the fist bump avoids 90% of the bacteria conveyed by the open handshake or even the ‘high five’.
    And then, of course, there’s the well known West African proverb, “Never let a handshake pass the elbow,” a typical Chinua Achebeism. Now that we’re being told to cough and sneeze into the crook of our elbows or oxters, I’m not so sure about that elbow bump for the Kiss of Peace. Maybe a nod, a wink and a thumbs-up would at least be better than nothing.
    And yes, Pádraig, I’ve made some enemies by yelling angrily at their bone-crunching assaults on my arthritic fingers.

  4. Joe O'Leary says:

    Reassuring, though not to the boomers, invincible though they appear, is the finding that the new virus targets over-70s and spares children–unlike the Spanish Flu which felled young adults.

  5. Dermot Healy says:

    Sound advice from the HSE. One further point; if a priest tests positive, should that church be closed immediately for four weeks, during which time there is a deep clean. Should parishioners (all potential carriers) be told not to go to another parish during that time?

    1. Mattie Long says:

      In the eventuality of a priest being confirmed as being infected with the Corona virus we can expect the Public Health doctors of the HSE to give clear specific advice to those involved.

  6. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    Irish Times (print edition) Thursday 5 Feb, front page:
    “The HSE warned sick people not to attend religious services and said churches should plan for the possible suspension of activities if clergy fall ill with carnivorous.”
    So if you develop a craving for a plate of meat …

  7. Joe O'Leary says:

    And how many other viruses are circulating on our planet? Maybe that boring novel of Albert Camus, The Plague, is due to leap back to life.

    1. George Lynch says:

      “Everything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist. Everything we do after will seem inadequate” -M. Leavitt

  8. Joe O'Leary says:

    John McCourt (brother of the late Frank McCourt) observes:

    “Looking in at Italy people should be able to see how serious things are
    with Covid-19 and to realise it is not an Italian problem. What we have
    here is a dramatic situation which the government is trying hard to
    manage: rapidly climbing numbers of people infected, many seriously, and
    a growing number of deaths. Vast areas are in quarantine; huge numbers
    working from home or trying to, normal life suspended, prison riots, an
    economy in free fall.

    “Life has changed utterly in a week and even if things pick up in a couple of months this is the start of a much bigger change. Life as we knew it, where economic growth is the only number that matters, has to end. The planet cannot take it any more.

    “Looking out from Italy, the impression is that the penny hasn’t really dropped and that a lot of people still haven’t realised that Italy is simply a week or two ahead of the other countries, a test case (with a fair more resilient public health service than many other countries have). It is dispiriting to see Trump off playing golf and belittling the crisis, Boris Johnson telling us nothing has changed, Cheltenham going ahead as well as a Wales-Scotland rugby match, Leo Varadkar dithering about St Patrick’s Day parades and flying to Washington to give the orange man a shamrock, the 160 members of Dail Eireann allowing a party with just 35 TDs (Irish for MPs) to coordinate the response when what is needed is a national emergency government.”

    The change McCourt registers is also felt in Japan, even though it has fewer fatalities than the USA, which despite the apocalyptic warnings of its best experts (who do not include Pence or the fellow in charge of CDC, a Trump appointee whose policy amounts to “sinners must die”) seems to be indulging a binge of Baghdad Bob style denialism. Thus Japan contributes to the world’s health while the USA militates against it. But the penny is dropping everywhere, because unlike the climate crisis the cause-effect connections of the pandemic are transparent.

  9. Joe O'Leary says:

    Today Italy is in total lockdown, travel forbidden to all.

    We are drifting toward Spanish Flu territory, and it is going to test our moral and spiritual resources to the utmost. (See my sermon for Fourth Sunday of Lent, “Heavenly Light in Hellish Darkness.”)

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