Flu fears force Mexican Catholics to attend virtual Mass

May 4, 2009

Esteban Israel in Mexico City writes:
Mexico’s 20 million Catholics had to resort to a televised Mass on Sunday after health authorities shut down churches nationwide to prevent the spread of a new flu virus that has seized headlines throughout the world.


The country’s main TV networks broadcast Mass live from the city’s largest cathedral, the Basilica de Guadalupe, showing priests wearing protective face masksĀ alongside the church’s marble altar.

Mexico City’s archbishop, Cardinal Norberto Rivera, gave a sermon that echoed in the empty chamber dominated by giant cranes holding television lights and cameras. The 200,000 faithful who normally visit the Basilica on Sunday were replaced by a few dozen priests, nuns and reporters.

Rivera urged worshippers to obey government instructions to stay home to prevent spreading the H1N1 flu virus, which by Monday had killed 26 people and made another 701 ill in Mexico.

“Even though we’re hearing news that this crisis may be stabilizing, I don’t think we should let down our guard,” Rivera said.

Mexico is home to more Catholics than any other country in the world except Brazil. Eighty percent of its 107 million people are baptized.FLU/

The church rector, Diego Monroy, said it was important for Mexico’s religious leaders to offer solace to a population gripped by fear while also supporting the government’s efforts to stamp out the flu.

“By using the masks in the Mass we’re sending a message of prevention. We’re injecting hope and encouragement,” he said.

The few faithful who were physically present at the Mass had to remove their masks to take communion. They bowed to each other from a distance instead of shaking hands to exchange the “sign of peace” greeting.

A few blocks away from the main Basilica, a smaller colonial church was open but the pews had been removed to prevent worshippers from lingering.

The new flu strain, commonly known as swine flu even though experts say it cannot be caught from pigs, has now spread to over 1,000 people in 20 countries.

Mexico’s government shut down businesses, schools and other places of public gathering over the past few days to prevent people from spreading the virus. The level of alarm subsided somewhat on Monday after the health ministry said the epidemic had passed the worst stage and experts said the virus might be no more lethal than normal flu.


Not all Catholics approved of closing the churches.

“I don’t agree with this, because we are in God’s hands and we should be celebrating Mass,” said Teresa Rodriguez, 50, standing outside the barriers blocking access to the Basilica de Guadalupe.
“If God saved the lepers, isn’t he going to save us?”

photographs: REUTERS/Eliana Aponte

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Mexico’s 20 million? Are they not closer 90 million?

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