BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) – You can pray you won’t get the flu, but Vermont’s Catholic bishop is urging other steps as well.

Bishop Kenneth Angell has told worshippers of the state’s largest religion they should abstain from the Mass customs of sharing a chalice and shaking hands for the next six months.

“Because of the flu vaccine shortage, I am requesting that, as a protective measure in the Diocese of Burlington, we do not give the Sign of Peace’ or the chalice for communion starting Sunday, Oct. 31, 2004, and remaining in effect until Easter Sunday, March 27, 2005,” the bishop has written in an official notice to the state’s 130 Catholic parishes.

Angell ends his notice – believed to be the only such one in the country – with the words, “Praying for the good health of all, especially those most at risk.”

In Maine, Bishop Richard Malone planned to meet with priests next month to discuss flu-related concerns. Malone said sharing a chalice and handshakes were always optional and that churchgoers should consider forgoing those practices if they have the flu or are worried about getting it.

“He definitely wants to have this issue discussed with parishioners,” said Sue Bernard, spokeswoman for the Diocese of Portland.

Maine and Vermont, like the nation, are facing a shortage of flu vaccine because the bulk of this year’s supply was found to be contaminated with bacteria.

Vermont had about 36,000 doses on hand when the flu vaccine shortage was made public, state health officials said. They estimated the state would need at least 50,000 more than that to meet its needs.

Vermont Health Commissioner Paul Jarris is recommending the state’s limited supply be given to chronically ill children and nursing home residents. He suggests everyone else take such precautions as avoiding close contact with people who are sick, washing hands often and keeping fingers away from the eyes, nose and mouth.

Catholics traditionally shake hands with parishioners in pews beside them when a priest calls for a “sign of peace” about halfway through a Mass. They then receive a piece of communion bread and have the opportunity to sip from a shared chalice near the end of the service.

Vermont Catholics appear to be reacting the most vigilantly of the state’s largest faiths. The 19,000-member United Methodist Church and the 18,000-member United Church of Christ will continue shaking hands and receiving communion through single-serving cups, while the 8,700-member Episcopal Church will let parishioners decide about shaking hands and drinking or dipping communion bread into a shared chalice.

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