The potential spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States and locally has required a pastoral response impacting the lives of many. Over the last several days, I have received several e-mails with suggestions in response to the coronavirus and many include the suspension of Communion on the tongue.
Interestingly, the truth, according to the Centers for Disease Control, is that the “transmission of coronavirus in general occurs much more commonly through respiratory droplets than through fomites (objects such as a dish or doorknob that may be contaminated).”
By extension we could include the hand. The CDC states that respiratory droplets are produced when the infected person coughs or sneezes.
I have been responding to emails encouraging the observance of our own archdiocesan directives which are quite balanced. If you haven’t already read them, you can find them here and here. In fact, health professionals said they correspond well with the CDC directives.
As far as Communion on the tongue, the church in this virus as in previous viruses emphasizes that the manner of Communion is decided by the individual. This cannot be unilaterally dismissed. Communion in the hand can be recommended but not mandated.
Some object to this. They say that if the priest accidentally touches someone’s mouth when placing the Host on their tongue they ought to stop and wash their hands before distributing Communion to the next person.
Is there a possibility that a priest may touch the hand or tongue of a communicant when distributing Communion? Of course it’s a possibility, but the most important response at this time is hygiene on the part of all.
The recommendation from the CDC states that washing hands with soap and water for 20 seconds is best: “If soap and water are not available and hands are not visibly dirty, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains 60%-95% alcohol may be used.” Hand hygiene should be performed before and after Mass. Pastors ought to ensure that hand hygiene supplies are readily available.
However, as Sinatra once said to Hemingway, “Let’s be Frank and Ernest.” There seems to be a deeper issue here: the manner of the reception of holy Communion. Unlike our Protestant brothers and sisters, Catholics have an authority that can put to rest disagreements among us.
The Congregation for the Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacrament released on March 24, 2004 an Instruction on certain matters to be observed or to be avoided regarding the Most Holy Eucharist. The congregation reiterated the teaching found in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the governing document on all things related to the Mass. The congregation said the choice of receiving on the tongue or in the hand lies with the communicant (RS, 92). We need to move beyond an adolescent attitude, always questioning and challenging Christ and the church.
The Eucharist is really, truly and substantially the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. The whole plenitude of his divinity is veiled under the appearance of a small piece of bread. This is the faith of the Catholic Church, handed on for thousands of years. People have gone to their deaths for the sake of this reality.
We cannot dispense with bodily signs of reverence and respect for Christ’s Presence in the Eucharist, even in the midst of a pandemic. When we do, the faith is attenuated. In the Eucharist, we encounter Christ. We become aware of his presence and our response is reverence. As a sign of reverence, the communicant bows his or her head before receiving the sacrament in the hand or on the tongue. The question of the manner of the reception of Communion remains with the individual.
Many question the directives regarding the distribution of Communion out of an understandable anxiety. In these troubling times, I would like to conclude with a prayer from St. Teresa of Avila, the great Spanish mystic. May this prayer allay our fears. “Let nothing disturb thee; Let nothing dismay thee; All thing pass; God never changes. Patience attains all that it strives for. He who has God lacks nothing. God alone suffices.”
Father Christopher Moriconi is the administrative secretary to the Archbishop of Philadelphia.
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