The coronavirus pandemic has prompted discussions in Ukraine over whether precautions should be taken related to the reception of Holy Communion, especially as many in the country attend Churches where it is distributed from a common chalice and spoon.
According to the World Health Organization, worldwide there are 132,758 confirmed cases of coronavirus, and 4,955 deaths. There are three confirmed cases of coronavirus in Ukraine, and one death. A 71-year-old woman who returned from Poland visited her church and did not self-isolate, and she died March 13 after one day of hospitalization.
Officials have announced quarantines throughout the country, with schools suspended for three weeks. They have also work to prevent panic, as there have already been cases of protests and street fights prompted by concerns over the spread of coronavirus.
More than 60% of Ukrainians belong to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine or the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), and nearly another 10% belong to Greek Catholic Churches. Each of these Churches use the Byzantine rite, in which Communion is distributed under both species. The Body of Christ is immersed in the Precious Blood in a single chalice and is distributed by the priest to the faithful from a single golden spoon. Additionally, in these Churches all the baptized, including infants, receive Holy Communion.
Thus the common means of distributing Communion in the country has led to much discussion of whether coronavirus can be transmitted through Communion, and what precautions should be taken.
Igor Kuzin, acting general director of the Public Health Center of Ukraine’s Ministry of Health, told CNA that the use of a common spoon for the distribution of Communion “of course, poses some risk of infection for believers, but we understand religious feeling and the rights of people, so we work together with the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations to find the right way to manage this.”
Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church
In the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, priests exhort the faithful to be careful not to touch the spoon as they receive Communion, and the faithful are taught to open wide their mouth when receiving.
Major Archbishop Svyatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, said that “during this period it may be justified not to touch or kiss the icons”.
He also asked that elderly people and parents with children stay at home and pray with the Divine Liturgy through a live stream. For those who are ill, Major Archbishop Svyatoslav encouraged priests provide them with confession and Communion at home.
The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is carefully discussing the form of Communion; but the liturgical commission, whose work would prepare preliminary investigation before the final decision of Major Archbishop Svyatoslav, has not yet met on this problem.
But one of the experts of the commission, the liturgist Father Vasil Rudeyko, does not consider the use of a common spoon to be obligatory.
“We have such a tradition, but in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, who also use the Byzantine rite, share Communion by hand. They dip a particle of the Holy Body into the Holy Blood and place it in the mouth of the communicant. This may be one of the possibilities”, Father Vasil told CNA.
Another option could be the reception of Holy Communion under one species, as is common in the Latin rite, but Fr. Vasil is uncertain whether this option would be acceptable for Greek Catholics in Ukraine.
Bishop Dionisio Lyakhovich, apostolic delegate of the Ukrainian Apostolic Exarchate of Italy, wrote in a communiqué that in the exarchate Communion will be given under “one species (the Holy Body) in the hand and the priest should see to it that parishioners consume it immediately, and in front of him.” While infants usually receive Communion in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, at this time the bishop advises that they not be communed.
Ruthenian Eparchy of Mukachevo
Bishop Milan Šašik of the Ruthenian Eparchy of Mukachevo, which is immediately subject to the Holy See, has issued a statement meant “to prevent panic and misunderstandings about the health or life of our parishioners, and to prevent restrictions or prohibitions on church services.” He has encouraged those with symptoms of viral disease to stay home.
He recommended that the icons and Gospel book not be kissed, but rather reverenced with the sign of the cross and a bow.
“During Communion, do not touch with the lips and do not lick the spoon; bring infants only for the blessing with the chalice and not for Communion,” Bishop Milan wrote.
The bishop also recommended that those who fear infection should make a spiritual communion, “by eliciting an act of faith and love for God and a strong desire to receive Christ into their hearts.”
He also recalled “the first Christians who, for the sake of participating in the Eucharist, risked their own lives until death.” The bishop mentioned the 49 martyrs of Abitinae, killed during the Diocletian persecution in 304, who “sacrificed their lives for Communion with Christ” in the face of a ban on assembly in the Roman empire.
“Let us be prudent at this time and may the Lord inspire us to experience in peace and tranquility all the realities of this earthly life,” Bishop Milan said. “Let us contemplate the crucified Christ, that renewed in joy we may experience His Resurrection.”
Orthodox Church of Ukraine
In a March 13 communique from the press office of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (the autocephaly of which was recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in January 2019), its bishops insisted that in the churches, believers should continue to reverence icons, though without touching or kissing them.
Following Communion in the Divine Liturgy, the Orthodox Church provides a chalice of water mixed with wine. Normally a single chalice is shared for this purpose, but the bishops have said that at this time the water and wine mixture should be distributed through disposable plastic cups.
At the same time, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine insists that the Eucharist, which is traditionally consumed by the Orthodox from a single chalice and a common spoon, should be treated not as consumption of food, but as a sacrament, which is served “for the healing of body and soul”.
Currently, the OCU makes it clear that believers can be infected by the kissing of icons, but not from the common spoon with which Communion is distributed.
The OCU Metropolitan of Lviv, Dimitriy Rudyuk, wrote on Facebook March 6 calling “all other ways of [distributing] Communion that deny the traditional form of the Eucharist in the Orthodox Church or any limitation on the reception of the true Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ” blasphemy and a lack of faith.
Metropolitan Dimitriy addressed this especially to those afraid of falling ill through receiving Communion from the single chalice and spoon.
His post following a gathering of representatives from local Churches convoked by the Lviv government to discuss how priests could help to stop the spread of coronavirus, and to reduce the population’s fear.
Fr. Cyril Hovorun, a priest of the OCU who is acting director of the Huffington Ecumenical Institute at Loyola Marymount University, affirms that viruses can be transmitted through the Sacrament. Moreover, he maintained in a March 12 Facebook post that to think differently means to fall into docetism, which was condemned at the First Council of Nicaea.
Fr. Cyril wrote that each person must decide whether to Communicate in light of the possibility of transmission, and that “to deceive people and themselves, referring to faith and promising that nothing will happen, is theologically incorrect, and also irresponsible.”
Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate)
Bishop Clement Vecherya, head of the press office of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), said that “Holy Communion is a manifestation of the Christian’s personal faith, which no one is forcing a person to. From the Holy Gifts, the believing person cannot become infected; moreover, in history, wonderful healing with help of the Holy Mysteries is known, but not infection”.
He added that the UOC-MP would not adopt any other way of sharing Holy Communion than from the same chalice and spoon, so as not to reject the Orthodox Church’s two thousand years of pastoral experience.
As an argument that the UOC-MP is honest with parishioners, Bishop Clement noted that during the Liturgy, the last person to receive Communion is a priest.
“In addition to the coronavirus, there are other viral diseases in the world, so priests would simply not survive or would have difficult infectious diseases. But you see nothing like that”, Bishop Clement said.
The bishop also said that the icons are carefully cleaned with disinfectants, even in normal times.
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