As public Masses start to return around the world, bishops are taking different policies on the reception of Communion. We asked Fr Michael Jarmulowicz and Joseph Shaw to discuss the question over email.
I write both as a parish priest and previously a consultant pathologist. My preference is to receive on the tongue, because I feel in doing so I adopt the position of a dependent child being spoonfed the Body of Christ. But is reception in the hand only – as critics claim – a post-Vatican II innovation which decreases reverence towards the Blessed Sacrament?
Let us go back to the writings of St Cyril of Jerusalem in the 4th century. In his catechetical instruction to the newly baptised he writes: “In approaching therefore [Holy Communion], come not with your wrists extended, or your fingers spread; but make your left hand a throne for the right, as for that which is to receive a King. And having hollowed your palm, receive the Body of Christ, saying over it, Amen.” And in his instruction on receiving from the chalice he writes: “And while the moisture is still upon your lips, touch it with your hands, and hallow your eyes and brow and the other organs of sense.” (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures 23.21. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 7). Is that not showing profound respect?
As someone who distributes Communion daily, in the vast majority of cases my fingers do not touch the tongue or mouth of the person. But there are occasions, either because the person moves their head as you approach, or the way they open their mouth, when my fingers do touch their face.
The evidence is clear – the first study from Hong Kong showed that the virus is being excreted in the saliva in 92 per cent of infected individuals, with a median load in the early stage of 3 million viral copies per millilitre of saliva, and in one patient 120 million! (Clinical Infectious Diseases, Feb 12, 2020). If that person has a subclinical infection, your fingers are now contaminated and the virus will be transferred by the subsequent host to the next communicant – and probably more.
As parish priests our responsibility is to all. Should I risk transmitting coronavirus to a vulnerable parishioner in order to assuage the fully understandable desire to receive on the tongue?
Dear Fr Michael,
The suggestion that reception in the hand, as it is done today, is no less reverent than reception on the tongue is not supported by your citation from St Cyril of Jerusalem. Sometimes the Church develops customs which show greater reverence to the Blessed Sacrament than before: progress is not invariably downhill! St Cyril’s reference to the Faithful touching their eyes and ears with the Precious Blood, which you quote, would seem to support this general principle.
Notice also that he instructs the Faithful to place the left hand under the right: a detail usually slurred over by those appealing to his authority. Why? Because they are not then going to pick up the host with their fingers, but raise their cupped hands to their mouths, as Anglicans do. The truth is that the modern practice was not inspired by ancient precedent, but by Protestant example, and not the best among these.
As well as not picking up the Host, in Anglican practice ministers do not let go of the Chalice when administering it.
That reception in the hand is less reverent was affirmed by the Congregation of Divine Worship, at the very moment it bowed to the inevitable to permit the practice (in Memoriale Domini): reception on the tongue “ensures, more effectively, that Holy Communion is distributed with the proper respect, decorum and dignity”. Furthermore, “It removes the danger of profanation of the sacred species.” The innovation, by contrast, holds the danger “of adulterating the true doctrine”.
On the hygiene aspect, I have yet to see evidence that overrules the medical experts consulted by Archbishop Sample of Portland, Oregon, and those consulted by Archbishop José Antonio Eguren, of Piura, Peru, who said that reception on the tongue is no more dangerous than reception in the hand.
With best wishes,
I note your comment that St Cyril said to place the left hand under the right. The point I was trying to make here was that physically touching the sacred species by hand has not been deemed irreverent. I agree that, sadly, respect and reverence for the Blessed Sacrament is not as it should be, and on one occasion I have had to follow a communicant to the back of the church and physically remove the Blessed Sacrament from their hand.
But we are now in a highly infectious pandemic. A precept of the church is that it is a serious obligation to attend Mass every Sunday; but the bishops have suspended that requirement, not just because the Government ordered it, but for the common good.
You state that you have not yet seen evidence which overrules the medical experts consulted by the two archbishops. I am not sure what evidence they were using when they gave their opinion, because knowledge about this new virus is continually developing.
It was obvious from a very early stage that transmission was by respiratory droplets, initially thought to be from coughs and sneezes, but also that the virus could live on surfaces and so be transmitted via the hand to the face; hence the advice of social distancing, frequent hand washing and use of sanitiser.
Using laser imaging, it has recently been shown that, with increasing intensity, breathing, talking and singing all produce thousands of oral fluid droplets (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, May 13). Some draft guidelines suggest that singing should not be allowed when Mass resumes, based on this evidence. We now know, and the number is currently unknown, that individuals can be asymptomatic and yet be infected and transmit the virus!
So even if the priest’s fingers do not touch the person’s mouth, it is possible that viral contaminated droplets could be deposited on his fingers – and transmitted with the subsequent host.
There is no way to mitigate this possibility. There is a risk of transmission from the hand, but this risk can be reduced by regular cleaning of the church surfaces, and use of hand sanitiser by parishioners. It has even been suggested in some draft guidelines that if the priest should touch the person’s hand, they should sanitise before continuing to distribute Holy Communion.
Dear Fr Michael,
Microscopic water droplets could be carried by the communicant’s breath onto the priest’s fingers, although communicants do not tend to breath out through their mouths while receiving. It is less clear how those droplets would be passed on to the next communicant if the priest does not touch him or her. Notwithstanding this, clearly some level of risk remains.
What of Communion in the hand? A priest might stop and cleanse his hands after each accidental contact with a communicant, though this will be more onerous with reception in the hand, since it happens far more frequently. His compliance with the guidelines may be very good, but clearly the compliance of the whole congregation must be assumed to be imperfect. Cleansing one’s hands on entry into the church would not be much help if the worshipper went on to touch pews, books, clothing, and so on: they would have to cleanse their hands immediately before reception. Some will forget, some will not do it very thoroughly, some will unthinkingly scratch their noses on the way up to Communion.
In this situation, it is not just a matter of becoming infected, via the priest, by a previous communicant, but of infecting oneself with some of those invisible droplets of water picked up from an infected surface, potentially including one’s own face.
Is encouraging people to receive in the hand a way to mitigate the risk to a significant extent? This is a tremendously difficult calculation to make. Since my original letter on the subject the Thomistic Institute has issued its very detailed and carefully considered guidelines, which conclude that “it is possible to distribute on the tongue without unreasonable risk”. Their experts remain fallible, of course, but it is surely fair to ask for strong reasons to ignore their view.
I am not conscious that I change my breathing when receiving Holy Communion, and in the Ordinary Form the communicant does answer “Amen” immediately prior to reception. The mechanism of transmission would be that potentially infected droplets land on the priest’s fingers and could then be transmitted to the subsequent host he picked from the ciborium, which would then be given to the next person. I rarely touch the person’s hand, and now, being conscious of the importance of not doing so, I will be yet more vigilant.
The draft guidance for reopening includes a requirement for volunteers to clean the church daily (more frequently depending on use), with regular concentration on those areas most likely to be touched. This will include door handles and door plates – although the recommendation is to keep doors open – and benches.
Of course, risk cannot be entirely eliminated. Understanding of this virus is developing, but it behaves bizarrely: some people are totally asymptomatic, with fatality in others. And while there is no current effective treatment, the Church needs to consider the best safeguards it can, whilst maintaining contact with the sacraments which undoubtedly should be recognised as the most important things in our lives. What could be more important than direct physical contact with our Blessed Lord?
I am sure that those who desire to receive on the tongue will quickly return to that method of reception as soon as possible.
Dear Fr Michael,
When tilting one’s head back and sticking one’s tongue out, one tends to close the oesophagus and breathe through one’s nose. Try it!
Your letter illustrates the danger of assuming that reception on the tongue is worse, and then appealing to a safety first instinct to prohibit it. That is not the state of the question. As has been repeated by one expert after another, it is far from clear that it is more dangerous.
The cleansing of churches will help, but if Holy Communion is distributed at the normal time, or at the end of Mass, there will be an extended period of time for pews and other surfaces to become infected, and the congregation will bring all sorts of possibly infected items into church: books, handbags, clothing, and their own bodies. Finger-tips are the most likely things to become infected.
Communion in the hand brings into this situation the practice of people putting something into their mouths with their fingers: this looks very problematic. Surely, the last thing we want is anything resembling the consumption of finger-food. The feeding of communicants by a priest carefully placing (or dropping) the Host into their mouths may be imperfect, but it clearly has its advantages.
In general, Ordinary Form practice shows remarkable disregard for hygiene, notably in reception from the Chalice. Never mandated for large and diverse congregations, but widespread in this country, it should seriously concern us, even outside a pandemic. Handshakes, not to mention hugs, at the Pax are also difficult to justify, and are also the occasion for liturgical abuses (Redemptionis Sacramentum 102, 72.)
I’d say that the ancient liturgical tradition, by contrast, shows a good deal of wisdom.
Fr Michael Jarmulowicz is a priest in Westminster Diocese. Joseph Shaw is chairman of the Latin Mass Society
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