Friday, March 13, 2020 - Updated: 5:07 pm
QUESTION: I have heard that during this flu/virus crisis, some dioceses have encouraged people not to receive holy Communion on the tongue but rather in the hand (some even forbidding it). What’s behind all that?
ANSWER: The flu as well as the coronavirus has prompted Church leaders to consider several aspects of normal church life. Among them is the way in which holy Communion is distributed and received. In response to the question above several points need to be considered.
The Diocese of Pittsburgh has created a special page for updating health safety precautions for the church: https://www.diopitt.org/coronavirus-safety-precautions.
In the long life of the church, the one who celebrates the Eucharist (who speaks the words over the elements of bread and wine) has always been of primary concern to the church. The one who distributes the Eucharist and the way it is received were not of equal importance.
Receiving holy Communion in the hand was the accepted practice during the earliest centuries of church life. Other practices emerged out of devotion and not on any dogmatic grounds.
The distribution of holy Communion in the mouth frequently means contact with bodily fluids in the mouth. Those distributing Communion in this way often have spittle on their fingers when they distribute the host to the next person in line (who consumes the host in their mouth).
I have read that some church leaders have not acted on this specific issue because they claim, “both ways are almost the same.” Anyone who has distributed holy Communion knows that this is not borne out by experience. Quickly placing the host in a person’s hand is very different than having one’s hand near or in someone’s mouth. Wiping one’s hands on a cloth between each person, although well intentioned, is really not practical.
It is true that the church has provided the option to receive holy Communion on the tongue or in the hand. But current concerns about health risks do raise questions. It seems to me that St. Paul has some advice for us.
As St. Paul writes to the Christian community at Corinth, he addresses the question of one’s freedom to eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols. Apparently, some Christians in Corinth were eating this meat contending that it was their right to do so because such meat was abundant and likely cheaper. They also contended that they understood those idols were “no-gods” of silver, gold, wood or stone so that it didn’t matter what they did (see I Cor. 8:7-13).
St. Paul’s reply was that while it is their right to do so, he is asking that they do not exercise that right because it may cause distress to other Christians who have only recently entered the Christen faith from religions associated with those pagan idols. Paul is saying for the good of others, do not exercise what is your right.
Therefore, it seems that St. Paul might also speak to those who have a right to receive holy Communion on the tongue. St. Paul is asking: Is it not the best choice to refrain from the use of a right for the good of other brothers and sisters in Christ? Clearly, the potential spread of a virus for which there is yet no vaccine is a serious concern for all of us.
Father Bober is administrator of the grouping that includes St. Kilian in Adams/Cranberry townships and Holy Sepulcher in Glade Mills.