ROME — Almost a month after new anti-coronavirus rules jointly signed by Italy’s bishops and government came into effect, allowing for the resumption of public Masses, many local Catholics continue to be express concerns regarding aspects of the joint protocol.
In particular, according to two knowledgeable Church leaders who spoke with the Register, the requirement that priests distribute Holy Communion with disposable gloves and masks is an unacceptable liturgical practice.
Article 3.4 of the protocol, signed by the head of Italy’s bishops, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, and Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on May 7 after lengthy talks, mandates that the distribution of Communion must take place after the celebrant or extraordinary minister of Communion “have taken care of the hygiene of their hands and worn disposable gloves.”
“There are many difficulties with the practice of priests distributing Holy Communion while wearing a mask and covering their hands with gloves,” Cardinal Raymond Burke told the Register May 26.
“Our faith tells us that the priest acts, in virtue of sacramental grace, in the person of Christ Head and Shepherd of the flock. The priest fulfills his divinely-given mission most fully and perfectly in the offering of the Eucharistic Sacrifice and in the distribution of Holy Communion, the sublime fruit of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Wearing a mask and gloves, while fulfilling his most important service of the faithful is a countersign. It gives the impression that the priest is a mere functionary carrying out the action of the Holy Mass and distributing the Sacred Hosts, instead of Christ himself who comes to give himself — Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity — to his faithful.”
Referring to concerns about what happens to the particles of the sacred Host when using disposable gloves, Cardinal Burke said, “From the moment that the priest consecrates the bread and wine, transforming their substance into the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ, he exercises the greatest caution that no particle of the Sacred Host, the Body of Christ, and no smallest drop of the Precious Blood be lost, that is, fail to be received in Holy Communion, and thus be subject to lack of due respect and care.”
Cardinal Burke stressed that “from the moment of the consecration, the priest does not touch any profane, that is non-sacred, object until he has purified his hands after Holy Communion.” For this reason, he explained, for a priest to use gloves to touch the Body of Christ and to give the Body of Christ to the faithful “is to treat Holy Communion as a kind of agent of disease.”
Cardinal Burke added that “the gloves themselves will have particles of the host inside from the hands of the priest and on the outside from contact with the Sacred Host. This is completely unacceptable.”
Lack of Formation?
Father Nicola Bux, a former consultor to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and for the Congregation of Saints, told the Register that priests “perhaps have no intention of desecrating the sacrament, but they do not know what it means to treat the Eucharist worthily, that is, in relation to the intrinsic value of the reality in question.”
Father Bux said it is “no wonder” some of the faithful are “indignant at this treatment of the Eucharist,” which he ascribed to “a lack of human and Christian formation in this regard.”
Moreover, he said, precautions for distributing the Blessed Sacrament in such circumstances “already exist” and could be implemented, because they are “confirmed or not denied” by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (2004). These rubrics, dating back to ancient times, detail how to treat “the sacred vessels with sacred dignity, which also implies the hygienic purification of the hands,” he said.
Father Bux said, for example, that in the extraordinary form of the Roman rite, after having consecrated the species, “the priest keeps his thumbs and index fingers together, so as not to touch anything else until the Communion of the faithful has ended.”
He also noted that “in the Roman and Ambrosian rites,” the covering of the sacred vessels and the purification of hands with water (Father Bux said sanitizer could be added) further ensure Communion is distributed hygienically. He also said the Missal instructs the priest to purify his fingers in the chalice “in order to dissolve any consecrated fragments” and to dry his hands “with the purificator.”
“If these norms were put into practice, the Blessed Sacrament would be treated as it should be and the faithful would be reassured of it in spirit and in body,” Father Bux said.
Bishops’ Conference Perspective
The Register asked Vincenzo Corrado, spokesman for the Italy’s bishops’ conference, how the protocols came into being and whether any advice was sought from both liturgists and Catholic medical professionals before they were signed.
In a May 21 email, Corrado said he did not “intend to enter into a sterile controversy that feeds opposition and division at a time” when public Masses are resuming.
Noting that individual dioceses have considerable leeway in how to implement the protocols, he said it is up to them how they go about this.
With respect to accusations of sacrilege, he referred to a quote from St. John Chrysostom:
“What advantage can Christ have if his table [the altar] is covered with golden vessels, while he himself dies of hunger in the person of the poor? Begin to satiate him who is hungry, and then, if you still have money left, decorate his altar as well. Do you offer him a golden chalice and not give him a glass of fresh water? What good does that do? You provide gold woven veils for the altar and you do not offer him necessary clothes. ... God has never condemned anyone because he has not given his temples rich ornaments: but he also threatens hell if you neglect to help the poor.”
Corrado said that care for the Eucharist “does not put in second place care for men and women who approach it.”
“Priests will certainly know how to combine respect for liturgical and health care norms with serene and responsible commitment,” he added.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.