Reception-of-Communion Question Comes Into Play With Spread of Coronavirus

Many dioceses have issued guidelines indicating the Blessed Sacrament should be distributed in the hand as a preventive measure, but it’s unclear that it’s a safer practice — and making an act of spiritual Communion is another alternative.

A priest distributes Communion on Divine Mercy Sunday in St. Peter's Square on April 8, 2018.
A priest distributes Communion on Divine Mercy Sunday in St. Peter's Square on April 8, 2018. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

VATICAN CITY — As dioceses issue various directives on how parishes should handle the coronavirus, one in particular — that the faithful receive Holy Communion in the hand and not on the tongue for hygiene reasons — is causing much debate.

Across Europe and the United States, bishops have especially issued guidelines suggesting the Blessed Sacrament be distributed in the hand as well as instructing clergy to cease ministering the Precious Blood from the chalice if both species are commonly provided.

Before Italy’s bishops issued an interdict suspending all public Masses in the country on March 8, Milan was one of the first metropolitan dioceses to urge the practice. The vicar general of the archdiocese, Msgr. Franco Agnesi, suggested on Feb. 22 that Holy Communion “may be distributed on the hand, according to current liturgical norms.”

Other dioceses in northern Italy, the region of so-called “red zones,” where most deaths and cases of infection have been recorded, had also issued similar instructions, along with various other hygiene measures on how to prevent infection.

The Church in Italy is following government decrees to try to halt the spread of the virus, which, according to the World Health Organization, is spreading quickly across the globe and has a mortality rate considerably higher than seasonal flu (3.4% compared to 0.1%).

On Monday, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conti of Italy put the entire country on lockdown in order to stop the spread of the virus.

In the United States, where so far 617 cases and 22 deaths have been recorded, the bishops’ conference has yet to issue guidelines but has left that task to dioceses, which have followed suit with similar preventive measures.

Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico, expressly prohibited reception of the Eucharist on the tongue in a directive issued on March 3, saying “ALL” communicants “MUST receive Holy Communion in the hand and not on the tongue,” while the Diocese of Spokane, Washington, “strongly discouraged” receiving the Eucharist on the tongue.

The Archdiocese of Chicago also issued coronavirus-prevention guidelines on March 3, stating that, “given the frequency of direct contact with saliva in the distribution of Holy Communion on the tongue, every consideration should be given by each individual to receive Holy Communion reverently in open hands for the time being.”

The North American College (NAC) in Rome, which can continue to celebrate Masses in private, has also mandated receiving in the hand, taking its cue from a March 5 instruction from the Vicariate of Rome. That instruction referred to an earlier March 3 directive, “inviting” parish priests to receive in the hand as a matter of prudence.

As well as emptying holy water fonts and omitting the exchange of the Sign of Peace, the NAC’s director of liturgical formation, Benedictine Father Kurt Belsole, sent seminarians an email saying the vicariate has “instructed the assembly to receive Communion in the hand” and that, “consequently, we should follow the instruction of the vicariate.”

In the Holy Land, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem announced measures that included “receiving Communion by hand only,” and in common with dioceses across the world, it instructed priests not to have the faithful “receive Communion from the chalice” or exchange the Sign of Peace.

The bishops of England and Wales, where 321 confirmed cases and four deaths from the virus had been recorded as of March 9, issued guidelines on Feb. 27 in which they “advise” the faithful to “receive the Host in the hand only.”


Other Perspectives

But as dioceses appear to be taking a common line promoting or even mandating receiving Holy Communion in the hand, questions are being raised whether it should be decreed instead of suggested or invited, and even whether it has been proven to be more hygienic.

The Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, issued a statement March 2 saying that, having consulted two physicians on the issue, the risk of infection when receiving on the tongue or hand is “more or less equal” if reception is carried out “properly.”

The archdiocese also stressed that a parish “cannot ban reception of Holy Communion on the tongue” nor may that means be refused if a person requests it, referring to a 2004 Vatican instruction, Redemptionis Sacramentum, which noted that “each of the faithful always has the right to receive Holy Communion on the tongue, at his choice [92].”

The statement went on to say that ministers of Holy Communion should be “able to distribute Holy Communion without risk of touching the hands or the tongue” and that “parishioners should also be instructed how to receive Holy Communion properly either on the tongue or in the hand.”

Archbishop José Antonio Eguren of Piura, Peru, also said he would allow reception on the tongue in his archdiocese, saying risk of contagion was the same as in the hand, and urged that churches not close or yield to the “virus of fear,” ACI Prensa reported March 7.

He also stipulated appropriate hygiene measures and said ministers of Holy Communion are asked to “avoid the risk of touching the mouth or hands of communicants” and that the faithful be instructed on how to receive properly.

Most dioceses around the world have recommended regular hand-washing, especially by the celebrant and Eucharistic ministers, as a further measure to help prevent spread of the virus.

A bishop’s rules, whatever they are on this matter, should be obeyed, according to Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville, Tennessee. “Really, at this moment, the discussion about Communion on the tongue or on the hand is decided by the local bishop, as he is, according to the Church, the local authority and Vicar for Christ,” he tweeted March 8. “Better to pray for the end of this virus, for those suffering and for the caregivers.”


Impassioned Debate

The issue of how to receive Holy Communion is a charged one due to a long-running and impassioned debate over whether receiving the Host in the hand is appropriate or in keeping with early Church history.

Traditional Catholics argue that it shows a lack of reverence for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, especially as it increases the danger that the Eucharistic species could be profaned and fragments from the Host dispersed. They also argue that, for centuries, the liturgy only allowed reception of Christ’s Body kneeling and on the tongue, which is why the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite — the traditional Latin Mass according to the 1962 Roman Missal — forbids reception in the hand.

But in the ordinary form, receiving the Eucharistic Host in the hand tends to be the norm and became common practice after Pope St. Paul VI issued the instruction Memoriale Domini in 1969. The document was issued in response to a trend of receiving Holy Communion in the hand had developed in some northern European dioceses after the Second Vatican Council. It was aimed at curtailing the trend by allowing the practice only if a two-thirds majority of the countries’ bishops supported it and was not meant to encourage it as a universal norm.

But arguments are used to press for its normal use, namely drawing on historical records that it was practiced in the early Church (critics argue receiving on the tongue is an organic development from that time), that it better reflects Jesus’ words “take and eat,” and that it encourages the active participation promoted by the Second Vatican Council.

A further question is what happens in the extraordinary form. According to the rubrics of the old rite, Holy Communion “may not be distributed in the hand,” said the U.K.’s Latin Mass Society in a March 3 statement in response to the guidelines issued by the bishops of England and Wales.

It also said that, should the spread of the virus prevent distribution of Holy Communion on the tongue, then such Holy Communion should be suspended, and the faithful should be “encouraged to make a ‘spiritual Communion.’”

In March 5 comments to the Register, Joseph Shaw, the chairman of the Latin Mass Society, made the point that, in times of plague, public Masses were occasionally suspended, but that for “more than 15 centuries” the faithful would have “thought nothing of making a spiritual Communion at Mass in preparation for a more devout reception of Holy Communion at a later time.” This is partly because, before the 20th century, reception of Holy Communion was not such an issue, as “people did not receive so frequently,” sometimes not “for a few weeks.”


Milan’s Eucharistic Fast

Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop emeritus of Milan, stressed that temporarily abstaining from receiving Communion can in any case be spiritually beneficial.

Speaking to Vatican News March 8 in response to the temporary cessation of all public Masses across Italy, he said that on Fridays during Lent in the Ambrosian Rite that is celebrated in Milan, a “Eucharistic fast” is kept.

This serves a spiritual purpose to help “make [the faithful] feel deeply the lack of the living Christ in our midst,” he said, and it stirs “more hunger for the word of God and for the Eucharist.”

Similarly, in the Byzantine rite during Lent, no Holy Communion is distributed on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, and on Wednesdays and Fridays, Holy Communion is distributed but no Mass is celebrated. Only on Saturdays and Sundays is the Mass celebrated during the season of Lent.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.


An Act of Spiritual Communion

My Jesus, I believe that thou art present in the Most Holy Sacrament. I love thee above all things, and I desire to receive thee in my soul. Since I cannot at this moment receive thee sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace thee as if thou wert already there and unite myself wholly to thee. Never permit me to be separated from thee. Amen.


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