ASK FATHER: Father coughed so I didn’t go to Communion.

From a reader.


Shortly before the consecration on Sunday, the priest had a fit of coughing, and coughed into his right hand. What should he have done? I was worried about the transmission of germs, and did not go to communion.

That’s your choice.  That’s an option.

You are not obliged to receive Communion at every Mass.  You are obliged to confess all your mortal sins in kind and number and receive Communion once a year.

As far as priests are concerned… priests, like human beings… no, wait!… they are human beings, sometimes do things like this, cover with the hand when coughing, unconsciously.  I supposed he could have turned his head hard about over this shoulder, or turned away from the altar and then coughed with out covering up.  Good heavens.  What could he have done?  What can you do when your hands are occupied with something.  Say you are involved in food preparation or serving and you are holding the Christmas goose on a platter – in both hands with hot pads – and leaning in so people can help themselves.  Coughs and sneezes can sneak up, right?

Father, however, can’t just leave the sanctuary and go wash his hands. It could be helpful to have some kind of hand purifier around – yes, even at the altar.   I have done that before, even when I had a cough but knew I wasn’t contagious.

On the other hand, and allow me to think out of the box for a moment, would it be possible these days for this to take place?  Father comes out of the sacristy and says, “Folks, I am really ill today.  I think I am contagious.  I will say Mass, but no qualified ministers of Communion present. I won’t be distributing Holy Communion.  FYI”, and then see the congregation not freak out?

In any event, if you don’t want to go to Communion because Father coughed, fine!  Good choice!


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. mamajen says:

    I guess it’s a little gross to see that, but I usually just try to have faith that I won’t get sick from receiving communion. In a church where communion is on the tongue (even just for some), there’s always the possibility that the priest’s hands have come into contact with someone’s mouth. It’s certainly happened when I’ve received (most often in places where most people receive in the hand and the priest or EMHC is out of practice). That said, if I am sick and think I’m contagious, I do stay away from communion to avoid passing germs that way. It’s one thing for me to decide to personally risk taking in germs, but I try to respect others who might feel differently.

  2. Polycarpio says:

    The reader asked “What should he have done?” Instead of coughing “into his right hand,” he could have coughed into the inside of his arm (the antecubital, opposite of the elbow), which is what they say we all should do to avoid being contagious when we shake hands, etc. [Because we always do what we ought to have done.]

  3. Faith says:

    Polycarpio is correct. Nowadays, children are taught to cough into the inside of their elbows. [On whose planet? I can’t begin to number the children who, with their adoring parents looking on, have coughed on me.] Take your hand and hold on to the opposite shoulder, and the inside of your elbow is at mouth level. That’s what I meant by cough into the inside of your elbow.

  4. frjim4321 says:

    Well, I’m happy to learn the name of a part of my body. “Antecubital” is a new one on me! Thanks!

    I usually have a 1/4 second or so lead time for a cough or sneeze so I can turn away from the assembly (and the altar).

    A more frequent issue it would seem to me would be the use of a handkerchief or kleenex by the presider during the mass. First off, I avoid that at all costs until the point of “leaking” out my nose. If I have to use kleenex during the mass I always use hand sanitizer before the preparation of the altar and the communion procession. We have a pump bottle of a very cool non-alcohol, non-drying hand sanitizer secreted in the ambocubby.

    [You will find the maniple very useful for tucking a hanky in your sleeve. Please start using one right away, for the sake of the faithful.]


    [And (as I am feeling generous, post steak, Dolcetto, cigar) for your neologism “ambocubby”…]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  5. Andrew says:

    I suggest the priest cough at the nearest EMHC and immediately disqualify her from her function for the rest of the day.

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  6. John Nolan says:

    I read somewhere that the maniple was originally a handkerchief. And in the OF the priest can ask any member of the lay faithful to assist him in distributing Communion if the need arises. I think the questioner was over-squeamish; after all, most people seem happy enough to shake hands with all and sundry and then receive Communion – in the hand, of course.

  7. Thomas in MD says:

    This past Sunday, our young Parochial Vicar said Mass (OF beautifully BTW),but excused himself from distributing Holy Communion because he announced that he was sick with a bad cold. The Pastor and three EMHCs distributed. This arrangement for the distribution of Communion was unusual for our parish, where we have a Pastor, Parochial Vicar and a permanent Deacon and we use EMHCs sparingly (God bless our Pastor!). It is all ordained hands on deck for Communion at every Mass!!- a practice I haven’t seen since I was an altar boy in the late 70s.

    Young Father greeted folks after Mass but didn’t shake their hands.

  8. Elizium23 says:

    frjim4321, did you just say that you cough ad orientem?

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  9. The Sicilian Woman says:

    I am totally with the reader who sent this in, with no offense to the priest whom s/he referenced, or any other priest in a similar situation. I have a condition that contributes greatly to my having weakened immune system. When I become ill, I am really sick for seven to 10 days, and it will take up to four weeks after that for me to recover fully. As I live alone, being ill and taking care of things I need to take care of is especially challenging. Thus, I avoid sharing germs as much as possible. (Which includes avoiding the handshake in the NO as much as I possibly can.) [Do I hear an “Amen!”?]

  10. APX says:

    In the food industry we’re told to coughs and sneeze into our elbow. Once you start doing it, it becomes a habit.

    As for the coughing priest distributing communion, I once had a priest whipe his runny nose on his hand because he couldn’t separate his fingers to accommodate a Kleenex. He still distributed communion (no other option in the EF). We still all went up to receive communion.

    You haven’t really experienced grossness until you’re up at the communion rail with your mouth open about the receive when the priest says “Corpus” and sends spit flying onto your face. Eww…

  11. Indulgentiam says:

    I think the question and some of the comments reflect the grossly effete condition of the populace. Consider that in places where Mass has been outlawed, both historically and presently, people travel for miles through snake, spider, flea, tick etc. infested terrains. Not a bathroom in site. And when they arrive gratefully kneel in the cold mud for the privilege of recieving Our Lord. Fully expecting that the authorities could open fire at any moment…I dunno, if all I’ve got to worry about is a cold, sheesh I’ve got it made. I tell y’all truly, even if somebody’s just thrown up all over the Cominnion rail and Father has a hacking cough, I’m still going up to recieve. B/c if Almighty GOD has condescended to lower Himself to such as me I’m NOT going to be the one that says, “um…no thanks not right now”. Sheesh! Seriously?!?

  12. MacBride says:

    The priest at my local parish recently had a cold and he turned and coughed ad orientem (made me long for the TLM).

    Anyway, I did not make this connection at first, but when it came time for him to consume the host and precious blood, he dipped the host into the chalice and consumed the host. At the time I thought it was odd because I have never seen him do that before. When at another Mass that week, I noticed him do it again, then I realized, it was because of the cold- he uses his chalice along with another one on Sunday for distribution. BTW, I never drink from the cup. I usually go to a TLM and when I do not, I think it is overused/abused in the NO.

  13. Legisperitus says:

    With regard to not receiving the Sacrament under these conditions, I just thought it should be mentioned that a well-made spiritual Communion can be more profitable to the soul than a sacramental Communion made thoughtlessly.

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  15. frjim4321 says:

    “[And (as I am feeling generous, post steak, Dolcetto, cigar) for your neologism “ambocubby”…]”

    Well, that’s the high point of my day and it’s been a darn good day!

    And just when I was considering my next CI order~!

  16. ghp95134 says:

    Polycarpio: …he could have coughed into the inside of his arm (the antecubital, opposite of the elbow), which is what they say we all should do to avoid being contagious when we shake hands,…”

    Learned to do that in Ranger School in 1980 …. nothing worse than being on patrol for three days with little-to-no sleep, getting ready to assault the Objective at zero-dark-thirty … then some knucklehead sneezes, giving up the element of surprise! So: sneeze/cough into the crook of your arm and Ranger-on.


  17. ghp95134 says:


    A Ranger handkerchief buttons at the cuff. (^__^)

  18. jacobi says:

    At the risk of being a bore, having made this point often, this idea that we must receive Communion at every Mass, that the Catholic Sunday morning service is a “communion service”, as per the Protestant model, is the perhaps the one of the more unfortunate ideas that Pope St Pius X had. Mark you, he had many good ideas too.

    Once or twice a year is a bit on the low side, e.g., Chesterton and Belloc, but nothing has done more to reduce the belief that Holy Communion is the Body, Blood Soul and Divinity of Christ under the appearance of bread and wine, than the 100% reception by so many of those St Matthew might have had in mind, 15:19.

    Above all, we should not receive ”out of routine, or vain glory, or human respect”.

    And the lady? who is worried about getting a cold should take the risk, followed by two aspirin when she gets home, and offer it all up if they don’t work!

  19. Hank Igitur says:

    A physician’s opinion for better or worse, more or less: It is wishful thinking to imagine/hope that infections cannot be transmitted from one person to another via communion species. Viruses, bacteria and saliva do not undergo transubstantiation, only the sacramental matter. Unfortunately consecrated hands can transmit infections just as well as other hands. All reasonable measures should be taken to avoid transfer of potential infections including one’s personal behaviour when coughing/sneezing and use of hand gels where appropriate (I imagine this presents a challenge at the TLM where thumbs and index fingers of the priest must remain opposed. I have never witnessed gel being employed at the TLM, I do not know what the rubrics say in regards to hygiene). Transmission of an infection can occur with reception of the Host both on the tongue and in the hand as well as via lips touching a drinking vessel. Wiping such a vessel with a plain cloth only spreads the germs over a greater surface area (ditto crucifix on Good Friday). Fortunately such infections seem to be rare anecdotally. You are more likely to come down with an infection in a church by inhaling the exhaled droplets from someone coughing in the pew near you than anything else. A priest could potentially transmit germs picked up from either a communicant’s hands OR tongue if he happened to touch either. If you are in doubt about the infectiousness of the priest, another person or yourself for any reason you can abstain from reception of the sacrament on a given occasion.

  20. Joan M says:

    Question to the physician, Hank. How much protection from germs/viruses, or whatever, can coughing or sneezing into your elbow give? This directive seems to have started about 5 years ago. It has always seemed ridiculous to me. Even if we cough or sneeze into a voluminous handkerchief or tissue, there is no possibility of corralling the mist of contagion that explodes from us. I have tried the instruction given in one of the posts, above, and, following it carefully, my closed (about 90 degree), even with my head stretched as far as it can go, results in my mouth barely reaching. The likelihood of containing the contagion is, in my opinion, zero!

    I am convinced that (a) most contagion occurs not from touching contaminated hands, door knobs, etc., but from merely breathing in the air surrounding us, and (b) in fact, protecting ourselves from all possible contagion just makes us more vulnerable to that same air.

  21. avatquevale says:

    A neurotic about germs, I like your third, “out of the box” solution:
    “Father comes out of the sacristy and says, ‘Folks, I am really ill today. I think I am contagious. I will say Mass….I won’t be distributing Holy Communion.'”

    But,please, don’t call us “Folks.”

  22. LarryW2LJ says:

    I would have no problem with the “out of the box” solution, either, and think that’s a pretty darn good idea.

  23. Eliane says:

    “On the other hand, and allow me to think out of the box for a moment, would it be possible these days for this to take place? Father comes out of the sacristy and says, “Folks, I am really ill today. I think I am contagious. I will say Mass, but no qualified ministers of Communion present. I won’t be distributing Holy Communion. FYI”, and then see the congregation not freak out?”

    That is EXACTLY what occurred at a funeral I attended last winter. The pastor of a large suburban church announced that he had flu, was not up to a Mass and considered himself contagious. He gave a brief service, was gracious throughout, then disappeared while the congregants retired to the hall for lunch. He was much complemented for his handling of the matter.

  24. The Astronomer says:

    My wife has severe asthma, allergies and a compromised immune system. There have been several times during cold & flu season in the past few years where we went to Sunday Mass and we end up in proximity to sick people who think, no matter how contagious they are, that they MUST go to Sunday Mass. While their intent to honor their Mass obligation is laudable, my wife has actually ended up in the local emergency room several days to a week later because she’s come own with something contracted at Mass from someone who should stayed home. This has happened 3-4 times, always the same pattern. Go to Mass in flu season, end up in the hospital a week later.

    Consequently, my wife no longer attends Mass from Nov-April. Believe me, this causes me no end of spiritual heartbreak, as I’m a 52 year old cradle Catholic who was taught that you MUST go to Sunday Mass no matter what under pain of mortal sin.

    Father, might you shed any light on my dilemma? During cold & flu season, what takes precedence, Sunday Mass obligation or common courtesy to not infect other parishioners? I’m pretty sure cold & flu can be spread by sneezing, coughing and the ‘Sign of Peace.’ I’d also welcome any other insights from folks here as well.

  25. The Masked Chicken says:

    This discussion has to be put into historical perspective. We take so many things for granted, these days: the nuclear theory of the atom, radio transmissions, germ theory, that it is hard to understand that less than 100 years ago, such things were the subject of mere conjecture. Indeed, the first widely-used antibiotic was only put forth in 1932. The TLM goes back to the 1560’s and for 350 years was largely ignorant of some of these facts. It would have been unheard of to legislate activity against distributing communion after coughing a scant century, ago. We may be starving in parts of the world, today, but we really have been blessed with an exponentially increasing wealth of knowledge that was unheard of before this century.

    That being said, based upon what we, now, know, it is the Communion cup that really holds most of the risk of bacterial and viral transmission. The amount of surface area the priest touches of the Host is on the order of 10%. The Host has a diameter of 2.8575 cm (radius = 1.48275 cm) and a thickness between .0762 cm and . 18288 cm (average = .12954 cm), so, it has a surface area of pi*r^2 = 4.656 cm^2 and a volume of pi *r^2*h, (where h is the thickness), or .6031 cm^3. Now, if Father holds 10% of the Host, this amounts to, about, .4656 cm^2 of surface area or .0631 cm^3 of the volume. This is a volume of about 600 cubic microns and an area of 4650 square microns. The average bacteria can have a surface area from between 12 to 1200 square microns. Assuming a dry Host, so that there is no surface penetration of the bacteria, then, in this touched region, anywhere between 4 and 400 bacteria can exist – which is, probably, barely enough to cause infection, but, since the accident of the host is bread, salivary amylase is increased along with saliva output and, in a healthy human, this includes a small decrease in pH due, in part, to the deeper breathing of calm after reception. Based on these composite effects, the odds of being infected from a bacterial source by the Host is small. Viruses, being smaller, are a more likely contaminant, but how long they survive depends on how they are acquired, concentration of viral particles in solution, atmospheric humidity, etc. According to this paper:

    the typical time after using a tissue is 15 minutes and after a handshake about 5 minutes. Since the time from Consecration to Distribution is about 15 minutes during a typical weekday Mass and, perhaps, 20 minutes or more during a Sunday Mass, if a pastor uses a tissue, the odds of contamination are fairly small.

    So, in general, except for immune-compromised individuals – children (who are too young to receive), the elderly, or those under stress, it is, probably, okay to receive the Host.

    The Sacred Blood is a whole other matter. Not a good idea, at all. If Jesus had been Russian and vodka were used, one might get away with it, but, while wine has mild anti-microbial properties, it is nowhere near strong enough to get rid of cold or strep germs.

    I would be happy if any MD’s or microbiologists would double-check my conclusions. I doubt any serious studies of infection from Communion has been done that is able to trace to source back to the Communion Host or Blood. It is a study waiting to be done, although I have no idea how it could be done, unambiguously.

    The Chicken

  26. The Masked Chicken says:

    “Consequently, my wife no longer attends Mass from Nov-April. Believe me, this causes me no end of spiritual heartbreak, as I’m a 52 year old cradle Catholic who was taught that you MUST go to Sunday Mass no matter what under pain of mortal sin.”

    It might have been a mortal sin in 1600 AD, but sin is contingent on knowledge and we know, today, that disease can be caught by sitting next to a coughing infected individual. It, therefore, becomes a matter of charity towards oneself to avoid putting oneself in a situation of danger where there is not necessity. The Church has long recognized that illness excuses from attendance at Mass and for one to attend Mass where, for them, there is a reasonable risk of infection is not only a sin against charity, but a form of the sin of presumption. In fact, an argument can be made that it would, under these conditions, where medical knowledge is fairly certain, that it would be more of a sin to attend Mass than missing it.

    That bring said, I sat next to a coughing person at the packed Christmas Midnight Mass I attended, this year, and, because I could not be sure that the person didn’t just have a dry throat or allergy, I asked them, after Mass if they were sick. They said they were recovering from an illness, at which point I, politely explained that I was going to visit my elderly mother later that day and potentially infecting me and possibly her was not charitable and that they might consider staying home the next time until they are no longer contagious, as that would be more charitable.

    We need better education on these matters, but the knowledge of basic science, including biology, among the general population is not very high and there is a lot of misinformation out there.

    The Chicken

  27. mamajen says:


    I’m a 52 year old cradle Catholic who was taught that you MUST go to Sunday Mass no matter what under pain of mortal sin.

    Therein lies the problem–those people with the flu feel exactly the same way.

  28. mamajen says:


    It is wishful thinking to imagine/hope that infections cannot be transmitted from one person to another via communion species.

    Not cannot, but will not.

  29. Supertradmum says:

    Sorry, but we are surrounded by germs in grocery stores, doctor’s offices (the worst place), cinemas, libraries, classrooms, offices, car garages, buses, trains, undergrounds, and someone is worried about a cough from a priest?

    Are we not getting a little mysophobic? I mean Catholics had Mass in the Catacombs surrounded by rotting bodies, and we may have to face worse.

    Get over it….

  30. The Astronomer says:

    “Get over it?!?!?!”

    I’ll tell that to my wife the next time she’s lying in a hospital bed hooked up to a respirator. “Hey Honey, there’s germs everywhere…get over it…”

  31. lana says:

    Astronomer, I know weekday Mass is not a substitute for the Mass of obligation, but if you really can’t go on Sunday you could do some weekday ones.

  32. mamajen says:

    Astronomer, I think Supertradmum was responding only to the original question (with regard to the priest, not the congregation) and not your wife’s particular situation.

    I have a nephew with a delicate immune system, and I do sympathize. People who are contagious really ought to stay home. But I think that missing mass is something which people tend to be scrupulous about…I know I have been. I would look at the crucifix and think “If Jesus can do that, I can go to mass as long as I can walk”. I eventually came to learn it’s not about how I feel, but what could potentially happen to others who are less able to fight sickness. I can decide to suffer, but it’s not up to me to decide that other people should. I think your wife is completely justified in staying home if it is such a risk to her, but it would be better if the people who place her at risk would stay home instead.

  33. Uxixu says:

    This reminds me how much wife mentioned she noticed the pastor has a habit for running his fingers through his hair. :D

  34. Supertradmum says:

    Astronomer, of course, people who are really in danger with difficult immune responses should not be around ill people. But, the majority of people are able to withstand a cold or cough.


    of course, some people must stay home, as I had to for months one year after complications of surgery collapsed my lungs.

    I have watched a little tv since coming back to the States and the medical commercials brainwash people into buying lots of meds and also dwelling on illness.

    I have many illnesses, including asthma brought on by cold temperatures, but I would and have still go to Mass in below zero weather. The day may come when we shall not have the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist at all and wish we had gone on those days the priest had a cough.

    In two years, this diocese will have 15 priests for 100,000 people. In the A and B diocese there are only 4-6 sems coming up for the same number of Catholics 100,000. If you were in a recusant area and only had Mass once every several months, I assume you would go to a Mass with a coughing priest.

  35. Setting aside special cases of people whose immune systems are compromised for one reason or another…I don’t think it can seriously be denied that two of the side effects of our great material prosperity are fastidiousness and squeamishness. If our forefathers had been arrested by the trepidations that stop us dead in our tracks today, we wouldn’t even be here. The reality is: life is dangerous. We really do need to build a bridge and get over it.

  36. Fr. Thomas Kocik says:

    Fr. Z asks, “… would it be possible these days for this to take place” without the congregation freaking out, referring to the priest not distributing Communion at Mass for one reason or another. I’ve given that question much thought, especially when celebrating a nuptial or funeral Mass at which the majority of the people in attendance is evidently clueless about what to say and do. I’m told that years ago Communion was not ordinarily distributed at funeral/requiem Masses, and only to the newlywed couple at nuptial Masses. Is that true?

  37. Uxixu says:

    Ave Maria’s from CI, FrJim?

  38. Hank Igitur says:

    Joan M: I completely agree with you
    “Mamajen”: substitute “will not” for “cannot” in my post and I stand by what I wrote 100%. I note your penchant for “correction” but disagree with you.

  39. mamajen says:


    Penchant? Well, okay. When people are responding to something I’ve said and mischaracterize it, then yes, I do tend to correct them. I didn’t mean it in a snarky way. There is a difference between believing something cannot happen and believing something will not happen. I did note that it’s my personal belief and that I don’t expect others to feel the same.

  40. samgr says:

    Fr. Thomas Kocik, it was certainly true in the Diocese of Trenton when I was an altar boy in the ’50s that the congregation did not receive at weddings and funerals.

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