Communion in the time of Coronavirus. Best Practices, Risk, and You.

My recent voyage to the Holy Land, with many Masses at holy sites and lots and lots of hand sanitizer, and my return home through the massive hub AMS and lots and lots of hand sanitizer, and catching up on email (with eye and brain sanitizer) and then Mass this morning – with hand sanitizer –  has me thinking about Communion in time of contagion.

We’ve been around the block with this before, during other outbreaks of pesky pest.

This time, there is great concern for the spread of what looks to be a highly contagious virus. So much so that in some places there is talk of eliminating holy water from church stoops and fonts and shutting down Masses or Communion.

About Holy Water.

Okay. I get that. So long as they don’t daftly replace it with sand, etc. It is possible that Holy Water (or perhaps “happy water”, depending on the blessing used) is available at your church. That should be okay, because it is in a self-contained dispenser. BYOB, as it were, and use it when entering church if you wish. It might get you to take some home and start new habits of use of this wonderful sacramental.

Now for Communion.

BEFORE ANYTHING ELSE… a bishop cannot, CANNOT, require Communion in the hand at the Traditional Latin Mass.  The legislation of Summorum Pontificum is for the universal Latin Church and bishops cannot override it.  The Instruction Universae Ecclesiae 28 says that Summorum Pontificum derogates from all liturgical law after 1962 that doesn’t agree with the laws of 1962.

ALSO… if this situation gets worse, so that there is truly a great risk of contagion when out and around, A) you don’t have an obligation to fulfill and B) you don’t have to go to Communion to fulfill your obligation.   You can make a spiritual Communion, since you are in the state of grace.  Father could, in fact, opt not to distribute Communion.

Moving along.

Leave aside the issue of Communion under both species, that is also with a chalice with the Precious Blood. This is simply too obvious for comment. Don’t do it.

“But Father! But Father!” some of you libs will swoon, “There’s PROOF that receiving the wine from the cup isn’t risky, because studies prove it with… with proof! It’s the metal… no, glass or ceramic and the, you know, the wiping that does it. It’s safe. But sharing by the tongue! That’s wrong and dangerous but you won’t admit that because YOU HATE VATICAN II!”

I read in email notices that people ought to or even must receive Communion only on the hand to lower the risk of contagion.  Chanceries and parishes are sending out notices and/or edicts.

In some cases, I suspect that is an excuse to prohibit Communion on the tongue. Not in all cases, however. Most, I think, are sincere and founded on a real belief that that will help to lower the risk of contagion.

Frankly, I think they are dead wrong. I don’t think that Communion in the hand is safer than Communion on the tongue. Here’s why.

Let’s leave aside that Communion in the hand increases by orders of magnitude risk of profanation of the Eucharist. Leave that aside. Think only about the infectious disease angle.

In my experience of nearly three decades of distributing Communion in both ways, on the hand and on the tongue, to whole congregations on the hand nearly exclusively with a few exceptions, and also to whole congregations on the tongue nearly exclusively with few exceptions during the Novus Ordo and no exceptions at the TLM, is that rarely – rarely – do my fingers come into contact with tongues but very often, nearly always, there is contact with my fingers and hands.

Let me repeat: When distributing Communion directly on the tongue, I rarely, rarely, have any contact with the tongue. When distributing on the hand, there is often, quite often, contact with the communicant’s fingers or palms.

I’ll add this. If people hold their hands properly to receive on the hand, that helps a lot in avoiding contact. If people don’t receive on the tongue properly that increases the risk of contact.

When both ways are done properly, whereas there is still often contact by Communion on the hand, there is virtually never contact with the tongue.

Therefore, I don’t buy for a moment that pushing for Communion on the hand reduces the risk of spread of disease.  I think that proper Communion on the tongue is safer.

In any event, congregations must be reminded, strongly and clearly, even sternly in some cases, about the proper way to receive Communion, either way. Repetita iuvant.

Fathers, do your duty. Don’t fool around with this. The number of cases where you are will increase and this will become a growing concern.

Another thing.

Sometimes I see a comment here on the blog, or in my email, or elsewhere, that “you can’t pick up a disease from the Host because the Host is Jesus”.

That’s just plain dumb.

The Eucharistic Host is Christ in its substance, but it retains all the accidents of bread. If a regular, unconsecrated host can convey disease, so can a consecrated Host. The same goes for wine and the Precious Blood. Moreover, the priest’s hands are anointed with chrism: that’s doesn’t make them impervious to bacteria or viruses. THINK!

Reminders.

Communion on the hand.  DON’T DO IT.   However, if you insist on this irreverence, hold your hands FLAT, one atop the other.   Don’t use ONE hand.  Hold them flat.  Flat means, not curved.  FLAT means fingers too.  Do NOT curl your fingers.   When holding your hands FLAT, stay STILL.  Don’t be a moving target.

Communion on the tongue.  THIS IS BETTER!   Thank you for choosing the superior, reverent way to receive.  Now, DO IT RIGHT.   In some places communicants take the Host with their teeth.  I really don’t like that.  I get it, but it is, in fact, riskier.  I get why in Italy some are more nervous about Communion, because many there take the Host with their teeth.  To be safer, tilt your head back a little.  You don’t have to point at the ceiling with your chin.  Just a little.  Stick your tongue OUT.  You don’t have to reach for your belt buckle.  Just a little, beyond the teeth and over the lower lip with your mouth open a little.  See?  That’s not too hard.  And STAY STILL.   The intelligent priest will simply place the Host on your tongue and it is quite easy to avoid contact, provided that he holds the Host properly and quite close to its edge, thus leaving the great majority of the underside of the Host exposed and ready for a good placement.  He has his part to play in this as well, but I’ll leave that aside for now.  This is for lay people, primarily.

This graphic is useful.  My notes in red.   The original, without red, in a large format HERE.

Under the housling cloth or not, keep your hands out of the way.  And if you have a babe in arms, hold their wavy little arms.

Friends, if you do as the good little boy on the left does, it is easy to give you Communion and have ZERO contact with your tongue.

BTW… in that graphic, I think Father is doing it wrong.  Why?  There is a long distance between that ciborium and that tongue.  That, firstly, lengthens the time it takes to give Communion and, importantly, increases the risk of a particle dropping.  I think they leave out the communion paten in the graphic in favor of you seeing the proper head and hand position.   I suggest, Fathers, that you keep the ciborium at a lower level, closer to the people.  You’ll figure out why, once you do it.

Friends… do it right.

Wash your hands and avoid touching your face.  It’s quite simply amazing how many times people touch their faces in the course of a day!   Use hand sanitizer.  Consider that people often grab the backs of pews and put their hands on pews, fonts and door handles.  Go ahead and wipe down your area.  These days, people will get it.   When I get on an airplane, I wipe down everything within reach, and clean my hands after shutting the over head.   Windows, seat backs, tray tables, buckles, all get the treatment.  Why not in church, too?  Especially if yours is not the first Mass?

I don’t want to have to hear that any of you are ill from this new disease.  At least, please, cut your risks at church.

Fathers, think about this.  Run through your head about distributing Communion on the hand.  If you are honest, you’ll acknowledge that there is more contact with hands.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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30 Responses to Communion in the time of Coronavirus. Best Practices, Risk, and You.

  1. Keith.R says:

    If a priest is going to require communion in the hand, let’s hope that he also does something about the prior shaking of hands during the Peace.

  2. Kathleen10 says:

    You’re a durable fellow, Fr. Z, for making that long trip and still able to do Mass the next day!
    It was fun seeing your travels and yet it’s a relief you’re all home. Thank you for your helpful tutorials. I did read the headrests on planes are particularly dirty.
    This virus has everybody’s attention. I saw a prayer on Canon 212 the other day that had a prayer called the Stella Coeli, to be prayed during times of pestilence. It has been efficacious in the past.
    Anyway, God bless you and all here. God be with you.

    On second thought I should include the prayer. I’m sorry I can’t cite the website where this came from. Can’t remember which one it was. I’m also sorry if it was already printed here.

    The Stella Coeli

    The star of heaven that nourished the Lord, drove away the plague of death which the first parents of man brought into the world. May this bright star vouchsafe to extinguish that foul constellation whose battles have slain the people with the wound of death.

    O most pious Star of the Sea, preserve us from pestilence, hear us, O Lady, for thy Son honors Thee by denying Thee nothing. Save us, O Jesus, for whom thy Virgin Mother supplicates Thee.

    V: Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God
    R: That we may be worthy of the promises of Christ.

    Let us pray:
    O God of Mercy, God of pity, God of benign clemency, Thou Who hast had compassion on the affliction of They people, and hast said to the angel striking them “Stop thy hand”, for the love of the glorious Star, grant the assistance of Thy grace, that we may be safely freed from all pestilence, and from unprovided death, and mercifully save us from the gulf of eternal perdition, through Thee, Lord Jesus Christ, King of Glory, Who livest and reignest, world without end. Amen.

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  3. rhig090v says:

    Keith,
    That’s a good point! To it I add that dispensing with extraordinary ministers of holy communion reduces the number of hands involved.

  4. Zelie Therese OCDS says:

    We now have no holy water, no chalice (fine), no handshake at the sign of peace (good!), no hand-holding for the Our Father and communion in the hand only. Normally we have maybe 40-50 people at Sunday Mass and 3 EMHCs. I’m happy that so many people won’t be handling the Body and Blood of Christ. I guess I won’t be receiving communion for a while. Prayers for everyone to stay healthy!

  5. Irish Timothy says:

    Thank you for this Father! Excellent breakdown.

    Let’s also encourage each other to pray the rosary daily for all those affected by this around the world and the repose of the souls of those that have died from it. I think if Catholics would say a daily rosary for the end to this virus we would see it move on as quickly as it came. All this is another reminder for me to stay in the state of grace and access confession as often as I can……as that could be next thing to get dropped, please God no!

  6. Shonkin says:

    Father makes some very good points.
    They ought to stop Communion under both species RIGHT NOW! (But then they wouldn’t need all those EMHC’s. Oh the humanity!)
    About Communion on the tongue: My problem is that most priests understand how to administer it, but that 19-year-old EMHC has no clue. She WILL spread saliva.
    Going back to Father’s precautions when riding a plane: They’re all good. But none of them will protect you from the passenger in back of you or next to you who’s coughing, sneezing, and otherwise spreading the sickness.
    (That’s one reason why I don’t fly any more.)

  7. John21 says:

    OF Mass in LA County this morning. They suspended reception of Communion on the tongue, but at least they also asked us not to hold hands during the Our Father/shake hands during the Sign of Peace.

    I wonder how long this will go on…these outbreaks can be a years-long process.

  8. JTH says:

    The corona virus is serious, no question. 2,500 deaths worldwide so far.

    But there have been 18,000 deaths from the flu in this country alone this flu season.

    From the CDC: “CDC estimates that so far this season there have been at least 32 million flu illnesses, 310,000 hospitalizations and 18,000 deaths from flu.”

    Forgive me for not buying into the hysteria.

  9. Kevin says:

    Every person who receives in the hand has the contaminants of all those who touched the church door handles before them. When the priest administers the host onto the tongue properly, cross contaminated hands are irrelevant.

  10. Semper Gumby says:

    JTH: Good point, the Coronavirus is serious but hysteria is unhelpful.

    Sure, a comparison can be made between the CFR (case fatality rate) of influenza and Coronavirus, along with comparing the “R-naught” (which for Coronavirus is not a fixed number at this time). The catch here is that one can be reasonably skeptical of Coronavirus numbers out of, say, China and Iran.

    A contrast of interest between influenza and Coronavirus is that the Chinese government responded to Coronavirus with a quarantine or lockdown of at least a half-billion people. Roadblocks, enhanced security measures and disinfection teams indicate a level of concern by the Chinese government beyond that displayed towards seasonal influenza.

    There is some data that suggests that, while Coronavirus fatalities are mainly in older people, the hospitalization rate of younger people with Coronavirus is double or triple the rate of influenza. At some point that higher rate may notably stress hospital staff and space in countries other than China.

    One more item. Today the BBC is reporting that the South Korean government is taking a close look at the Shincheonji church (some say “cult” but I digress) and its possible role in the recent spike of Coronavirus cases there. More specifically: “On Sunday the Seoul City government filed a legal complaint to prosecutors against 12 leaders of the sect. They are accused of homicide, causing harm and violating the Infectious Disease and Control Act.”

    “But this does not mean the church leaders will face murder charges. It means prosecutors will have to look into the case.

    “Once prosecutors have finished their investigation they will decide which charges, if any, to bring against the sect.”

  11. JabbaPapa says:

    I have sometimes pointed out that there is a history of Communion in the hand in cases of outbreak of contagious diseases since the Middle Ages — BUT the truth is that these medical questions have been increasingly well understood and well treated since the late 19th Century, so that especially since the invention of things like antibiotics and effective antiseptics, the reasons for implementing such measures at Holy Mass have been in constant decrease.

    To the point where it pretty much boils down to “if you have a contagious disease, perhaps avoid going to church” ; which the Canon Law allows.

    I could understand to a degree a 15th century Bishop, priest, congregation/parish insisting on certain practices in the state of their misunderstanding of how diseases spread ; I could less understand their 21st Century counterparts doing the same.

  12. bookworm says:

    At the end of Mass tonight (cathedral in Diocese of Springfield IL) the pastor/rector said he’d started to get some questions about coronavirus so he made a few remarks about that. First, that no changes were being made to the conduct of the liturgy at this time but IF the situation gets worse, that might change. Second, anyone who is ill with a cold or flu or any other contagious condition has NO obligation to attend Mass and should stay home to avoid infecting others. Third, it is not necessary to shake hands at the Sign of Peace if one does not feel comfortable with it; a wave or a smile is sufficient, and no one should feel slighted if the person in the adjacent pew does not accept a handshake. Fourth, there is no obligation or expectation to receive Communion under both forms, and the EMHCs who offer the chalice need not consume what’s left after Communion if they don’t want to (the priest will do that). He didn’t say anything about stopping Communion in the hand or in the mouth but I’m presuming that’s an issue that might be under consideration only if an active coronavirus outbreak hits our area.

  13. JustaSinner says:

    Is Pope Francis sick with Covid-19?

  14. Fr. Kelly says:

    My own experience echoes Fr. Z’s.
    Most of the time I give Communion on the hand, I end up brushing the fingers of the Communicants as they curl up.

    The times that I have touched a tongue are fewer than the times I have dropped a host — rare indeed.
    Both of these terrible outcomes are made much rarer by the use of the Communion Rail.

  15. bartlep says:

    AMEN!!

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  17. ChrisP says:

    Some perspective, because the good Lord gave us brains.

    Back in 2009, here in NZ, the swine flu killed 19 people out of 3,175 official notified cases. Later research by our CDC equivalent worked out over 1,000,000 (that’s right, 1,000,000) people actually contracted the virus. Thus, it is highly likely in this COVID19 case, and it is highly suspected by officials, that the real contraction rate is vastly underestimated. This means two highly POSITIVE things:

    1) a LOT of people don’t even know they have it
    2) Consequently, it is highly likely the death rate is way lower than currently reported.

    All of this is consistent with high infectiousness, lower lethality of viruses.

    Check the CDC for USA swine flu data. I bet you it is the same.

    This means, dioceses should NOT shut down Mass. It’s not medically or public health justified.

  18. BrionyB says:

    It would be very interesting to see a study of the risks of disease transmission for the various ways of receiving Communion (there is also the Byzantine/Orthodox “communion spoon” method, and I think some Anglicans have the custom of receiving in the hand but conveying the host directly from palm to mouth instead of picking it up with the fingers of the other hand, which might make a difference, assuming that the fingertips tend to be dirtier than the palm).

    Thank you Father for reminding us about the option of spiritual communion. This isn’t much mentioned these days, but it is sometimes the appropriate and prudent thing to do. And of course we receive unimaginable graces by hearing Mass well, whether we receive or not.

  19. JonPatrick says:

    Good point by Kevin above, I hadn’t thought of that. I always receive on the tongue and would probably revert to spiritual communion for the time being if it wasn’t allowed.

    Concerning JTH’s stats above, 18,00 deaths over 32 million infected is a ratio of 0.05 percent for the flu. So far the ratio for Coronavirus is in the range of 2 to 3 percent so it is considerably more deadly. Of course that is a worldwide statistic and is likely heavily weighted by the deaths in China where health care may not be up to US standards.

  20. JDBenedictH says:

    Father, is there a guide for how to distribute communion without touching the tongue of the recipient, i.e. how to hold the host and how to place it? Perhaps something that a seminary formator could use to teach his men.

    [It’s not rocket science.]

  21. Ages says:

    I know I’ve drawn ire in the past for insisting that the Eucharist cannot transmit disease, and I will continue to believe it. I have heard such taught from the pulpit in Byzantine churches, and Bishop Athanasius Schneider recently said the same in defense of communion on the tongue in the age of COVID-19: there is not a single recorded case of disease being transmitted through the Eucharist. He said the lack of belief in this scandalizes Eastern Rite people who always commune via spoon with zero ill effect, and I would venture to agree with him.

    Everyone is free to believe what they want, but in my opinion the only possible ill effect the Eucharist can have is on someone who receives it unworthily.

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  23. veritas vincit says:

    Ages: Assuming that the accidents of the Precious Blood, in and of themselves, are sufficient to sterilize harmful pathogens (wine has been a disease-free alternative to water for drinking for centuries), then the Eastern Rite practice seems perfectly safe. In every other practice of receiving either the Host or the Blood, there would seem to be the risk of disease transmission. In the case of the Host, that would be either contact between the hands of the priest/minister and the hands or mouth of the communicant. In the case of the Precious Blood, that would be multiple communicants contacting the rim of, and handling, the chalice.

    The risk may be low in some cases, as Father states for receiving on the tongue, but probably never completely absent.

    Having said all that, I think the risk of COVID-19 transmission during Holy Communion is likely overblown. There are reports that COVID-19 may be more widespread than initially apparent, not causing symptoms or only mild symptoms among the vast majority of those who contact it. The fatality rate may be much lower than initially believed (which was based on reports out of China).

  24. Boilerkarl says:

    It seems to me that if you truly want to do something effective to lessen the risk of communicating infection, you would ban the use of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. The fewer the number of people handling the Host, the less is the risk.

  25. Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston suspends Communion due to coronavirus
    fox4news.com/news/archdiocese-of-galveston-houston-suspends-communion-due-to-coronavirus

  26. The Masked Chicken says:

    Kevin wrote:

    “Every person who receives in the hand has the contaminants of all those who touched the church door handles before them.”

    No. Just no. That is too sweeping a generalization. If that were the case, there would be a build-up of DNA and skin oil an inch thick on the door handle. It is true that residual oil will stay on certain surfaces for a while, but it will degrade and evaporate over time, especially as the heat goes up. There is a short “memory” of hand touches, but not everyone who had touched the door.

    Besides, if one really thinks for some reason that they have to receive in the hand, one can always either go wash their hands in the restroom at the start of Communion or slather on a large amount of hand sanitizer. So, from a practical standpoint, neither hand or tongue can be discounted. Theologically, receiving on the tongue is superior, but the whole issue of tongue vs. hand from a bacteriological standpoint is vastly overblown, in my opinion.

    The Chicken

  27. Elizium23 says:

    ages, veritas vincit,
    If one teaches that the Eucharist is incapable of spreading disease (or some other extraordinary property it might have) then one denies the nature of the Eucharist.

    First of all, wine at any strength that can properly be called wine, is not a hand sanitizer level of antimicrobial formula. So forget any hopes of having the wine kill off a virus.

    Now remember what Aquinas taught us (sorry Byzantines, for being so Scholastic). The substance of the bread and wine is changed, while the accidents remain. If the accidents remain, then they are physically identical to bread and wine. Look at them under a microscope, set them under a mass spectrometer, do any scientific test whatsoever on the Eucharist, and you will find the appearance of bread and wine.

    Now if you had a substance that wondrously repelled viruses, that would be quite remarkable, because bread and wine don’t do that. I don’t know how we would explain the miracle, but it wouldn’t be the Eucharist, because the Eucharist is scientifically indistinguishable from bread and wine – that is what accidents are all about.

    That being said, there is still a remarkably clear record of nobody being sickened by partaking in the Eucharist. I think the risk is extremely low considering how the chalice is handled. Wiped down with purificator and rotated after every sip. Microbes have a difficult time living on nonporous metal (aren’t you glad the Church requires a noble material and not ebony or something.)

    But if the Eucharist were medically miraculous, then surely celiacs wouldn’t be sickened by consuming a regular host, yet they are – there are those pesky accidents of gluten again.

    I think the wondrous miracle of the Eucharist is resplendent enough in reality without having to attach superstitious beliefs to it. When I imagine what Christ Jesus went through on Calvary, for the sake of our sins, words fail me.

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  30. Fr. Kelly says:

    If the possibility of Cross contagion at Communion time produces this big a reaction, what about the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday. Will there be a call to eliminate that?