Contagion and communion in the COVID era

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Photo courtesy of AIA Dallas

St. Ignatius describes the Eucharist as “the medicine of immortality and the antidote against death, so that we might live forever in Jesus Christ.” Christians for millennia have revered the Church as a field hospital for sinners, a place of purification and cleansing from the pathogens of our broken world. The celebration of the Mass integrates all parts of our human nature: the mind and the senses. The Eucharist intimately touches and transforms body and soul. How, then, should the Church respond when dangerous physical diseases spread in our communities? 

Traditionally, the presence of disease seemed not to phase the faithful. In the Gospels, Jesus encounters countless individuals plagued by contagious ailments. During these encounters,  Jesus never hesitates to touch, to heal, to restore—regardless of how vile or repulsive the state of the person. In the spirit of Christian charity and in recognition of Christ’s healing power, consecrated and lay members of the Church have continued to play crucial roles in caring for victims of pandemics from epidemics in the Roman empire, to the Bubonic Plague and several others. 

This courage stretches across doctrinal divides as well. Martin Luther remained in Wittenberg while the Bubonic Plague raged in 1527 and wrote a striking appeal to his followers to not flee the disease, to utilize their best preventative techniques and ultimately to value their neighbor’s life above their own through practicing the corporal works of mercy.  

It is clear that the risks of working with diseased individuals was recognized, yet love for neighbor triumphed. Even in the modern day, Catholics hospitals serve as the largest coalition of nonprofit healthcare providers, serving over 1 in 7 patients in the U.S. 

With the emergence of COVID-19, however, nearly all Churches shuttered their doors for several months to discourage large gatherings. Sacramental life at many parishes still remains amended or reduced. Significant alterations to the Mass are nearly universal. At our own Church of the Incarnation, social distancing, masks and hand sanitizer are required. 

The bishop of Dallas has strongly recommended distribution of the Eucharist on the hands, but this is not a mandatory requirement in the diocese. It does seem practical to discourage the transmission of saliva in the midst of a pandemic. As an extraordinary minister, I can vouch for the frequency of this occurrence. But is this valid? 

Theologically, the Church does not proclaim dogma on this issue. Various authorities dispute the question. 

Aquinas writes in the Summa Theologica that “it is not lawful for anyone else to touch it except from necessity, for instance, if it were to fall upon the ground, or else in some other case of urgency.” The gravity and piety with which we treat the host is of utmost importance here. 

Pope John Paul II wrote in his final encyclical (Ecclesia de Eucharistia), “There can be no danger of excess in our care for this mystery, for ‘in this sacrament is recapitulated the whole mystery of our salvation.’”

However, not all spiritual authorities agree.

Junior Josh Berkovsky reminds us of a moment from the Diary of St. Faustina. Berkovsky said, “During quarantine I stumbled upon the diary of St. Faustina and began to explore reading it. During one of her apparitions, Jesus appeared to her while she was receiving communion and said to her in the most loving way, ‘I desire to be received into your hands.’ There’s something intimate and personal about having the Bread of Life being placed directly into your hands, just to stare at Him momentarily before uniting ourselves further to Him.”

Senior Emma Kate Callahan, who has helped with ushering at the Church of the Incarnation this semester, said, “My preference is to receive on the tongue because I feel like it’s more reverent, and if you’re able to, it makes sense. But when Covid happened, for me it was like, I’m being asked to do this, and it’s not a barrier at all for me because most of my childhood was spent doing that.” 

Does this plague offer the “necessity” or “urgency,” as Aquinas describes, to encourage (or at some parishes, require) reception on the hand? It is certainly difficult to measure what sort of circumstances justify this mandate, especially because credible claims about the nature of the coronavirus  are still evolving. 

But when it comes to hard science, the Church is no stranger to medical anomaly. The National Center for Biotechnology Information compiled a summary of “Holy Communion and Infection Transmission.” In the report, the authors recount historical examples of what was likely miraculous preservation from contagion in the distribution of the Eucharist. For example, monks shared in the Eucharist with lepers in Crete for decades without infection. Cases like this certainly increase our trust in the grace that God gives to those who care for others, whether bodily or spiritually. Yet while fascinating, this sort of information must be taken with a healthy dose of prudence. 

Many of the restrictions put in place stand to protect the health of our community, but also to protect the Church herself. The Church is often attacked for her radical stance on moral and social matters. And in recent years, the Church has come under fire for scandal as well. Preventing outbreaks tied to our worship is important in defending the Church’s good name in an already hostile environment. Thus, parishes ought to carefully consider how they proceed in light of the pandemic. 

Piety, prudence and prayer ought to shape our response to plagues. Ultimately, the faithful must strive to both bestow due reverence to the Eucharist and act in good faith (which could perhaps include receiving on the hand in dire circumstances) toward the community through preventing disease and ministering to those experiencing sickness. 

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