The big news of the week on the Boston religious scene was the announcement that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, after consulting with public health officials about ways to slow the spread of swine flu, is recommending that parishes suspend the practice of sharing consecrated wine with laypeople during Communion and that laypeople stop shaking hands or embracing one another as a sign of peace at Mass. Several Protestant denominations had already recommended an end to the use of a common cup for Communion during this pandemic; the local Greek Orthodox Diocese, by contrast, is defending the practice, even during flu season.
The Archdiocese of Boston's announcement on Tuesday was followed the same day by the same recommendations in the Worcester Diocese. The next day, the bishop of Fall River, George W. Coleman, went slightly further than Boston Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley, by declaring (rather than simply recommending) a suspension of sharing consecrated wine with laypeople at Communion, and by suggesting that parishes also suspend the entire sign of peace ritual (in Boston, O'Malley is recommending retaining the ritual, but urging people to bow toward one another or lock eyes for a moment, rather than having physical contact). On Thursday, the bishop of Providence, Thomas Tobin, joined in, "strongly recommending" that parishes discontinue the sharing of consecrated wine with laypeople, and that they either suspend the sign of peace ritual or urge worshipers to avoid touching one another while exchanging greetings. The Springfield diocese is the lone local holdout -- its guidelines, issued in September, continue to say that "reception of Holy Communion under both kinds is generally encouraged but is not a necessity."
All of the dioceses have strongly recommended that priests and other Eucharistic ministers pay more attention to their own hygiene before distributing Communion during flu season.
All this talk of hygiene and ritual caused quite a bit of chatter among the churchgoers in my world, and there were two questions that kept recurring: why don't Catholics use individual disposable plastic cups, like many Protestants, and what about the theory that it's not possible to get sick from Communion because Jesus is present? I posed these questions to the Rev. Jonathan Gaspar, co-director of the Office of Worship and Spiritual Life for the Archdiocese of Boston. Here are his answers:
Q: Why don't Catholics use individual disposable cups for Communion, like some Protestants do, and is that a possible change in the future?
A: The reason Catholics will not use individual disposable cups for Communion is because of the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic species, which is quite different from the beliefs of many Protestant groups who have Communion services. We believe that during the Mass the bread and the wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, and so the vessels we use to contain the Eucharistic species are considered sacred vessels which are held in special honor. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal clearly sets the guidelines for the sacred vessels: ?Sacred vessels are to be made from precious metal. If they are made from metal that rusts or from a metal less precious than gold, then ordinarily they should be gilded on the inside." For the dioceses in the United States, sacred vessels may also be made of other precious materials, such as ebony or other hard woods, ?provided that such materials are suited to sacred use and do not easily break or deteriorate." However, chalices made of ebony or other hard woods are to have bowls of nonabsorbent material.
- We wouldn?t distribute Holy Communion in disposable cups because a disposable cup could never be considered a sacred vessel. We don?t dispose of sacred vessels.
- We wouldn?t distribute the Precious Blood in individual cups because of the theological concept of ?one bread, one cup.? The Holy Eucharist is a sacrament of unity, and we are all meant to partake of the one bread and the one cup, as St. Paul exhorts us in his letter to the Corinthians: ?The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.? (1Corinthians 10, 16-17)
A: Though this belief has never been officially or doctrinally stated by the Church, there are many Catholics who believe germs cannot be transmitted through a common cup. The Eucharist has often been described as a remedy, the medicine of immortality, because when we receive Holy Communion we are receiving Christ, the Paschal Lamb who died and now lives to take away our sins. This great mystery contains the whole spiritual wealth of the Church, and we revere the Eucharist as the Most Blessed Sacrament.
The decision to temporarily discontinue the practice of distributing the Precious Blood from the chalice was a result of recent conversations with medical authorities and specialists in infectious disease, who believe that sharing a ?common cup? can possibly spread communicable illness. We have taken this sensible step out of caution and concern for the health of our Catholic people. Our decision to temporarily discontinue this venerable practice does not diminish our reverence for the power of this great Sacrament.
Catholics believe that Christ, whole and entire, is received even under only one species. This is a belief defined in the sixteenth century by the Council of Trent. When Catholics receive the Eucharist in the form of the consecrated host, we are receiving the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ.
Harvey Cox, the Hollis professor of divinity at Harvard University, marks his retirement by asserting a little-used right of his professorship -- to graze a cow in Harvard Yard. Photo, by Barry Chin of the Globe staff, taken on Sept. 10, 2009 in Cambridge, Mass.
featured commentsFaith-based gardening: A rose for the pope
ALSO OF INTEREST