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Articles of Faith

Churches try to balance Communion with sanitary practices during flu season

Maria Lobo, of Brazil, received Communion from the Rev. Greg Staab at St. Francis Chapel at the Prudential Center in Boston. Maria Lobo, of Brazil, received Communion from the Rev. Greg Staab at St. Francis Chapel at the Prudential Center in Boston. (John Tlumacki/ Globe Staff/ File)
By Michael Paulson
Globe Staff / November 8, 2009

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Houses of worship around the region are continuing to grapple with how to balance efforts to contain the spread of swine flu with traditional practices that involve building community by sharing a cup or embracing a neighbor.

The latest to weigh in is the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, whose bishops last week issued a lengthy set of guidelines to parishes, prefaced by the declaration that, “While God’s will for us is to live and thrive in community and in celebration of God’s gifts to us, it is also God’s will that no unnecessary risks be taken that might complicate or compromise the health of our people.’’

The Episcopal bishops joined many other religious leaders in advising a discontinuation of the practice of worshipers shaking hands, or holding hands, at any point during services. But Episcopal guidelines differ from others in some significant respect - unlike the advice from many Catholic bishops, the Episcopal bishops are not recommending against the use of a common cup for Communion, but rather state, “Drinking from the common cup is a treasured symbol of unity in the life of the church and it may be continued, although scientists disagree as to whether the wine carries enough disinfectant power to kill the virus.’’

The Episcopal guidelines, which also advise against laypeople dipping consecrated wafers into a common cup and advise greater cleanliness by priests, come after guidance from the region’s Catholic bishops issued the previous week. The Catholic Archdiocese of Boston recommended parishes suspend the practice of sharing consecrated wine with the congregation during Communion and that laypeople stop shaking hands or embracing as a sign of peace at Mass. The Worcester Diocese made the same recommendations, and the Providence Diocese made similar suggestions. The Fall River diocese went slightly further by suggesting that parishes also suspend the sign of peace ritual (in Boston, the archdiocese is recommending retaining the ritual, but urging people to bow toward one another or lock eyes for a moment, rather than having physical contact). 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.’’

Several Protestant denominations had 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.

All this talk of hygiene and ritual caused quite a bit of chatter among the churchgoers in my world, and there were two recurring questions, which I posed to the Rev. Jonathan Gaspar, co-director of the Office of Worship and Spiritual Life for the Archdiocese of Boston. Here are excerpts from his e-mailed 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.

1. We wouldn’t distribute Holy Communion in disposable cups because a disposable cup could never be considered a sacred vessel.

2. 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)

Q. Some Catholics have told me they always understood that the church believed that one could not get germs from Communion wine once it had been consecrated - that the transubstantiation meant the wine could do no harm. Is that an understanding of the church, and how does this recommendation fit with that?

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.

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.

Highlights from Michael Paulson's blog. For the full blog, visit www.boston.com/religion . Follow updates on Twitter at @GlobePaulson.