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Coronavirus leads Catholic churches to make changes to Communion

FIRST COMMUNION
Marko Vombergar-ALETEIA
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In face of spreading disease, some dioceses are forbidding the Host to be distributed on the tongue.

The Archdiocese of Seattle, Washington, which is experiencing one of the most serious outbreaks in the U.S. of the coronavirus disease COVID-19, has ordered that Communion be distributed only in the hand, that holy water fonts in all churches be emptied, and that church-goers avoid physical contact as much as possible.

The guidelines outlined in a letter sent to pastors today, are effective immediately.

“The coronavirus is top of mind for everyone,” Archbishop Paul D. Etienne, who leads the archdiocese, said in the letter. “In caring for all members of our community–especially the elderly and the vulnerable–we are carrying out the mission of the Church.”

The archbishop said that parishioners who are sick or experiencing symptoms should stay home, since they are not obliged to attend Mass in that condition. In fact, out of concern for others, such persons should avoid going to church until they are well.

Measures outlined in Etienne’s letter include:

  • Ministers who distribute Communion must wash hands before Mass and use an alcohol-based antibacterial solution before and after distributing the Hosts.
  • Communion should be distributed only by placing the Host in the recipient’s hand, rather than on the tongue, and only under the species of bread, not wine.
  • Priests giving a blessing to an individual should make the sign of the cross in the air above the person’s head, rather than touching the head.
  • Liturgical vessels, such as chalices, should be washed with hot, soapy water and towel-dried after their ritual purification after Communion.
  • Holy water fonts should be drained
  • Churches in high risk environments should undergo regular disinfecting of surfaces that are frequently touched, such as door handles, pew tops and water fountains.

Etienne also urged people to avoid hand-to-hand contact as much as possible. Church greeters should hold the door for people rather than shake hands. Parishioners should not hold hands while praying the Lord’s Prayer. And they should simply say to one another “Peace be with you” during the ritual “Sign of Peace,” rather than shake hands or embrace.

The archbishop also invited parishioners to pray, saying, “We stand in solidarity with all those impacted by disease including people who are infected, their families, health workers and governments working to slow its spread.”

The Archdiocese of Seattle was not the first diocese in the country to restrict reception of Communion to the hand, however. On February 27, Bishop Joe Vásquez of Austin, Texas, asked parishes to temporarily distribute holy Communion in the hand, rather than on the tongue. He also requested a temporary end to the distribution of the Precious Blood at Mass.

Texas is one of 12 states that had confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Tuesday. Since Jan. 21, health officials have identified nearly 100 cases in the U.S.

On Tuesday, the Archdiocese of Chicago issued guidelines that it said were based on guidance from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Divine Worship. The guidelines include the requirement for priests, deacons, altar servers and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion to wash their hands before Mass begins and to use an alcohol-based, anti-bacterial solution before and after distributing Holy Communion. In addition, priests must thoroughly wash with soap and hot water all vessels used at Mass, once they are purified ritually after Communion. The Precious Blood is not to be distributed, and reception of the Host in the hand is encouraged.

“Given the frequency of direct contact with saliva in the distribution of Holy Communion on the tongue, every consideration should be given by each individual to receive Holy Communion reverently in open hands for the time being,” the guidelines say.

In addition, parishioners are to refrain from physical contact during the Sign of Peace and during the Lord’s Prayer and to refrain from using holy water fonts.

“Faithful who are sick or are experiencing symptoms of sickness are not obliged to attend Mass, and out of charity they ought not to attend,” the guidelines conclude.

The spokeswoman for the U.S. Bishops’ Conference, Chieko Noguchi, clarified that the national conference has no authority to issue nationwide directives on questions of whether distribution of Communion should be changed or if the celebration of Mass should be temporarily suspended.

“That falls to the discretion of the individual bishops who make their decisions based on what is most appropriate for the circumstances of their diocese,” Noguchi told Aleteia. “Given the recent public health concerns with coronavirus, the chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Divine Worship shared some helpful considerations with bishops regarding their role in regulating liturgical celebrations.”

“The considerations for if/when it becomes necessary to take preventive steps in their respective dioceses included: reminding parishes to use common sense hygiene practices; reminding Catholics that they’re not obliged to attend Mass if they’re sick; reminding bishops that they can suspend distribution of Holy Communion via the chalice and physical contact at the sign of peace; and that in more serious circumstances, they can suspend public liturgical celebrations,” Noguchi said.

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