Saturday, May 2, 2009


Earlier this week I posted about the Dallas diocese's suggestions regarding limiting the spread of swine flu by various practices at Mass. Bishop Vann of the Fort Worth diocese has also released a letter on the subject; a link to the letter is here, and I've copied it below:
Bishop Vann’s Statement Regarding
Precautionary Swine Flu Liturgical Adaptations
For the Parish Community

Because of the concerns regarding the possible spread of the Swine Flu that has been detected in North Texas, the Diocese of Fort Worth, in consultation with the federal Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Tarrant County Health Department, is asking all our parishes and schools to take precautions to help mitigate its effects. This applies to the entire diocese.

I have recommended that all priests and deacons as well as members of our diocese exercise common sense precautions when it comes to the liturgy. Influenza is often spread from person to person through contact with coughing and sneezing of an infected person. Simple hygiene such as washing hands and using alcohol based hand sanitizers at appropriate times can prevent the spread of influenza. If a priest, altar server or extraordinary minister of Holy Communion is sick whether it is the flu or the common cold or whatever, then he or she should not serve until the sickness has passed. Likewise, if members of the faithful community are not feeling well,
especially during this period, please stay home and do not risk the possibility of spreading infections to others.

The following precautions should be followed concerning the celebration of Mass:

- The faithful should be encouraged to not hold hands during the reciting of the Our Father.

- The faithful should be encouraged to share the Sign of Peace without touching hands or kissing. This can be done with meaningful eye contact, smiles and a bow of the head in reverence to one another.

- The faithful should be encouraged to receive Communion in their hands and not on their tongue.

- The cup is not to be shared with the faithful during Mass. Communion is only to be given in the species of the consecrated bread.

- Priests, deacons, and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion should be especially reminded of the need to practice good hygiene. Ministers of Holy Communion must be encouraged to wash their hands before Mass begins, or even to use an alcohol based anti-bacterial solution before and after distributing Holy Communion. As good practice is the distribution of alcohol based antibacterial solution by the Eucharistic Minister Captain to other ministers while the priest is preparing for distribution of Communion.
The Diocesan School Superintendent’s Office is coordinating with each school concerning precautionary actions in schools.
Let us all pray for our community and the families that are affected by this disease suffer minor affects and recover promptly. And pray for those who have died. May their souls rest in peace.
It will be interesting to see how these rules are implemented in various parishes in the Fort Worth diocese; I'd love to hear from Fort Worth diocese readers this weekend (either in comments below this post or in emails) to learn how or if your parish reacted to this letter.

For myself, I have no real problem with the restriction of communion to one species, the restrained Sign of Peace (which I think should be the usual norm anyway) and the no-holding-hands during the Our Father (which is liturgically incorrect and ought to be abolished). I do, however, find myself challenged to be obedient to the direction to take communion in the hand.

I did not receive my First Communion in the hand; the practice was instituted at some point after that. And unlike this EWTN paper, when communion in the hand was implemented in our parish we were taught that we had to receive in this manner from now on; if the people in the parish and in our school didn't outright say that communion on the tongue was now forbidden they certainly went out of their way to create that impression. We school kids had to practice in the classroom; a priest came in to teach us the new way to receive communion. So for many years, from grade school into my high school years, I received in this way.

My family returned to the practice of receiving on the tongue when our awareness of how much had been "forced" on us by the "Spirit of Vatican II" which was never part of that Council, and which did not really fit the spirit of reverence or obedience. Communion in the hand may have been intended for good reasons, but there can be little doubt that the effect of this method of receiving communion has in some ways contributed to the lack of reverence for the Blessed Sacrament which plagues our nation's Catholic population today. The ancient way of receiving shows more clearly the line between the ordained priesthood and the laity (as did the practice of having priests distribute Holy Communion, and from a communion rail, not lay people from every corner of the church into which they can be crammed).

But in considering the bishop's letter, I realized that the lack of communion rails leads to the concern for transmission of illness. When you are kneeling and the priest is standing, your posture, with your head tilted back, makes it unlikely in the extreme that the priest will end up touching your mouth as he gives you the Eucharist; I can't remember this ever happening in a church where I knelt to receive. But when you are standing, the possibility that the priest (or the EMHCs, who I find are quite squeamish about giving communion on the tongue as a general rule) will indeed place a finger on your lips, or brush it against your tongue or teeth, is much more likely. So Bishop Vann's concern in this area is not unjust.

I grant that the letter merely says that the "faithful should be encouraged" to receive on the hand, which means that no one is taking away the right of the faithful to receive on the tongue if their consciences compel them to do so or, indeed, if for some reason it isn't possible for them to receive in the hand (e.g. for physical handicap, or because they are carrying an infant, etc.). But in pondering this, I realized that I can't say this of myself; I have no limitation that forbids me to receive in the hand, and if I believed that it was inherently irreverent to receive in the hand, I would be saying that it is objectively sinful for people to receive this way and that the Church is in error for permitting it--which I do not believe.

There is, moreover, a salutary benefit to choosing to be obedient to the wishes of one's bishop, provided that his wishes do not contradict the will of the Church, of course; but clearly Bishop Vann isn't asking his flock to do anything the Church hasn't approved, and the graces I may receive from submitting my will here in a spirit of obedience to the Church's lawful authority may be far greater than any qualms I may have about taking Our Lord into my own hands.

Further, if I wish those who are disinclined to give up the chalice, or the hand-shaking, or the Our Father hand-holding to do so in that same spirit, then it behooves me to set a good example by agreeing to do the one of these things I find troublesome, and not only those I don't mind at all. Cheerfully accepting this temporary limit on how I may receive communion will display, I hope, the kind of obedience we Catholics should have toward our bishops, and may make it easier, when this is all over, to suggest the same obedience toward the Church's liturgical rules going forward, instead of the permissive and innovative spirit that is often in place in our parishes.


Rebecca said...

I need to find the reference in the GIRM but it is explicitly stated that the decision whether to receive on the tongue is left to the faithful and is not up to the Bishop. The Bishop is explicitly given the authority to limit communion to one species but he is not given the authority to command anyone to receive on the hand. Encouraging is not commanding, and if he is commanding, he is overstepping his bounds. However, it is sometimes salutary to obey someone even when they abuse their authority, sometimes not.

From a health safety standpoint, I'd like to note that if the priest does touch your tongue he will know it, and it wouldn't be so hard for him to disinfect his hand before the next communicant if that were to happen. It is much more likely that germs will be passed through communion on the hand. If I really saw some reason from a public health standpoint for ordering people to receive on the hand, I might be inclined to want to go along with it, but I don't see it. There has been nothing said in our diocese about holding hands during the Our Father or shaking hands during the sign of peace! It seems like some agenda going on rather than a true concern for health.

Our Bishop has requested one species and communion on the tongue; priests are taking it as a command, which I think is a misinterpretation. I'm usually holding a baby, so I don't know what I'm expected to do. I would think that attempting to receive Our Lord one-handed would be a little less than reverent.

Anonymous said...

Here is the link You need:

John Thayer Jensen said...

Regarding swine 'flu regulations:

The New Zealand Bishops' Council has ordained the same - no hand-touching, no Communion on the tongue, Communion in one kind only.

Regarding the Communion on the tongue business, my own feeling - and I was not brought up a Catholic, only became one at the end of 1995 - is that I would love to have altar rails and Commuion on the tongue - but somehow it seems to me there is a sort of 'cognitive dissonance' about receiving standing but on the tongue, so I normally receive in the hand. To be sure, one can kneel for Communion and the Vatican has said that no one is to be denied Communion for that reason, but about that it seems to me that (1) it's likely to seem attention-seeking - "look how holy I am" - whether in fact it is or not, and (2) if everyone did it, it would slow things up somewhat. Perhaps not a lot but it would be upsetting to some people. So I just can't see myself doing it, though occasionally someone does and I am pleased to see it.

Liz said...

My wonderful pastor when I was growing up preached to always take it on our tongue, there was no reason for our hands to touch the host. And he was adamant that unconfirmed children should never take it in the hand.
What a surprise we had at Mass today when our pastor read a similar letter from our Bishop (Hartford, CT). My 7 yo has just received his First Communion on Friday and was excited to finally receive with the family, but I do not teach my children to receive in their hands, so I told him to do what he knows to do.
My son stuck his tongue out and was startled when the priest grabbed his hands and placed the host in his palm, the first thing he thought to do was snatch it with his tongue as quickly as he could.
I may be wrong, but I feel this decree shows an uncredible lack of faith in God's Providence on the part of the Bishop.

John Thayer Jensen said...

Liz said:

I may be wrong, but I feel this decree shows an uncredible lack of faith in God's Providence on the part of the BishopIt seems to me that it wouldn't be a matter of trusting God's Providence. To do that I think we would need a promise in public revelation that we couldn't get sick from receiving the Lord in Communion.

It seems to me rather that the bishops may be failing in the exercise of the virtue of prudence. To take extreme measures - measures which, in my opinion, would have almost no effect on whether disease could be transmitted - at the cost of troubling the faithful does not seem to me to be very sensible.

That said, it may be that there is a concern on the part of bishops of raising unnecessary public shouting against the Church.

My wife has coeliac disease. She cannot receive the Host because the accidents of wheat remain in it, and it makes her sick. She cannot even take the Cup that the priest has placed a fragment of the Host in. So at present she cannot Communicate at all.

A friend told her that if she just trusted God, she could receive the Host without a problem and that anyway it was no longer bread but was the Body of Christ.

The second opinion confuses the change of substance with the lack of change of accidents. The first seems to me an improper exercise of trust. One thinks rather of invitations to cast oneself off the parapet of temples.

LeeAnn said...

I have celiac as well. I'm in the Archdiocese of Seattle and we've also been given guidelines for flu prevention: avoid holding hands during the Our Father, make a bow of reverence during the Sign of Peace and also receive on the hand. Some chose to follow these guidelines and some didn't. Our priest however went a step further and said he would not be giving communion on the tongue at all for a couple of months.

My priest also said there was "scientific proof" that germs were not communicated through the chalice if the EMHC's wiped it each time. I am somewhat doubtful of this claim, but since it is my only option right now, I received from the chalice anyway. It would be really nice if we would finally get those low-gluten and totally licit (approved by the Vatican) hosts made by the Benedictine sisters,.

I prefer to receive the host on the tongue as well, but I would be grateful if I could even receive it in the hand at this point. Think of it as a temporary penance.

Since our state has an increasing number of swine flu cases, I may be prohibited from recieving at all quite soon.

John, I have also had a priest tell my husband that that Our Lord in the Eucharist would never make me ill. Does God promise that? I'm not sure we can say He does. I have considered that if the chalice were permanently removed from the people that I might receive the host regardless of what effects it might have on me--but I'm not at the point yet of having to make that decision thankfully.

John Thayer Jensen said...

LeeAnn commented on the coeliac business.

My wife has got some low-gluten hosts that are supposed to be valid (it's validity that would be the concern; if it did not actually become the Lord's Body and Blood it would still be bread), but hasn't tried them. One priest raised issues about their validity and since she normally can receive the Cup, she hasn't worried.

For now I know that our priest would be happy to consecrate a separate Cup for her personally if she asked, but she has said she didn't want to make a kind of public spectacle out of it.

Communion is a wonderful thing; she isn't going to be farther from the Lord if she cannot receive for the time being. She attends Mass every day when she can, makes a spiritual Communion, and rests in the Lord.

I remember before we were Catholics we were in a very Sabbatarian Protestant church. Quite a few of the members were dairy farmers. I recall one lady telling my wife that it annoyed her to see these men milking on Sunday, and that if they really trusted God, they could milk on Saturday and the cows would be fine until Monday morning.

Perhaps we just didn't have enough faith :-) My opinion is that faith means believing God. I don't think He has told us that our cows will miraculously not get ill if they are left for 24 hours without being milked. I don't think He has told us that coeliac disease won't affect us when we receive the Host. And I am sure He has not told us we can cast ourselves off tall buildings, trusting in Him to send His angels to protect us. If I find that He tells us these things, I am well prepared to believe Him absolutely; but I would need to find that He had actually said them.


Crimson Wife said...

While I normally receive the Host on the tongue, I don't mind receiving it in the hand. But I was upset that at my oldest's First Communion today that she was not able to receive the Blood. IMHO our priest ought to have pushed for a dispensation from the ban on receiving the Blood just for the communicants and not anyone else.

The schools in our town are all still open and that's a MUCH more likely method of transmission.

Daddio said...

Our parish uses those Benedictine low gluten hosts to accommodate our son with celiac disease. They've even run a few announcements in the bulletin letting people know that they're available. Surely he's not the only celiac in the parish, but I've never seen them use more than one at any mass we've attended in nine months. Anyway, it was a huge relief for us to know they had them. I have become an EMHC myself so that I can serve him discreetly (the deacon often forgot the GF host, left it on the altar and we were standing there waiting, or forgot it entirely and he had to receive from the cup, and one time the cups were all empty by the time we got there... grrrr.... I decided to just become an EMHC, take the GF pyx myself and serve him discreetly rather than having to "train" the entire staff of our parish....)

So anyway, I prefered not to be an EMHC, and I usually tried to receive from an ordinary minister myself when possible. But I reckon if our bishop allows EMHC's, then I'm not sinning if I volunteer to be one. Likewise with communion in the hand during this faux epidemic, if the bishop says it's okay, then who am I to disagree? I don't "like" receiving on my hand, and I don't "like" distributing to the vast majority on their hands, but it really doesn't bother me at all, although I expected it to. You'd be surprised how serene and prayerful many people appear when they receive, it's kind of neat to witness that. I just try to serve well and focus on my job rather than judging the disposition of the people in my line. I know 98% haven't been to confession lately, but that's up to our priests and bishop to deal with, not me.

We'll follow up with our son's specialist soon and new blood tests will reveal if our attempts at being 100% gluten free over the past nine months have been successful. Those hosts are said to be well below the gluten tolerance of most celiacs. Hopefully we will not have to seek out areas where we've slipped and cut his communion to the cup only.

John Thayer Jensen said...

Daddio - thanks for your comment.

It is sometimes amusing being coeliac. My wife has trained the priests in the various places she goes for Communion, and if we are at another parish, she tries to explain to the priest in advance that when she bypasses the Host she is not rejecting the priest or the Lord. But a couple of times she has not been able to and the reaction of people has been ... interesting.

There are degrees of gluten intolerance. Some can take it in small quantities or infrequently. If you are full-on coeliac, with gut damage, etc, it may be different. My wife was certainly gluten intolerant for years before they finally figured out what was wrong. She has been gluten-free for a couple of years, and hopes that perhaps one day she will be able to receive the Host again.