- The Washington Times
Tuesday, March 10, 2020

At Sunday night Mass at Holy Comforter St. Cyprian Roman Catholic Church on Capitol Hill, Monsignor Charles Pope announced he would be suspending the “passing of the peace” while expressing to parishioners the “hope [that] cooler heads prevail” regarding fears surrounding the spread of coronavirus.

But before communion, a number of individuals stood up, signed themselves and exited the church.

The crisis of how to respond to the spreading virus — or how or even whether to take Holy Communion — has riled a number of parishes across the U.S.

Many dioceses have discouraged the sharing of communion wine via chalices. Archbishop John C. Wester in Santa Fe has forbade communicants from taking the communion wafer on the tongue. Archdioceses in Chicago and Washington have also encouraged taking communion by hand. And some are openly fearing Masses maybe canceled, as in Italy, where the Diocese of Rome has canceled Mass observances for the next month.

“It’s a unique moment,” said the Rev. Mike Witczak, associate professor of liturgical studies and sacramental theology at Catholic University, in an interview Tuesday. “The last time we probably would’ve had as huge an impact from a disease would’ve been a century ago — the Spanish flu.”

That communion was more infrequently taken by parishioners a century ago, given stricter restrictions around fasting, Father Witczak says the current moment is perhaps unprecedented.

But the threat of restricted communion — or even canceling Mass entirely — doesn’t sit well with some Catholics, who see the coronavirus outbreak as a threat to physical bodies, not the spirit.

“Food and drink are essential to our physical survival, but the Holy Eucharist is even more essential to our spiritual survival,” wrote Monsignor Charles Pope in a blog post Monday for National Catholic Register that expressed dismay over Italian cancellations.

Dioceses can make recommendations, but parish priests make the final call. But fears have heightened with the news that an Episcopal priest in Georgetown is now listed as in “stable condition” with COVID-19 at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. Those who attended the rector’s recent services are being asked to self-quarantine and the church’s 39-year-old organist has tested positive for the disease.

While the safety of parishioners — for whom hand sanitizers are now present in many sanctuaries — has been paramount, Father Witczak, who teaches pastoral care to the sick classes at Catholic University, noted that concerns shouldn’t overlook the work of pastoral ministers who also routinely face increased rates of contamination by distributing communion or visiting the sick. It is estimated that while an estimated 30% to 50% of Europeans died during the 14th century’s bubonic plague, the toll was even higher for clergy.

In those days, he noted, “local churches and dioceses and monasteries would make decisions on an ad hoc basis,” said Father Witczak. “Are people too sick to go to church? Is the priest too sick to celebrate Mass? A lot of places stopped functioning because of the reality they were in. It’s unlikely there were any formal decrees.”

Not every Catholic diocese — or even most — is suspending the practice of taking the Eucharist on the tongue. The Portland archdiocese went so far to confirm that two local physicians, including a state immunologist, with whom they consulted said the use of hands present as much of a risk as the tongue in passing on germs.

“They agreed that done properly the reception of Holy Communion on the tongue or in the hand pose a more or less equal risk,” a statement from the Portland Archdiocese’s Office of Divine Worship said last week.

Monsignor Pope said in an interview Tuesday that he believed the Washington diocese has struck the right balance by recommending — but not requiring — communion rules. He also said he respected priests who opted to avoid taking communion wine via the chalice.

“I don’t want to make light of any of that, but we all have to say that we can’t close down the country,” said Monsignor Pope. “The people of God can make their own decision.”

And he acknowledged weighing his own risk for exposure to the virus.

“I bring my immune system wherever I go,” said the monsignor. “[But] we are expected to live a sacrificial life and to go out and minister to people. In a way, we’re expected to go into harm’s way, though we shouldn’t be reckless.”

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