Swine Flu and the Liturgy

I have had numerous requests to say something about the measures that parishes need to take with regard to the swine flu virus and liturgy. Readers will be aware that a few dioceses and parishes have banned communion from the chalice. It has been suggested that we should all be following suit.

The Australia Government and organisations like the Church have protocols and plans in place to contain influenza strains. Parishes need to follow the directions of national and state health authorities which move through defined stages as the threat of a pandemic escalates. If there is a major outbreak, large public gatherings, including church services, will be banned, as happened in Mexico recently.

The key factor in the spread of the virus at liturgy is the gathering of large numbers people in close proximity. (That is why airlines seek out passengers seating three rows in front of and behind an infected person.) Wearing a surgical mask does impede transmission but only for a limited time. Removing the mask to receive communion would negate its effectiveness.

Infectious diseases experts agree that the only steps that will have a measurable impact are for sick people to remain isolated and for all people to take sensible hygiene measures. This could include ministers using antiseptic hand wash before distributing communion.

Banning communion from the chalice might actually be counter-productive in that it gives worshippers a false sense of security. The virus is just as, or even more, likely to be picked up by holding the railing on the church steps, accepting a pew bulletin or hymnbook from a hospitality minister, dipping into Holy Water stoops, sitting within one meter of other people, passing the collection plate and touching hands during the sign of peace. Would we accept banning all these liturgical action as readily as we seem to accept dispensing with the chalice?

Up to the present, the transmission of a disease has never been traced to the shared communion cup. Of course, cups should be firmly wiped with a clean purifier and washed in hot water and detergent after each Mass. As a matter of common courtesy and hygiene, individuals with any illness or infection that might be contagious should not take the cup.

The practice of dipping the consecrated bread into the wine does not solve the hygiene issue because communicants taking the bread and dipping it in the consecrated wine spread more germs with their hands than they would by drinking from the cup.

Why do we happily dispense with drinking the Blood of Christ at Eucharist as if it is some sort of ‘optional extra’? When we take the cup, we take up the cross. “Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” Jesus asked James and John. Drinking from a common cup signifies our life together in Christ and our commitment to one another. The common cup makes us one family.

When Jesus said, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you”, many of his disciples found the language too intolerable and the teaching too difficult to accept. Are some of us just like those disciples?

Elizabeth Harrington