Safety and Reverence During a Pandemic

29 July, 2021

The Roman Catholic Liturgy strongly depends on physical communal worship and sacraments. A new research shows scientific evidence that reception of the Holy Communion on the tongue and kneeling is unlikely to incur a high risk of infection transmission, and that is preferable to reception in the hand and standing. No funding was received for this work.

The Roman Catholic Liturgy strongly depends on physical communal worship and sacraments, and disagreements grow concerning the balance between safety and piety in the midst of a pandemic. A recent paper by Sergey Budaev – researcher at the University of Bergen (Norway), Department of Biological Sciences – shows evidence that the traditional manner of receiving the Holy Communion on the tongue is unlikely to incur a high risk of infection transmission, and that, whenever possible, the Holy Communion should be received while kneeling. No funding was received for this work, author declares.

New study on mitigating infection risk in the Roman Catholic Liturgy – entitled, “Safety and Reverence: How Roman Catholic Liturgy Can Respond to the covid-19 Pandemic” and published in the journal “Religions” – shows how to enhance safety without compromising reverent spiritual attitude and shows evidence that reception of the Holy Communion on the tongue and kneeling is preferable to reception in the hand and standing.

The challenges of the covid-19 epidemic raises both scientific and religious issues”, Budaev writes. “The current pandemic is a major challenge for many religious denominations. The Roman Catholic Church strongly depends on physical communal worship and sacraments. Disagreements grow concerning the best balance between safety and piety. To address this issue, I review the major transmission risks for the SARS-CoV-2 virus and list certain measures to enhance the safety of the Roman Catholic Liturgy without compromising its intrinsic beauty and reverent spiritual attitude. This can be achieved through assimilation of several traditional elements into the modern liturgy.”

“It is important to take lessons, not only epidemiological but also societal and spiritual. What are the public health implications of various religious practices and rituals? How can they be adapted to minimize the spread of airborne infection but still not compromise their intrinsic spiritual value and beauty? Which adaptations introduced during the covid-19 crisis could be recommended long-term?”

Author points out that “this paper has a major focus on the Roman Catholic Church, but similar issues and solutions can be applicable in other Christian denominations and other religious traditions”, and that “for obvious reasons, I exclude from this analysis sine populo Mass and private prayers that involve one person only. I also exclude any worship conducted for and within a tight and isolated religious community (e.g. a monastic), that equivalent to a single family with similar structure of risks.”

Author states: “An initially overcareful response to the pandemic could have been justified since the precautionary principle can be applied given huge uncertainty. Public decision-making was based on misinformed models in the absence of good quality data. Growing scientific evidence, improvement of mitigation measures … now allow for better, more balanced decisions. In this work, I try to provide a brief outline of the major epidemiological risks associated with the covid-19 pandemic. I also propose certain measures to enhance the safety of the Roman Catholic Liturgy without compromising its intrinsic beauty and healthy reverent spiritual attitude. There should, indeed, be no inherent conflict between the work of God and the safety of co-workers in God’s vineyard.”

“The Eucharist is the culmination and the most Sacred Mystery in the Liturgy of the Catholic Church. Catholics believe that the Holy Eucharist is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ, really, truly, and substantially present, united in His one Divine Person. From approximately IX century, reverently receiving the Holy Eucharist while kneeling and on the tongue has been the only allowed practice. Instructions of the Congregation for Divine Worship Memoriale Domini (1969) and Redemptionis Sacramentum (2004) permitted – an exception and under limited circumstances – distributing Holy Communion in the hand. Even though this practice has become widespread, the above documents state that it remains extraordinary and any faithful always has the right to receive Holy Communion on the tongue: according to the Canon Law, no priest or bishop has the authority to limit or forbid it for whatever reason.”

“In the current covid-19 pandemic situation, some local Catholic authorities decided to limit distribution of the Holy Communion in the hand only referring to WHO recommendations. However, the position of the WHO is wisely generic: it points to communion in the hand, but without direct endorsement.  Nonetheless, the limitations to receive the Communion in the normative way, on the tongue, is causing tensions within the Catholic Church, many faithful consider it stressful, unlawful abuse that degrades religious piety. Furthermore, the decision to limit the normative manner usually lack transparency, discussion and agreement with the whole community and is explained by vague hygiene without scientific evidence. Apparently, this blindly follows the generic recommendations without adapting them to the Roman Catholic Church.”

“The belief that the Sacrament of Eucharist can spread infection is far from new. There were several studies, mainly focusing on the use of common chalice, indicating that there may be some contamination, however, no evidence for transmission of any infectious disease has ever been documented. The Roman Rite normally administers Communion under one kind to the laity, the Holy Host. The Holy Species used in the Latin Rite is nearly dry and therefore is likely to have low adhesion of outside particles, further reducing the infectious risk. While receiving the Holy Bread, the communicant normally extends the tongue forward, requiring to hold breath for a while. This reduces possible respiratory output. The traditional manner of receiving Communion on the tongue is therefore unlikely to incur a high risk of infection transmission.”

“Traditional reverent practice of the Catholic Church incorporates additional elements making it even less risky in the current covid-19 pandemic. The kneeling position of the faithful while receiving the Host would provide spatial distancing about 50 cm (see below – Fig.1): the communicant’s face is located at the level of the chest of the Eucharistic Minister. Provided the communicant stays silent, uses nasal breathing, and the duration of the interaction is short (very few seconds), this would not incur a high risk to the Eucharistic Minister (usually the priest whose safety is prioritized, see above). Furthermore, reduced verbal response of the communicant directs the droplets and aerosol towards the chest of the Minister, which is by far a lower risk than in the face.”

Budaev, S. Safety and Reverence: How Roman Catholic Liturgy Can Respond to the COVID-19 Pandemic.

“In contrast, the typical position of the communicant for Communion in the hand is standing which is the direct, close, face-to-face interaction. Any verbal interaction between the Eucharistic Minister and the communicant would direct the droplets and aerosol directly to the Minister’s face and the Holy Bread. Inhaling such aerosol could be risky. The statistical argument points to an increasing probability that in a large group, at least one member is infected, further aggravating the risk to the Minister. If the communicant happens to cough or sneeze, Minister’s face and the Holy Bread become the direct target of both fine and larger ballistic droplets. This is very unlikely in the kneeling position.”

“Another potentially important factor is that it would be much easier for the Minister to operate fine motorics when the communicant is kneeling than standing. This is due to a much better visual feedback and more convenient hand position when the communicant is kneeling. … This would make it easier for the Minister to place the Holy Host optimally and safely on the tongue, avoiding contacts with the mucous membrane and the saliva.”

“Even though the hands of the Communicant are often assumed to be clean, there is no guarantee. … The assumption that Communion in the hand carries no or little risk is not well grounded and may in fact create a false sense of security potentially provoking more reckless behaviour of both the Minister and the communicant. While the assumption that providing Holy Communion on the tongue is more risky than in the hand is not supported, many faithful can currently share it, especially if it have developed into a long-term habit. This would make switching to Communion on the tongue stressful for some faithful.”

“A pluralistic approach avoiding “heavy burdens” would be better in the current situation: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones” (Mt 18:10). Thus, those who receive the Holy Eucharist in the hand may go first. This eliminates the risk that someone might fear that the Minister’s hands have been contaminated by the saliva of a previous communicant. The requirement for those receiving the Holy Sacrament on the tongue to wait their turn at the end of the queue would also be spiritually healing. First, it follows the Christian call of humility and moderation. Second, it would deter the development of false sense of superiority in those who uses the more traditional, ancient and reverent manner. We all must follow the call of Christ: “when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place” (Lk 14:10).”

“Whenever possible, the Holy Communion should be received while kneeling”, Budaev states. “This is a wonderful sign of humility when we face the Greatest Mystery, it follows the ancient, reverent tradition of the Roman Catholic Church endorsed by numerous Saints and great Doctors of the Church. Additionally, it introduces vital social distancing reducing the risk of airborne transmission. It would also provide a sign of solidarity with all those who suffer various forms of isolation and rejection through the current pandemic. Some of the faithful, notably older and disabled persons, could find it difficult to kneel without support (e.g. using their hands). Then, standing position can be used.”

Regarding the First Communion of Catholic children, Budaev writes: “The First Communion lays down the foundation for further spiritual life, however, covid-19 risks are much lower for children than for adults. It, therefore, must be celebrated in the most reverent and solemn normative manner.”

“Incidentally, all these elements designate the practice of the Traditional Latin Mass (the Extraordinary Rite) that has been used continuously through the ages until the Second Vatican Council. … The Roman rite has developed at the centre of medieval globalization that was also a crossroad of diverse infections, and in the end largely displaced all other Latin rites. Thus, the traditional Roman Mass may not only provide a rich Christian symbolism and deep reverence to the Mystery of Faith, but also include crucial elements to mitigate – in a low-technology, non-medicinal way – a range of very contagious airborne infections: from flu to measles, chickenpox, tuberculosis and pneumonic plague. An analysis of the cultural evolution of the liturgical rites, focusing on epidemiology, would be very interesting.”

Budaev concludes: “Several elements of the venerable old Mass can therefore be assimilated into the ordinary rite. These could not only offer better epidemiological resilience, but also promote religious piety and reverence that we need so much to struggle with challenges imposed by this and other health threats. We must remember that airborne infections threatening us include not only SARS-CoV-2: the seasonal influenza takes about 400,000 lives annually. Therefore, traditional elements of the Latin Rite facilitating both spirituality and public health could remain in place or enabled during high-risk periods even after the coronavirus crisis is over. These could continue to help us just as these helped the previous generations of Catholics.”

Full Study “Safety and Reverence: How Roman Catholic Liturgy Can Respond to the COVID-19 Pandemic”