Communion: Tongue vs Hand in the COVID era

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Communion on the tongue
Communion on the tongue – notice the touching

In the COVID era, some Catholics have been debating the communion in the hand vs on the tongue issue. Bishops have often instructed that communion be in the hand only.

The views on the safety of this are conflicting. In my opinion, either way is similarly safe for the priest. Pre-lockdown, where I live, the priest washed his hands before and after giving Communion, and that will continue when public Masses resume. He’s not easily going to take virus back with him to where he can infect himself.

The risk to the congregation is a bit more complex. A sick or asymptomatic shedding person’s mouth is more of a risk than their hands, as it is the exit for the respiratory tract where the SARS-CoV-2 virus is, so touching the tongue is more dangerous than touching the hand. Transferring virus to the priest’s hands may be easier, but priests just need extra practice at avoiding the lips and tongue (and hands) if they are not adept at this already, and that will make it safe. But even some FSSP/SSPX priests are adept enough, and manage to touch the tongue or lips.

Communion in the hand
Communion in the hand – notice the touching

Communicants’ hands, however, have been all over the place for the duration of Mass – hymnals, pews, etc. As with the mouth, if the priest is careful and if palms are flat not cupped, there is little/no risk to the priest or subsequent communicants. Accidental touching of the hand doesn’t transfer virus to the entry point for infection, whereas touching the tongue would. But now each communicant, with hands unwashed since touching the hymnals and pews, is putting the Host into their mouth … with potentially contaminated hands. They are thus more of a risk to themselves. Hand disinfection of the whole congregation, not just the priest, prior to communion would solve this.

Overall, purely relating to infection control, my view is tongue is safer if the priest is careful and if no congregation-level hand sanitisers are used. This may not be sufficient to appease the psychological discomfort caused by communion on the tongue. If hand sanitisers are used by the congregation, the greater risk is probably a priest who touches the tongue.

I am therefore perhaps slightly more in favour of communion in the hand where psychological discomfort is an issue, and where hand sanitisers are used by the congregation. Where that is not the case, either should be fine, subject to the priest being extra careful about not touching the tongue.

Religious narcissism

While it’s always appropriate to debate one’s preferences and personal piety (and with free time now, more commonly), some have turned nasty about it, and others are insisting on their right to communion on the tongue in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, Bishop Stika of Knoxville, Tennessee, USA, has experienced online attacks over his decision to limit communion to the hand at this time, and one of his staff was subjected to “cursing, rudeness, and even a death threat”. Fr Z was as disgusted as I am.

I think Bishop Stika is looking after his flock responsibly like a loving shepherd. You should read his piece “Rising above the pandemic”.

Some people are behaving like spoilt brats. “I demand” … “It’s my right” … “The bishops are punishing us” …

That is self-centredness. A “self-focus bordering on narcissism” – see below. A faith that doesn’t turn outwards, but becomes all about me. Me! Me! Me! Me! Me! I want! I want! I want!

Narcissism in religion is unfortunately common, and dangerous.

I think this blog post says it best re tongue vs hand, especially paragraph 3:

Insights gained from the communion reception debate – The Alternate Path

Paragraph 3b (emphasis mine):

“Frankly, it carries the danger of falling into a self-focus bordering on narcissism. The suffering of the world right now is not occurring in the communion line. The suffering of the world is in the person dying from coronavirus, it is with the family unable to be with their loved one laying sick in the hospital, it is with the people out of work and despairing. This is where the suffering of the world is and it is where the Church should be – if not in our bodies physically assisting those in need then in our hearts, thoughts and prayers.”

See A Throne to Receive the King⁠ by Michelle Arnold.

An Armenian ripidion
An Armenian ripidion

An somewhat unrelated note on tradition development

Until recently, the priest washed his hands (the lavabo) only once during Mass, during the offertory, after receiving the gifts from the people. Today the bread and wine are brought to the altar, along with monetary offerings. In the past it was fruit and vegetables and chickens and meat. Hand washing was thus essential. Eventually that became less necessary and the practice was given a spiritual meaning. Similarly with flabella or ripidia (fans), originally fly swatters to keep flies away from the altar.

Now the priest washes his hands before and after giving Communion, to help reduce coronavirus transmission.

500 years from now, there may be two or three hand washings at Mass, each with its own spiritual meaning, and the original association with coronavirus transmission a distant memory.

Babylon 5 has a nice story about ancient customs, told by Londo Mollari: The Story of the Guarded Flower.

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