Regarding Disease and Holy Communion

By Fr. John Breck

From the website of the Orthodox Church in America, from October 1, 2009

Change the date of publication, and ‘H1N1’ to ‘COVID 19’ and this could have been published this morning.

A huge amount of controversy has arisen recently over the way Christians receive Holy Communion, particularly in the wake of what some are calling the “H1N1 pandemic.”

The issue involves not only Christians. In July of this year, ministers of health from Muslim countries met with specialists of the World Health Organization and issued a statement recommending that children under the age of twelve, together with the aged and the infirm, refrain from making the pilgrimage to Mecca during Ramadan (this after several cases of H1N1 appeared among Iranian pilgrims). Jewish leaders are debating whether the practice of touching the mezouza (venerating a symbol of the Law upon entering a pious Jewish home) should be abandoned. And Christians of many confessions are questioning traditional methods of distributing the Eucharistic bread and wine to their faithful.

For the Orthodox, this is a particularly sensitive concern, since we receive Holy Communion on a common spoon, dipped into the one chalice. Then, once the faithful have received, the deacon or priest consumes what remains. Little or no precaution is taken to wipe the spoon or to take other measures out of concern that the chalice and its contents might transmit some potentially lethal disease. This traditional Orthodox practice elicits no little dismay among many (non-Orthodox) medical professionals. Since the outbreak of the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s, even many of our own faithful have been raising the question, intensified by the present media focus on “Swine flu”: “Can infectious disease be transmitted by our Eucharistic practice?

The dean of the Romanian archdiocese in France recently published a document that brought this question to a head. Taking into consideration recommendations made by several medical professionals, he urged that communion be given without touching the lips of the communicant, who would simply hold his or her head back a little so the priest could drop the particle into the open mouth. The dean also recommended that the priest, with the deacon’s help, wipe the spoon after each person had received.

Reaction to this proposal was swift and unequivocal. The French Orthodox theologian Jean-Claude Larchet published a letter, addressed to the local Romanian Metropolitan, sharply criticizing the dean’s proposals. They would, Larchet argued, sow worry and doubt in the minds of our faithful, and for no good reason. As support for his position, he quoted an encyclical recently issued by the highly respected (Harvard and MIT educated) Metropolitan Nicolaos Hadjinikolaou, founder of the bioethics institute in Athens.

The gist of their argument, which I believe is accurate and very much to the point, is that Orthodox life and faith are essentially “Eucharistic,” and that we commune in the very Body and Blood of the glorified Son of God, the true Physician of our souls and bodies. Metropolitan Nikolaos stressed the point that today’s society is militantly anti-Christian and, throughout Europe and in the United States, is using the H1N1 scare to further undermine the faith and traditional liturgical practices of the Church. Do not let 2000 years of experience, he urged, be put into question by “the rationalism and superficiality” of the present times. For there is no evidence at all that illness has ever been transmitted through Eucharistic Communion. (Were that the case, we might add, there would have been throughout history a much higher death-rate among clergy, who consume the chalice after all the people have had Communion, than there has been among the general populace or among Christian faithful. Empirically, this is simply not the case.)

The Metropolitan concluded with a pertinent observation: the real problem is not the virus H1N1, nor is it world-wide panic; it is rather “the virus of impiety and a lack of faith,” for which the best remedy is precisely frequent Communion.

Several people who have written on this subject have pointed out that a fundamental problem, too, is the fact that we have radically separated faith and medicine, care of the soul from cure of the body. The ultimate blessing that may come from the spread of infectious diseases—AIDS, “Swine flu,” the ebola virus that is now devastating parts of Africa, and others—could be a conscious and active return to the attitude of Scripture and patristic tradition regarding the mystery of sickness and suffering. To declare that disease cannot be transmitted via Holy Communion is an article of faith; it cannot be proved to the satisfaction of everyone (it would in fact amount to proving a negative). Yet as Orthodox Christians, we have two millennia of experience that goes a very long way to confirm what we believe to be true regarding the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist, a presence that is actually and ontologically real, true and accessible.

Our life in Jesus Christ is nourished and sustained by our sacramental participation in his sanctifying, life-giving Body and Blood. Insofar as we dwell in His presence, fortified by the traditional faith of the Church, our Communion will be not to our judgment or condemnation—nor to our physical detriment because of some transmitted disease. It will be to the healing of our soul and body as a “medicine of immortality,” venerated and received as the “bread of heaven” and source of eternal life.

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