Dear brothers and sisters,
Why are we distributing Communion on the tongue?
I am so grateful for all of you and that we have returned to public Masses, even if we all have been asked out of charity to our neighbor to make adjustments to how we enter into the Mass during this pandemic.
Thank you to those of you coming to Mass who have graciously made these adjustments.
One of the most notable changes is during Communion time.
We are being asked when coming forward for Communion, to pause a few feet from the minister, allow him to show you the Body of Christ, say, “The Body of Christ,” have you respond, “Amen,” then allow you to remove your mask, and finally come forward and receive.
If one is receiving on the tongue, we are asking that the person kneel (unless physically unable, of course), which is a most reverent way to receive the Blessed Sacrament, but in the current pandemic it is also so the communicant is below us and in a fixed position, allowing us to easily give them the Eucharist without making physical contact, which is necessary to reduce risk.
Some have asked me why we are distributing Communion on the tongue, as this seems to be a risky activity (more risky than Communion on the hand), because of the communicant’s possible breath on our hands, which seems like it could lead to the minister getting the virus on his hands and then giving it to those that follow.
This is a good question, which deserves a proper response.
To give a proper response requires a little effort and time. I can’t properly answer this question in a few short sentences. So I ask you to read through the entire rest of the letter, as I believe it is all helpful, even necessary, to answer this important question.
I want to respond with my own thoughts, and I also want to share some of the professional advice that I have received that has helped form my thoughts. Some of that advice comes from my brother, Dr. Dominic Perrotta, an ER doctor, who has also received special training in disaster events, including biological ones.
So this is a professional, giving his insights. He is also a practicing Catholic with 11 children and 7 grandchildren, so he is speaking from the perspective of someone concerned for his own and for his family’s health, along with the rest of us. He has skin in the game, so to speak.
Let me share some of his words (all in italics) that he sent to me:
I think it may be helpful to keep in mind exactly how spread happens, what we’re trying to prevent, and rank the risks.
First, spread happens by virus getting out of one mouth or nose, and into another. (diarrhea matters too, but that doesn’t change anything in our situation).
Getting virus on your skin is undesirable, but doesn’t lead directly to disease. It’s only a problem if the contamination is transferred to the mouth or nose.
The virus only gets carried out by saliva which contains virus. Breathing presumably produces some of this– airways don’t have perfectly laminar flow. But far more is created by interrupting flow with vocal cords, palate, tongue, and lips– every time they move, explosions of salivary droplets occur. It’s also reasonable to assume that small regular vibrations from the vocal cords are particularly conducive to small droplets that quickly evaporate, making aerosols of viral dust.
Based on the research I’ve seen, the probability that a single non-turbulent breath from an infected individual contains sufficient viral load to create disease is extremely low. Transmission by having that person breath on your hands would also require transfer of an infectious load from your hands to the host, and then to the recipient, a small percentage of a small percentage of the total viral particles. I think it’s safe to say that the risk of breath-to-hand-to-host-to-recipient transmission is very small.
Of course, even this small risk can be virtually eliminated by asking recipients not to breath on you hands– easy enough.
My anxiety about reception in the hand is that it exposes the recipient, since it creates precisely the two situations that are a risk for contact spread–hands-to-face and food in a contaminated environment. This may be aggravated by the recipient struggling with the mask while holding the host in the other hand.
What has to be borne in mind is that after 45 minutes of multiple individuals in an enclosed space, all exposed surfaces, including hands and faces, are presumably contaminated.
It’s not really feasible for everyone to wash hands immediately before communion. Use of hand sanitizer helps, of course, but given the variability of application, and the continued exposure of hands to the contaminated environment after, I would guess that there’s greater possibility of accumulating an infectious viral load on the recipient’s hands than on the priest’s hands with a single non-turbulent breath.
[F]rom the recipient’s standpoint, I would feel safer having a priest with carefully cleaned hands place the host directly in my mouth, than touch it myself. That would be even more true of family members whose hand hygiene I can’t guarantee.
Those are Dr. Perrotta’s words.
Now let me give you the reasons that lead to our decision to offer communion on the tongue and on the hand.
1. Every Catholic has the right to receive communion on the tongue. No priest has the authority to deny this right.
While we don’t as a Church speak of “a right” to receive on the tongue (that’s more my word), reception on the tongue is the normal way that our Church has instructed us to receive communion. This remains true right now. Receiving on the hand is a special permission that we have in this country. As a priest, I haven’t been given the authority to tell someone they can’t receive on the tongue, as this is what our Church is telling them they can (and should) do. The Church could change this practice, as this isn’t part of Divine law, but we haven’t.
A bishop may have the authority to direct his people only to receive on the hand, but our bishop has not taken this approach in our diocese, so we don’t need to address this question here. In any case, my current understanding is that I cannot deny a Catholic, properly disposed, their desire/request to receive the Eucharist on the tongue.
Ultimately, this (a Catholic’s “right” to receive on the tongue) is the most important reason. If I didn’t think the risk of offering communion on the tongue or hand is outweighed by the benefit of receiving the Eucharist, then I probably would come to the conclusion that communion cannot be given out safely presently.
2. There is risk in receiving communion during this pandemic. There is risk in coming to Mass.
We as a diocese believe, knowing what we know currently about the virus, that we can mitigate the risk enough to prevent super-spreader events and (hopefully) serious illness. We believe that the changes we have made to the Mass during this pandemic mitigate the risk enough that the great benefit of the Mass outweighs the risk. But there is still a risk.
Personally, I think that there will be, and already have been, folks at Mass who are asymptomatic (or with mild symptoms) who are also contagious. I am confident (mildly confident?) that the safety measures we have in place will limit exposure enough that as we are exposed it won’t lead to high exposure (high viral load). This, then, decreases the risk of serious illness or death in those exposed (from what we currently know). I don’t know this. No one can know this, I would suggest.
Each person needs to decide if they think they should take this risk. And each person needs to decide if they think we have as a diocese reduced the risks enough that the benefit of Mass outweighs those risks. I can’t answer those questions for you. One of the reasons our Bishop has dispensed with the obligation to attend Sunday Mass at least until September 7 is precisely because there is risk, and each individual should decide if they should come. Some, especially those who are sick or who have the symptoms of COVID-19, should NOT come to Mass. When it comes to receiving the Eucharist there is also risk. Only you can decide if you think the risk is worth it.
3. I believe from listening to the professionals, including my brother whose knowledge in this area I respect, that the risk of offering communion on the tongue is no greater, and perhaps less risky, for the communicant, than reception on the hand.
So from my perspective, communion on the hand is no safer, and quite possibly more risky for the recipient, than receiving communion on the tongue. I know other professionals take a different view.
One important note is that this is speaking about receiving on the tongue while kneeling. Receiving on the tongue while standing is probably much riskier from the stand point of making physical contact, and thus we are asking folks to kneel when receiving on the tongue.
Whether you think it is right, I leave to you. I simply say that this professional assessment of communion on the tongue or on the hand is a part of what lead me to see that communion on the tongue, which I can’t forbid anyways, is possibly even the best way to receive communion when it comes to reducing risk of the coronavirus.
4. Currently, we have set up a table/station, where, if Fr. Anthony or I (or any minister of Holy Communion) happens to make physical contact between our finger and thumb that hold the Host and the communicant, then we can pause, purify our finger/thumb and then sanitize our hands.
I haven’t to my knowledge had this occur, though there have been a couple of instances of a brief touch on the back of my hand near the pinky when giving out communion in the hand.
5. Patient, Hope-filled, Perseverance. Finally, there is much we don’t know, and the current professional opinions out there continue to change (and are not always in agreement). Personally, I find it takes great effort and energy to continue to try and pay attention to what we are learning and also continue to make adjustments, and communicate these changes, sometimes daily.
So I fully expect that once we are through these temporary measures, we will look back and see that some were unnecessary and that some things that we should of had in place, we didn’t. There is no way to avoid this.
In all of this, we are called by God and our faith to be patient, to not be afraid, to approach each other with kindness, compassion and without judgement or bitterness. Come, Holy Spirit!
I deeply appreciate the concerns, thoughts, questions and insights that all of you have been willing to share with our parishes and me. Even more, I deeply appreciate your prayers and faith and helping us persevere in God’s grace and Holy Spirit during these challenging but grace-filled days. God’s love is not restricted by our current situation.
I look forward to the day when this pandemic is behind us. Until then, know of my prayer and my gratitude at being your priest and pastor.
Jesus’ words are true for us: “Do not be afraid…love one another as I have loved you.”
Fr. Jonathan Perrotta