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UPDATE: Two days after the publication of this story, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced it would now close the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul to the public during its Easter and Holy Week services as part of its “commitment … to protect public health during the COVID-19 pandemic.” Read more here.
Social distancing guidelines are being adopted across much of the globe, but some religious organizations are drawing criticism for not doing their part to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
That includes the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
While the archdiocese two weeks ago suspended public Masses indefinitely at its more than 250 parishes, and encouraged Catholics to worship online instead, dozens of people lined up to receive Holy Communion in person during Sunday’s livestreamed service from the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul. They waited side by side in a tight line for a priest to place the Communion wafer in their hands or directly on their tongue.
Public health advocates — and even some clergy — reacted with alarm.
“What I see is a bunch of vulnerable people potentially getting exposed,” said Aimee Palumbo, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Temple University. “If the priest gets the virus from one person on his hands, he’s potentially transmitting it to every person in line behind them, even if they only receive the wafer in their hands."
Communion, also known as the Eucharist, is among the seven sacraments of Catholicism. But amid a viral pandemic spread by saliva and mucus, some have called for a reevaluation of how priests offer it to communicants. Taking the consecrated wafer, which Catholics believe is changed through transubstantiation into the body of Christ, by hand was approved in the United States in 1977, but some faithful prefer the traditional method of having it placed directly into their mouths.
As the coronavirus began to grip the region, the archdiocese instructed priests and deacons that “a pastor may suggest Communion in the hand but is not to mandate it.”
“If a communicant — either an adult or a child — desires to receive Holy Communion on the tongue, this is not to be denied," its directive stated. Priests were also told not to ask those people to wait until the end of the line.
Other religious institutions have come under fire for violation of social distancing recommendations.
In Louisiana, where the coronavirus has infected more than 4,000 people, a Pentecostal preacher is defying the governor’s orders, busing hundreds of congregants to his church near Baton Rouge. “We’re free people. We’re not going to be intimidated. We’re not going to cower,” the Rev. Tony Spell said Sunday from the pulpit of Life Tabernacle Church, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Some Orthodox churches continue to use the same spoon for congregants to sip wine during Communion. One Greek Orthodox priest in Australia rejected the concerns of medical professionals, saying “that no disease or illness can exist in Holy Communion, which we believe is the body and blood of Christ.”
But why were congregants lining up last weekend at the cathedral at 18th and Race Streets to receive the sacrament in the first place, when public Masses are supposed to be livestreamed only?
The Rev. Dennis Gill, director of the archdiocese’s Office of Divine Worship, said the 11 a.m. Sunday service, celebrated by Archbishop Nelson Pérez, was not a “public Mass.” If people chose to attend, he said, “they [were] not going to be denied Communion.”
Gill said he spread congregants apart in the pews to adhere to social distancing guidelines. Video from inside the cathedral, shared by a churchgoer who asked not to be identified, showed attendees standing much closer together while in the Communion line.
Asked about priests placing the wafers directly on churchgoers’ tongues, Gill said: “That’s the traditional way of receiving Holy Communion. And people have a right to accept Holy Communion in whatever method they choose.”
But the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest in Washington and a commentator for Religion News Service, said he’s been reconsidering that approach because of the coronavirus.
At the last Mass he celebrated, Reese told congregants that if they wanted Communion placed on their tongues, the priest would have to stop and sanitize his hands after each recipient. All attendees, he said, opted to accept the wafer in their hands.
“Still, if someone comes up and sticks their tongue out, I’m not going to have a debate or discussion with them there,” Reese said. The traditional method “was seen as a sign of respect, because this is the body of Christ that’s being received, and the feeling was that only the priest could touch the consecrated host because his hands had been anointed at ordination.”
The pandemic has forced religious leaders around the world to make difficult choices, Reese said, between altering time-honored traditions or being there for the faithful in the ways they’ve come to expect during a time of crisis.
“We’re all in conflict over this,” Reese said. “We all want to do our pastoral duty, but at the same time, we have to protect people from infection.”
The Philadelphia Archdiocese may be rethinking its policies regarding cathedral Masses. All of the other Philadelphia churches that are livestreaming Masses have remained closed during the services, Gill said, and have only opened up to individual congregants after the conclusion of the service. Thus far, the cathedral has been an exception.
“The whole idea is to prevent the gathering of people. That’s what we’re trying to avoid,” Gill said. “And if that’s still happening, we may need to reevaluate the policy.”