The Chalice in a Time of COVID-19

I was in Prague recently and visited the famous Bethlehem Chapel. This Chapel played an important part in the early history of the Hussite movement in Bohemia. I took the photograph that accompanies this post from a painting of Jan Hus being burned a t the Council of Constance on the wall of the Bethlehem Chapel. Thinking of Hus’ promotion of the administration of the Chalice to the laity led me to reflect on the role of the Chalice in our own time. The administration of the Chalice became common in some Catholic areas in the years since Vatican II.  But I think that in most Catholic celebrations in this COVID time the Chalice is not being offered to the faithful.

For Catholics our go to justification for not offering the Precious Blood to the faithful is the Church’s teaching on concomitance. While this teaching is true and Jesus is present Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Eucharistic Bread, at the Last Supper Jesus did say “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26:27–28). Unfortunately, Catholics do not take this command of Jesus seriously enough.  Maybe we could even learn from some of other Churches. A recent post at the Anglican Covenant site by Drew Nathaniel Keane says that “the 2009 swine flu seems to be the first time since the Reformation that Bishops of the Church of England restricted access to the cup.”

The return to the reception of the chalice cannot be delayed indefinitely. A 1998 letter to the editor of the American Journal of Infection Control by a group of doctors working at the Centre for Disease Control DC in Atlanta stated that

the risk for infectious disease transmission by a common communion cup is very low, and appropriate safeguards-that is, wiping the interior and exterior rim between communicants, use of care to rotate the cloth during use, and use of a clean cloth for each service-would further diminish this risk.

Another 1988 article in the Journal of Infection entitled “The hazard of infection from the shared communion cup” looking at the issues from the perspective of the HIV crisis reached the conclusion that “Currently available data do not provide any support for suggesting that the practice of sharing a common communion cup should be abandoned because it might spread infection.”

Life will always have risks no matter what we do.  We need to see what are the acceptable risks in order to decide when it is safe to resume the common chalice in this time of COVID-19 and if it is not yet the moment to start offering the Chalice again, what conditions need to be met before we can do so.

In the meantime, we need to see are there other acceptable short term solutions. In the Evangelical world TrueVine, a church supply company is selling Prefilled Communion Cups. Their website informs us that:

TrueVine Prefilled Communion Chalices offers the best communion experience for your congregation. You will appreciate the superior quality, great tasting Concord grape juice, fresh bread, and easy open seals on top and bottom. Available in Juice or Wine along with Regular or Gluten-Free bread.

This little plastic cup has a foil closing on top and bottom. The top has a portion of wine or grape juice and the bottom has a small piece of bread. This product would not be suitable for Catholic liturgy. But I admire their inventiveness. Perhaps we need to think of something similar (which obviously respects the need to protect the particles of the Blessed Sacrament).  Here I am not trying to scandalize or push people to do things that are not safe.  But I think that we must strive to return to the Chalice as a necessary part of our liturgical practice.

6 comments

  1. My sense is that the common cup began to disappear from many (not all) local parishes in the wake of the H1N1 pandemic over a decade ago. Even where offered, the proportion of communicants choosing to commune from the cup ebbed, and that remains their personal choice; offering the fuller sign is one thing, pushing communicants to partake of it may be more likely to backfire over time. I suspect the best we will do is offer, and respect personal choices rather than question them directly or indirectly.

    That study mentioned was relatively small, and it doesn’t appear much has been done further in studying the matter.

    Further, while there has been consideration of the rim of the chalice being a particular concern, the other area largely neglected is gripping of the stem in the context of pathogens more likely to be spread effectively by firm contact (varies by pathogen; COVID was assumed to be such, and then less so as studies were explored), for the reasons we’ve become more aware of design choices in door and other handles as a potential public health matter. [And these concerns are not only about receiving a pathogen but giving it; lessons learned from years in communities with a higher-than-typical proportion of immune-compromised congregants.] Intinction would make that potential issue much less of a concern, but potentially raise others depending on how it is done.

  2. The absence of the chalice during COVID has been especially concerning to those of us with celiac disease or gluten intolerance who relied on being at the front of the line for the chalice in situations where logistics for a separate low-gluten host may be difficult. (Some priests are frankly awkward or unwilling to deal with a pyx containing a low-gluten host for a single individual, or it may not always be possible to consult with the celebrant prior to the Mass to confirm the protocol.) Some priests even refuse to prepare a separate chalice for those who cannot tolerate the low-gluten host because it is “too much trouble.” My heart bleeds for those who have been relegated to “spiritual communion” for so long. Praying that we may safely return to the ability for the laity to receive the Precious Blood soon.

  3. The loss of the Chalice is sad, to say the least. Perhaps it is my Church of England background talking!

    Using conventional ‘purificators’ to wipe the chalice rim between communicants needs to be reconsidered. Many are too small and the cotton ones not immediately absorbent enough. I recommend making large purificators from old linen altar cloths, linen which has lost its natural briskness and is instantly absorbent to a high degree, and train ministers of the chalice in the art of turning and wiping, which so many seem unable to do.

    Lord deliver us from individual tiny cups.

    As one who is now at Mass usually as a member of the congregation, I really miss Holy Communion under both kinds. It has also made me feel more ambivalent towards the ‘bread’ we use, as the ‘hosts’ for the people seem these days to be getting smaller. We are losing the idea of ‘eat’ and ‘drink’ as an essential eucharistic action.

    My local Orthodox church does Holy Communion in the usual Orthodox manner, where after receiving (always by name) you go to the side a take a chunk of bread and a sip of wine as an ‘ablution.’ This is the occasion for much socialising. I am sure that for many Catholics that might seem impious, to me it looks solidly Christian.

    AG

  4. Tiny cups are terrible. However, I think at this point they may be the best option to return the Cup to the Assembly in a safe, welcoming manner.

    I think properly purifying them could be figured out without difficulty, too.

    I remember reading, back when all this began, that the tiny cups evangelicals largely use were traced to a “temporary” solution at a Methodist Church in Brooklyn, NY, during an outbreak of disease in the late 19th cent.

    The trick would be for this to be a truly temporary thing, rather than become the de facto norm.

    I think that those tiny cup holders that stack can preserve the visual unity of the cup at least as well as the stackable ciboria do.

    1. There will also be the problem of consecrating the contents of too many TinyCupz and the clerics having timely to consume the contents of many that are not consumed by congregants because we don’t reserve the Precious Blood except in rare, acute circumstances – an issue that simply doesn’t exist in the Protestant denominations that have embraced this approach. (Assuming all congregants will necessarily consume what has been consecrated for them is a deeply dubious assumption at best.)

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