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.