Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the faithful lined the aisles at Mass with the echoing phrases “The Blood of Christ,” “The Body of Christ” and “Amens” resonating throughout the sanctuary.
Though masks and social distancing have relaxed some thanks to vaccines, the chalices filled with sacramental wine have yet to return.
Jesus instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper, consecrating his body and blood for his disciples and in turn, all the faithful. The bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ at each Mass at the hands of the priest through transubstantiation. While the Body of Christ is distributed at each Mass, the Precious Blood has not always been universally available.
“I want to emphasize in receiving the host, you are fully receiving the Lord,” said Father Juan Guido, pastor of Christ the King Church in Fort Smith and diocesan director of the Divine Worship Office. “It doesn't mean you have to receive both to fully receive it, no.”
In the early Church, both species of bread and wine were distributed. Over time, the practice changed, with the Council of Constance noting in 1415 that forgoing the consecrated wine for laity avoided “some dangers and scandals.” These included spilling the Precious Blood while being distributed, health concerns, getting drunk off of the wine and stealing the chalices with the consecrated wine, according to an archived The Arlington Catholic Herald article.
For centuries, the priest was the only one to consume the consecrated wine. In 1963, Vatican II, in its “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” instructed the laity who have received first Communion should also receive the Blood of Christ to allow more participation in the offering at Mass. However, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, because the presence of Christ is in both species, “all the fruit of Eucharistic grace” can be received fully in either the consecrated bread or wine. (Catechism, no. 1390)
In 1970, the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship told bishop conferences to decide to what extent to share both the consecrated bread and wine at Communion. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops took it a step further in 1984, allowing bishops to decide what was best for their individual dioceses.
Outside of the United States, including in Europe and Latin America, the Blood of Christ is not commonly offered to the laity during Mass.
“In other countries, they used to do more intinction, dipping the Precious Body in the Precious Blood and giving it to the people,” Father Guido said, adding that he has not seen any documents where that practice is prohibited in the U.S., but that it’s not commonly practiced.
“They used to do it for big celebrations, like for receiving first Communion or something big, but it was not a daily thing (or on) Sunday,” Father Guido said of intinction in other countries.
In recent years, access to the specific type of wine mandated by the Vatican could also play a role, particularly in underdeveloped countries. On June 15, 2017, the Vatican's offices of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments sent a letter to bishops with requirements regarding the bread and wine and “the worthiness of the material.”
It stated, citing Redemptionis Sacramentum issued in 2004 to help bishops implement the updated Roman Missal, the wine “must be natural, from the fruit of the grape, pure and incorrupt, not mixed with other substances. ... Great care should be taken so that the wine intended for the celebration of the Eucharist is well conserved and has not soured.” (See sidebar)
The use of a communal chalice represents unity.
“We as a pilgrim people, when we walk to the altar we are on a pilgrimage to receive the nourishment. Even though there are many chalices, different cups, it has a practical aspect and a unifying aspect,” Father Guido said, saying that if everyone drank out of the priest’s chalice, Communion would be logistically tough.
He said there is no limit on the amount of vessels to distribute the Precious Blood, however, they must be precious metals, as stated in the the General Instruction of the Roman Missal: “Sacred vessels are to be made from precious metal. If they are made from metal that rusts or from a metal less precious than gold, then ordinarily they should be gilded on the inside.”
In the United States, sacred vessels may also be made from other solid materials “that, according to the common estimation in each region, are precious … they are to have bowls of nonabsorbent material.”
Father Guido said he doesn’t see a scenario of small, individual metal vessels.
“The reason why I say this, if you see how expensive chalices are, I cannot imagine how expensive it would be to buy all of those things,” Father Guido said.
He said he’s seen approved chalices range from $300 to $25,000.
“Just talking from a perspective of being good stewards of the money for the parishes, it’s going to be a very, very expensive purchase to implement that.”
He admitted intinction might become “more prevalent” around the United States in a post-COVID-19 pandemic world.
Because of the lack of information about COVID-19 at the beginning of the pandemic, Father Guido said it made sense to stop offering the Blood of Christ and increase sanitizing procedures for Eucharistic ministers distributing the Body of Christ. He’s had some parishioners ask him about when the Precious Blood is coming back and others that would feel uncomfortable sharing a communal chalice.
“I think it's going to come back, but I don’t think it’s going to come back this Christmas or Easter,” Father Guido said. “I think the pandemic has to be declared over before this comes back. I think it’s important for us to catechize that participating in Mass and receiving the Eucharist as the host is the fullness of everything.”
The priest continues to drink the Precious Blood at Mass following consecration because “the Mass is the holy sacrifice. For us to really accomplish the sacrifice, both have to be fulfilled because we are in persona Christi (in the person of Christ) at that time in the priestly office.”
Rather than focusing on when the Blood of Christ will again be widely available to the laity, Father Guido said it’s more important to remember the reverence in which people should receive the Eucharist.
“It’s important for us to have the reverence right now; never to lose the reverence in the time of pandemic. Meaning, sometimes we can be so afraid of somebody touching the bread, or ‘I need to do this quickly.’ We need to have a sense of reverence because we are receiving our Lord and Savior in the Eucharist,” Father Guido said. “Like making sure there is nothing left in our hands. Sometimes I feel people just grab it, which kind of hurts” to witness.
Before COVID-19, particularly during flu season, pastors would remind congregants not to attend Mass if a person was contagious or at least refrain from shaking hands during the sign of peace or receiving the Precious Blood.
Past studies show there is minimal risk from sharing a Communion cup. The American Journal of Infection Control stated in 1998 that there is a “theoretic risk” but also “the risk is so small that it is undetectable.” In 2005, a New Jersey microbiologist conducted a study and found people who received Communion did not get sick more often than others and “it isn’t any riskier than standing in line at the movies,” as reported in the Los Angeles Times.
A medical entry titled “COVID-19 and Holy Communion,” published in the fall of 2020 through PubMed Central, an archive of biomedical and life sciences journal literature in the U.S. National Institutes of Health's National Library of Medicine, said there is limited research on the topic.
It stated, “The common communion cup may theoretically serve as a vehicle of transmitting infection, but the potential risk of transmission is very small. Currently, available data do not provide any support for the suggestion that the practice of sharing a common communion cup can contribute to the spread of COVID-19 because SARS-CoV-2 transmission from a patient with COVID-19 or asymptomatic carrier to other people has not been reported.”
Dr. Lee Wilbur, an ER physician at CHI St. Vincent Infirmary in Little Rock, has been a Eucharistic minister for two years at Christ the King Church in Little Rock. He worked with COVID-19 patients and served as the principal investigator for the AstraZeneca phase-3 COVID-19 vaccine trial at the Applied Research Center in Little Rock.
“I don’t think we know what the exact risk is,” he said of spreading COVID-19 through a communal chalice. “We have to assume some risk may exist.”
“I thought about this when we were involved in how we protect from infections during the pandemic when we came back to church, when we’d use hand sanitizer” before distributing Communion, he said. “Within my heart of hearts, I felt we were protected. That God would protect us from infection during Communion.”
As a physician, when considering how particular diseases or viruses spread through touch or otherwise, “of course it’s possible. I just feel there’s a sense of sacred protection from God in that moment.”
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