With the ravages of the current ‘flu season, old questions have been raised again about the health issues that may be attendant upon the sharing of the common Chalice. Those brought up in the Anglican tradition – within which the faithful have had daily access to the Chalice for almost five hundred years – may well have useful insights and experience to offer in this matter.
My father was an Anglican priest, ordained to the priesthood in 1928; and he celebrated the Anglican Eucharist virtually daily until his retirement after thirty-seven years of ministry. I myself was ordained an Anglican priest in 1961; and I also offered the Mass almost every day – first as an Anglican and then, blessedly, as a Roman Catholic priest (but with absolutely no difference in physical practice) — until my own retirement more than fifty years later. I have neither the records, nor the mathematical ability, to calculate all this. But I think it means that my father and I ascended the Altar of God for a total of twenty-five thousand times over the years. And we did so in a wide variety of social circumstances: in a desperately poor industrial parish during the Great Depression, in military service, in a suburban parish during the deprivations of England’s post-war years and recovery, in a country town, … and so on, in the United Kingdom, in the USA.
At each altar the practice was the same. The members of the congregation received from the common Chalice – and, after they had done so, the celebrant consumed every remaining drop from the Chalice and finally drank the water with which he had purified it.
Were there any significant risk involved in the eucharistic practices of the Anglican church for so many centuries it would seem likely that the evidence would reflect an increased risk for Anglican priests, who have been performing the ablutions for centuries. In fact the opposite is true. Nor do priests appear to have been regularly stricken with any communicable disease that could be traced to the chalice in all that time. In fact, if there were any such risk, it would seem likely that insurance actuarial tables would reflect an increased risk for Anglican priests. In fact the opposite is true.
The Los Angeles Times covered this issue in 2005, noting that microbiologist Anne LaGrange Loving had studied the issue and found that exposure to germs during communion is actually quite low. “People who sip from the Communion cup don’t get sick more often than anyone else,” Loving reported. “It isn’t any riskier than standing in line at the movies.” She argued that wiping the chalice helps stop the spread of disease. And the silver and gold used to make chalices purportedly don’t harbor disease either: they inhibit it – as, indeed, also does the required used of canonically approved wine (of between 5% and 18% alcoholic content).
The matter has received substantial study over the years; and, as far as I can ascertain, no episode of disease attributable to the common cup has ever been reported in the literature. Thus for the average communicant it would seem that the risk of drinking from the common cup is probably less than the risk of air-borne infection in using a common building. No significant differences have been found in the rates of illness among Christians who receive Holy Communion, Christians who attend church but do not receive the sacraments, and people who do not attend Christian services.
I am not qualified to judge the scientific evidence that is available – but I have to say that I am profoundly impressed by it unanimity.
Much more important for us, however, than the scientific witness is the Truth – the spiritual truth and reality. “What,” famously asked Pontius Pilate, “is truth?” Queen Elizabeth I, echoing Aquinas, once said, of the Elements of the Blessed Sacrament: ‘Twas God the Word that spake it … and what the Word did make it, that I believe, and take it .’
What the Word said was: “… this is the chalice of my Blood, the Blood of the new and eternal covenant … Do this in memory of me.” He did not say, “This is to remind you of my Blood.” He said: “This IS my Blood …” And he did not command us to “do this” in memory of him, but only outside the ‘flu season.
Henri Daniel-Rops once wrote:
Truly do I believe that this Blood now offered in the Chalice
Is your own, once given to the Father;
It is truly the same as that which spurted under the scourge,
Most truly the Blood that flows for ever from Your wounds.
Consider these words carefully, indeed the mysterium fidei. Do we believe? Or do we say: Yes, but the contents of that Chalice could be the agents of disease and death?
And as we consider, we might remember the words of St Thomas Aquinas:
Fountain of goodness, Jesus, Lord and God,
cleanse us, unclean, with thy most cleansing Blood.
Or this, by William Bright:
By this food, so aweful and so sweet,
deliver us from every touch of ill.
Or this, by Edmund Morgan:
O risen Christ, today alive,
amid your Church abiding,
who now your Blood and Body give,
new life and strength providing.
The Catholic truth is that: “The Lord Jesus, who is a strong tower to all who put their trust in him … make you know that the only Name [not the Mayo Clinic, not Linus Pauling] under heaven given for health and salvation is the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”