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To Christians on communion: Don’t try this at home

Pope Francis has urged Catholics to celebrate a ‘spiritual communion’ without the bread and wine during COVID-19 social distancing. Other church leaders have imposed a ‘eucharistic fast.’

Archbishop Sean O'Malley gives communion during a 2005 service.Rudick, Dina Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

On Sundays during the Time of Coronavirus, Dave Manzo and his wife watch a Mass video-streamed from their Back Bay church, St. Cecilia’s. When it comes time for Communion, Manzo’s wife blesses the bread and wine, and they celebrate the Eucharist at home.

“I know this isn’t Catholic teaching,” Manzo said, “but for us, it’s fully authentic. To me, it seems natural.”

I wouldn’t call it heresy, but it’s not the way Pope Francis wants his flock celebrating Holy Communion. Catholics, like Christians everywhere, have been proposing substitutes for the sacrament of Communion, which generally has to be administered by a priest.


Francis has urged Catholics to celebrate a “spiritual communion” without the bread and wine. Other church leaders have imposed a “eucharistic fast,” telling congregants they will have to forgo Communion until they can meet again at the altar. Methodists have been observing — and not observing — a moratorium on “virtual” Communion since 2013.

In my denomination, just one pew over from Catholicism, the Episcopal bishop has warned against the temptation of eucharistic “ ’work-arounds’ that are not theologically or epidemiologically advised.”

Translation: Don’t try this at home.

Holy Communion is a meaningful ritual for me, because it reenacts a Passover supper that purportedly occurred 2,000 years ago, and has remained a cornerstone of communal Christian worship ever since. I leave debates about Jesus’ “real presence” in the bread and wine to the divinity school types. I celebrate the connection with the Christian tradition.

I realize I’m a high-church snob with low-church instincts. I admire former Presbyterian elder Ann Dailey of Dartmouth, who told me, “I have decided it is fine with G-d if I take Communion at home as long as it is done reverently. I take it by putting a teeny tiny bit of red wine in a shot glass and a small bite-size piece of bread on one of my grandmother’s small Limoges plates.”


How did Communion, first celebrated by Jesus’ followers in furtive gatherings inside their homes, become the exclusive province of priests anyway? “This is a question Christians have engaged with since the Reformation,” explained the Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, dean of New York’s Episcopal Divinity School. A theological cornerstone of the Reformation was "the priesthood of all believers,” she noted, expanding upon Martin Luther’s revolutionary teaching that "we are all consecrated priests through baptism.”

As a point of interest, the Rev. Daniel W. Selbo, the bishop of the North American Lutheran Church, has requested that his communicants “place a moratorium on the virtual sharing of the Lord’s Supper” while they cannot attend church.

Even the Catholic church allows lay people to conduct baptisms in extremis, meaning if a woman or man is facing death and wants to be baptized, and no priest is available. Why can’t we self-administer Communion in extremis, I asked Douglas. Surely these are desperate times.

“That’s a good theological question that’s worth discussing on the other side of COVID,” she replied. “When we talk about returning to normal, in many respects we won’t want to go back to the way we were.” Ironically, it seems possible that all Communion will be either “virtual,” or self-administered, in the future.

Speaking the truth in love, she gently chided me for being a little hung up on the Communion ritual. “We can’t be so focused on the rituals of the church that we forget about the meaning of our gathering,” Douglas said. “If we’re so wrapped up in what happens at the altar, maybe we’re missing the point of why we are at the altar in the first place.”


Point taken. What would Jesus do? “There’s no hesitation at all,” said Dave Manzo. “He would say, ‘Feed my people.’”


Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.