ROME, 18 DEC. 2012 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: After the swine flu epidemic last year, it became the practice in many of our diocesan parishes to use hand sanitizer before the extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion distribute Communion. In one parish the presiding priest is even given a squirt of the sanitizer prior to his distribution of Communion as well. Am I being overly concerned or is this a strange practice? It is very distracting. — C.M., Springfield, Massachusetts
A: I do not think there is necessarily a right or wrong answer to such a question. Health situations and concrete possible dangers change from year to year, and the pastoral response must change according to the situations.
I would agree that a severe situation in one year should not be an avenue for the introduction of emergency practices on a permanent basis, as this is likely to lead to distractions for the faithful.
In periods of severe danger of contagion a bishop could even go so far as to exempt his flock from the Sunday obligation and even order the cancellation of public Masses. In recent years, and for different classes of infection, such situations have arisen in Ireland and Mexico.
In less severe situations lesser precautions may be taken, such as discouraging handshakes during the sign of peace, or a prudent and discreet use of disinfectant such as that described by our reader.
If the use of a hand sanitizer is deemed necessary, then it would be better for the extraordinary ministers to use it in the sacristy before beginning their services.
In the case of the priest, unless he has some cold symptoms himself, it is probably enough for him to use the sanitizer immediately before beginning Mass. It is unlikely for him to become contagious during the celebration itself, and this gesture is likely to make people more, rather than less, wary at the moment of receiving Communion.
For example, in my own experience, many long-term care centers for the elderly require visitors to sanitize only on entering the premises even though they might be spending some time in contact with the residents.
In spite of this, however, such means could be used immediately before communion if the situation warranted it. If the diocese has not issued particular norms, then the parish priest could ask for medical opinion with respect to taking reasonable precautions.
The faithful should also be aware that suffering from severe cold or flu is a sufficient justification for not attending Mass.
In more acute cases refraining from attending a crowded Mass could even be considered an obligation of charity, by not placing others at risk.
Finally, we must remember that, while prudence is necessary, most people who catch colds and flu don't do so at Mass but rather at home, at work and at school where they spend most of their time and in close contact with others.
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Follow-up: Hand Sanitizer at Communion Time [1-15-2013]
In line with the question on the use of hand sanitizers (see Dec. 18), a German reader asked why the priest washes his hands after the offertory. He says: "The lavabo after the offertory, in my opinion, dates from the time when the priest brought animals and food for his support. Coming after the handling of the bread and wine and a precious chalice, the lavabo is misplaced. If anything, it would be appropriate as a penitential rite at the beginning of the service."
Our reader espouses a theory of the origin of the lavabo rite that was popular a few years ago, that the rite was originally practical and was required because of flour dust in order to physically clean the priest's hands. Only later was a spiritual meaning given to the rite.
Thus, some argued, the advent of pre-prepared hosts had rendered the rite obsolete. This theory, while coherent, has the disadvantage of being wrong.
Further research into the ancient rites has shown that the rite of washing of hands (dating from the fourth century) is older than the procession of gifts, and even after this practice was introduced, the celebrant often washed his hands before, not after, receiving them.
The rite has always had the sense of spiritual purification and it validly retains this meaning today. It is a significant rite and expresses the priest's need for purification before embarking on the great Eucharistic Prayer.
It is true that all have made the act of penance at the beginning of Mass, but the Roman rite for many centuries has had other prayers of purification for priests during the course of the rite.
Most of these have been eliminated or reduced in the ordinary form, but some, such as the washing of hands at the end of the offertory rites, have been retained and may never be omitted at any Mass.