Wine at Communion, the sign of peace, holy water fonts: Will these parts of the Mass ever come back?
Advent is a time to remember how deeply our faith is an incarnate one, where we cannot experience the depth of our faith apart from the physical world—that is, places, things, people. As Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., wrote in “The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe”: “Gave God’s infinity/ Dwindled to infancy.” Contemplating the infinite nature of God alone can be nourishing but is ultimately insufficient. The fullness of God’s gifts is revealed when the heavenly and earthly realms collide.
This is one reason why we have struggled with the changes that the Covid pandemic has brought to the way we worship. The materials we collectively use and the people we pray alongside are vessels of the sacred but have also become vessels for the virus. After nearly two years, the question on many of our minds is: What is the future of worship, especially concerning the material things we hold so dear? What is the future of the words we sing and say, the faces we look upon and the hands we touch? And what is the future of the items we share—the chalice of blessing and the holy water font?
What is the future of the words we sing and say, the faces we look upon and the hands we touch? And what is the future of the items we share—the chalice of blessing and the holy water font?
Despite our desire for unequivocal instruction, decisions about most things during this pandemic have required us to weigh competing goods. The same is true when we think about reintroducing the elements of the Mass that carry risk of spreading disease. Early on, when much was unknown, we suspended in-person worship entirely. Slowly, as our knowledge about effective mitigation increased, we reintroduced parts of our worship that were not entirely risk-free, but that we determined were worth the risk. Presenting the chalice to the congregation for reception of the Blood of Christ is yet another situation in which we must weigh competing goods.
[Related, from 2020: I’m a priest and public health professor. Here’s my advice for rethinking the holidays this year.]
The importance of weighing risk with value is why, even though they might carry similar risk, casually sharing a glass of water with a friend is meaningfully different than sharing the chalice at Mass. We hold that the latter, while certainly not required for everyone, is an important sign of intimacy and connection with others who come to the table of the Lord, and that it evokes participation in Jesus’ suffering and resurrection. If we did not believe so deeply in the power of symbols, it would not be as important. But we do believe; and so it is.
The body of scholarship on health risks consistently finds a misalignment between perception and reality. Yet the bigger challenge for this pandemic is a lack of good data on how risky a given activity actually is. There have been concerns about the transmission from a shared chalice since the acceptance of germ theory in the late 19th century. Yet we have very few peer-reviewed studies on the topic, and even those studies, which were completed before Covid, analyzed bacterial transmission rather than viral transmission. Still, the best evidence suggests that the risk of a shared chalice is greater than zero but is negligible. Common tropes, such as the idea that the alcohol disinfects the chalice, are not true, but neither is the suggestion that a shared chalice poses significant risk to congregants, especially those who are vaccinated and otherwise healthy. There is also little chance of the virus spreading through shared water fonts.
Common tropes, such as the idea that the alcohol disinfects the chalice, are not true, but neither is the suggestion that a shared chalice poses significant risk to congregants.
As the aphorism goes, “the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” New information about Covid emerges every day, and new knowledge about the risk of sharing the chalice or exchanging the sign of peace is possible. In that situation, we must reassess previous decisions. One of the maddening aspects of this pandemic has been our inability to change behaviors based on new knowledge. Ideally, we would be able to increase mitigation strategies such as masks and socially distancing when the risk in a particular community is high and modify those strategies when the risk is lower. However, most of us are impatient with ambiguity and resist incorporating new evidence that may change an established opinion. We want the progress to a new normal to be linear, even though epidemic curves are often cyclical.
Unfortunately, the task of discerning the best course of action has been made more difficult by people on both sides failing to use their God-given gifts of reason. On one side, which seems more vocal if not more prominent in the church, we have people who refuse to acknowledge the very real risk associated with this pandemic or the evidence-based strategies we have for mitigating its spread. This group often exploits the uncertainty that is constitutive of scientific discovery in order to sow doubt about everything connected to the virus. On the other side, we have people who have allowed themselves to be consumed by fear and have exalted the laudable goal of stopping the spread of disease above nearly all else. Both groups have contributed to the erosion of social trust. Nevertheless, I choose to believe that most people are still capable of making reasonable decisions if they are given the information they need to do so.
The goal of worship is to draw closer to God and to one another so that we might be sent into the world to help others do the same. Covid has complicated that task, but those complications can only cause division if we let them. Parishes that wait on some elements, as long as they are acting out of prudence and not fear, can be justified in their choices; parishes that bring elements back, as long as they are carefully weighing the risks and not simply dismissing them, can also be justified.
It may feel like our lives have been altered by the pandemic for an interminably long time, but the thin body of evidence on the true risk of bringing the chalice back to Mass should lead to humility rather than overconfidence. As we can make ever-better decisions based on additional evidence, we must choose to interpret each other’s actions as generously as possible.