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Last Word - March 2010

Antiseptic Liturgy

As I write this column, I am hoping that, by the time it appears, the restrictions and special precautions that have been implemented in the liturgy of the Mass to help prevent the spread of the H1N1 virus will have been discontinued and we have gone back to touching each other at the sign of peace, back to the shared Communion cup and to shaking hands to greet people at the door before and after Mass. And if people want to hold hands during the Lord’s Prayer, I hope that can be allowed. I realize, though, that the months of February and March may be a little early for such a restoration, even though many of us have been now inoculated against this flu. While I understand and accept the value of these restrictions when necessary, I would hate to see them extended after the risks have been lessened.

Several weeks ago I heard a Boston radio commentator, apparently a nominal Catholic, remark that he was glad to see such things as the sign of peace and the common cup disappear. He goes to church to be left alone in his quiet prayer and does not approve of the distraction of the sign of peace. He also finds the common cup repulsive and, although he can personally opt not to receive from the cup, he prefers eliminating it for others as well. I do not know the man but it sounds like he has missed an important element in what it means to be Church.

My thoughts run just the opposite direction. To my way of thinking, contact with one another, yes, even physical contact, is critical to the worship experience. Such intimate gestures as touching one another and sharing in the one cup are important aspects of good worship. The Eucharist is about becoming one in the one Body of Christ. It is about intimacy. When we give up touching each other and sharing the one cup we give up something important. Those Churches that moved from the common cup to the use of individual cups (think shot glasses) in the late 19th century lost something. St. Paul was serious when he said that we are one body because we share in the one cup or when he said to greet one another with a holy kiss.

Are there risks to intimacy? You bet there are. (The CDC has apparently indicated that the risks in receiving from the common cup are minimal. I am not a scientist and have no opinion on that subject.) But that is the whole point. When we share one life, when we become one body, when we come together in fellowship and friendship and love, there are risks. Being Christian means taking the risk of intimacy. There are risks to serving the poor in the soup kitchens; there are risks to visiting the sick in hospitals and at home. There are risks in all social interaction. Intimacy is never antiseptic and liturgy cannot be either. If short-term restrictions are necessary, I can live with that, but for no longer than we must.

Rev. Msgr. Michael J. Henchal