If it’s the blood of Christ, how could drinking from the chalice make me sick?

| March 12, 2020 | 0 Comments

As coronavirus spreads, worship director offers catechesis

One way to prevent spreading coronavirus offered by Archbishop Bernard Hebda is for parishes to temporarily suspend reception of the blood of Christ at Mass.

This has prompted questions from some Catholics about the nature of the Eucharist, and why it’s possible to get sick when receiving Communion from the chalice.

Father Tom Margevicius, the archdiocese’s director of worship, said that it boils down to the Church’s understanding of the Eucharist. When bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ during transubstantiation, they retain the material qualities of bread and wine. But their substance changes from food to Jesus’ actual body and blood.

“St. Thomas Aquinas found it useful when describing the Eucharist to rely on the philosophical position of Aristotle, who described reality, real things, as being composed of stuff you can see, and stuff you can’t see,” he said.

“Stuff you can see” — color, weight, taste, chemical makeup, or otherwise experience with the senses — which Aristotle called “accidents,” don’t get to the essence of a thing, or what the thing actually is, its “substance,” Father Margevicius said.

“It’s clear in the Gospels that Jesus said, ‘This is my body, this is my blood.’ And the early Church from the beginning always understood there to be a change,” he said. “Bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. They are no longer merely bread and wine, but we always have known that it still looks and tastes like bread and wine. It has all the chemical properties of bread and wine, even after the change. So that’s why Aristotle’s categories of ‘substance’ and ‘accidents’ were found to be a helpful way to describe it.”

Since the “accidents” of the bread and wine don’t change, people who are allergic to gluten still have a reaction if they eat the body of Christ, as it retains qualities of wheat, he noted.

“So too, if there are viruses or bacteria adhering to the surface of sacred Communion, then persons are not immune from those diseases. Just because transubstantiation has changed (the bread and wine), the viruses and bacteria still behave chemically the same way.”

“So, people don’t get sick from the body and blood of Christ,” he clarified, “but they could get sick from other pathogens that are involved in receiving the body and blood of Christ.”

Some Catholics have suggested that people who fear receiving the blood of Christ have weak faith in the power of the Eucharist or in God’s care and omnipotence.

Father Margevicius cautioned against that view, noting that preservation of bodily health wasn’t Jesus’ goal, even though he healed people with significant illnesses, even bringing them back from the dead. Everyone he cured, or resurrected, likely eventually got sick again, and certainly died, he said.

“This shows us that all of Jesus’ bodily cures were temporary, which means that Jesus’ ultimate purpose in coming was not bodily health. He must have had a deeper reason for doing these cures. … And that’s why the Gospel of John, when it talks about Jesus’ cures, often doesn’t even use the word ‘miracle.’ He prefers the word ‘signs’,” he said. “It points to a deeper truth. Jesus did these external, physical cures to point to a deeper reality, which is that he is the source of eternal life.”

Additionally, the fact that Jesus rose from the dead “changes everything, including our perspective about death,” Father Margevicius said. “Life is a terminal condition. We’re all going to die. We who believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead can face our own death with the hope of eternal life. What that means is preservation of earthly life is not the ultimate good. It’s a fundamental … very important good, but the ultimate good is eternal life.”

This also explains why the Church honors martyrs, he said.

“They willingly sacrificed their bodily life in defense of a greater good: their faith,” he said. “Heroic saints such as St. Damien de Veuster (Damien the Leper) and Mother Teresa knowingly put their own health at risk to give pastoral care to the sick because ‘love for life did not deter them from death,’ as it says in Revelation 12:11.”

Because preservation of earthly life is not the ultimate good, Father Margevicius said, people must apply prudential judgement to their choices as they seek spiritual goods — such as receiving the blood of Christ, using communal holy water or even attending Mass — when sickness is a risk. People who have obligations to care for others, for instance, may want to reasonably exercise more caution than someone without those obligations, he said.

And, while preserving bodily health is not the ultimate goal, it’s still a “good” that God expects people to care for.

“So, you look at the proportional risk verses the proportional benefit share,” he said. “That’s part of the reason the archbishop has not made mandates. … He’s trusting each individual to make a prudential judgment: ‘If I regard the risk too extensive for me, then I will not (take a particular risk).’”

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