Coronavirus: Maronite Church slams minority opposed to communion in hand
by Fady Noun

Grappling with the Covid-19 emergency, the Lebanese government has imposed restrictive measures. The Church has made communion in hand compulsory, until the end of the epidemic. This rite, which existed among early Christians, is opposed by a traditionalist group. The Ajaltoun incident causes ripples.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – Introduced in mid-Lent, a time of intense liturgical prayers, preventive and containment measures against the spread of the coronavirus have come up against well-established habits within Lebanon’s Churches.

The decision by the Maronite Church to make communion in hand compulsory, taken on 4 March, surprised the faithful. Taking things in stride, they adapted to it, some resignedly, accepting it as a temporary measure, until the end of the epidemic. However, the decision was strongly rejected by a traditionalist group as "contrary to the true faith", and demanded that it not be compulsory, knowing that in response to the containment orders of the government, some parishes chose to suspend all Masses and group activities, like choirs, excursions, festivities, fairs, exhibitions and competitions.

Among Greeks Catholics, communion in the hand was authorised as an option. At the Greek Catholic Archdiocese of Beirut, two lines of faithful were formed last Sunday for communion, after Archbishop Georges Bacouni left communicants free to choose between traditional communion and communion in hand. "Most of the faithful chose to receive communion like they are used to," said the archbishop, who was reached by phone. However, liturgical gestures, such as the kissing of the Gospel or icons and the sign of peace, were skipped, and the faithful tried as much as possible to keep a certain distance from each other.

Among Greek Orthodox, a patriarchal statement from Damascus last night called on churches to fully cooperate with civil authorities in the fight against the coronavirus. In practice, all group activities have been suspended, except for Masses, which the faithful can freely attend. However, fixed times will be established for communion. Thus, communion will be given independently of the religious office, or separately from it; on this, the statement remains vague.

The Ajaltoun incident

An incident marked Sunday Mass on 8 March at the Mar Zakhia (Saint Nicholas) Maronite Church in Ajaltoun (Kesrouan). Insensitive to the arguments of the priest, and in the name of a scrupulous reverence for the Blessed Sacrament, the faithful loudly rejected the compulsory nature of communion in hand. "We are the Church," shouted some protesters in response to the priest who demanded obedience to the Church. The row with the celebrant led to the cancellation of the religious service that day.

In a message to the faithful in his diocese after the incident, Bishop Michel Aoun of Jbeil, asked that communion in hand "be accepted in a spirit of obedience”. Above all, he explained that communion in hand "is not a new thing, but rather the oldest practise of the Church”.

The bishop quoted two texts from Saint Cyril of Jerusalem and Theodore of Mopsuestia. “With respect to taking the Holy Eucharist during Mass," said the bishop, “Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (died in 387) wrote: ‘In approaching’ the altar [. . .] make thy left hand a throne for the right, as for that which is to receive a King. And having hollowed thy palm, receive the Body of Christ, saying over it, Amen. So then after having carefully hollowed thine eyes by the touch of the Holy Body, partake of it’. Theodore of Mopsuestia (died 428) wrote something similar about how to receive the consecrated host.

Rediscovering Vatican II

“The discovery of these patristic texts during the Second Vatican Council led Council Fathers to revive this ancient way of communion in the Western Church," said the Bishop of Jbeil. We ask our faithful to adhere to this measure [. . .] all the more since it rests on a confirmed theological basis as well as on our Maronite traditions, of which we find a clear trace in the hymn of thanksgiving sung after communion:

‘Now that I have received your Holy Body,

May the fire not devour me;

May my eyes that touched it,

Your love contemplate.’

Although the Maronite Patriarch, Bechara al-Rahi, held a meeting with his vicars to examine the pastoral consequences of this incident, Bishop Paul Rouhana of Sarba refused to stop there. In a rather long message, he was surprised that “this simple preventive measure [. . .] could cause such great disorder and be used by a group opposed to its application, including religious and lay people campaigning to defend the dogma and the purity of the faith.”

“Let me reiterate the compulsory nature of this measure which does not brook any exception under any pretext, as long as there is no vaccine against this virus," said the bishop in his message. “Making it optional goes against the preventive measures that made it necessary.”

The Bishop of Sarba went on to say that he was "worried, at the ecclesial level, to see some priests and laity, especially those who gravitate around the Marian Priestly Movement (founded by an Italian priest , Father Gobbi, in 1972), publicly circulate writings claiming that the communion in hand is in its essence contrary to the true faith in the Sacraments” and that "this measure [. . .] shows a lack of faith and belittles the power of God present in the Sacrament of communion, to heal soul and body.”

Reason and faith

“At a time when the country is plunged into an economic and financial crisis, when it has to face the consequences of the scourge of the coronavirus, the people who oppose communion in hand [. . .] did not hesitate to say that obedience to the Church in this matter is ‘an obedience to sin’ and ‘a fall in the nets of the devil,’” said the bishop, outraged. With such views, the faithful are in fact departing from the teaching of the Church on the relationship between reason and faith. In the eyes of the Catholic Church, he explained, "in order to rule over Creation under the gaze of God, it is essential for humans to constantly seek, by means of reason enlightened by faith, the laws that govern human life and the world in which they live.”

Expanding on his position, Bishop Paul Rouhana says to reject “a small group with a biased and incomplete vision trying to impose itself on the greater Church". For the Bishop of Sarba, "the Church faces a fundamentalist group that is very active on social media, knowing that fundamentalism takes an element of the faith and amplifies it to the point that it stifles the whole.” Unequivocally, Bishop Paul Rouhana concludes that this minority “must be brought into line and make an act of allegiance to the greater Church which must ensure the unity of its teachings.”