Communion cup and infectious disease

How did he do it?

How did the Bishop of Fargo infect (possibly) hundreds of Catholics with hepatitis A? The Associated Press ran a story with the headline “North Dakota bishop exposes 100s to hepatitis A” but does not explain clearly to my liking what happened.

Is this a case of a reporter assuming a reader knows enough about the Eucharistic practices of the Catholic Church to know the potential vehicle for transmission of the virus? Or, does the reporter not know enough to flesh out the story.

The lede states:

The bishop of the Fargo Catholic Diocese exposed potentially hundreds of churchgoers in two North Dakota cities to the hepatitis A virus in late September and early October.

Let me pause here and point out what I see. We have the “who” the bishop; the “when” Sept/Oct; the “what”, transmission of hepatitis; and the “where”, Catholic churches. The “why” is explained further down the story — the bishop picked up the virus while in Italy and unwittingly was a carrier for several weeks as he experienced no obvious symptoms of illness. What is missing is the “how” —  How is this a Catholic story. Is the fact the carrier of the disease was a Catholic bishop essential the story or coincidental. And if so, “why”? The focus is on churchgoers — not the public at large who might have been in contact with the carrier.

The article goes on to share a warning from the state health department, offers a word or two about hepatitis, notes the places where the bishop led worship in Fargo and Jamestown, North Dakota, and notes the bishop has recovered from his illness.

We are given a quote –

“The risk of people getting hepatitis A in this situation is low, but the Department of Health felt it was important for people to know about the possible exposure,” State Immunization Program Manager Molly Howell said in a statement Thursday.

But what is this situation? The nearest we get is this.

Folda attended and participated in communion distribution at the Sept. 27 school mass at Holy Spirit Church in Fargo; the Sept. 29-Oct. 2 priest convention at St. James Basilica in Jamestown; the Oct. 6 noon mass at Cathedral of St. Mary in Fargo; and the Oct. 7 mass at St. Paul’s Catholic Newman Center in Fargo.

Is this a food handling issue or a common eucharistic cup question? Fleshing out this part of the story would have improved the article, moving it from a public service announcement to a news story.

In addition to my writing and reporting work, I serve as a parish priest in small country mission in Florida. Being Florida and the church being of the Episcopal variety, the bulk of the active worshippers on Sundays are those 60 and older. (We have as many 90 year olds as teenagers.) Every fall as pharmacies begin their flu shot campaigns the question is asked in church about infectious disease and the common eucharistic cup.

The story is a perennial favorite of newspapers and most liturgical churches have sanitation guidelines for their chalice bearers, lay eucharistic ministers or extraordinary ministers of the Holy Communion. My answer has been to distribute copies of a CDC paper stating the risk of contracting disease from a shared cup is slight.

By leading with a headline of a bishop infecting the members of his diocese with a disease, the article should have followed through and shown how this was church related. In other words, was it the practices of the Catholic Church that led to the bishop infecting others, or did one man who handled food, or coughed and sneezed in a crowd infect anyone in close proximity. Is hepatitis more infectious than the flu? How would the bishop’s handling of the bread and wine relate to the transmission of the disease? Or was this spread by close contact during the coffee hour?

Answering these questions is the difference would have improved this story.

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  • Darren Blair

    In addition to specifically discussing the likely vectors for infection, the paper IMHO should have also:

    1. Noted what the SOP is for the safe handling of communion within the RCC.

    2. Gotten with adherents of other faiths to discuss their “safe handling” practices for their communion.

  • Nils

    It seems like Hep A can be transmitted in a variety of ways involving contact and ingestion, so it’s kind of impossible to say whether or not any one mode of transmission is responsible. Yes, distribution of communion would be the easiest way for him to give it to other people, but without proper study of the situation, it’s hard to say. The AP should have checked this more.

  • FW Ken

    Why is this national news? Slow news week?

    FYI, the bishop in Tyler,Texas got Hep A too. He was at the same baby bishop school.

  • n_coast

    Considering the uncertainties in this story, wouldn’t a more honest headline indicate that people taking the communion elements handled by the bishop may have been exposed to hepatitis? The Food Safety News web site uses less inflammatory language.

  • bob

    This story seems to crop up every year. It’s amazing to me that no journalist has ever Googled the phrase “Communion + disease” or “Eucharist + illness” or such. If it *EVER WAS* a problem you’d think there’d be hundreds of examples; populations of Christians scythed down by going to church! Oh, wait. Zero??? In 2000 years, no examples to speak of? THAT would be news, but it’s ignored for the non-issue.

    • Nils

      I took the Common Cup for the first time I think ever today. It’s Reformation Sunday, so I figured it was appropriate that if I was going to do it, I’d do it today. I will get back to you to tell you how I’m feeling in a week.

      • FW Ken

        Ah! But was it grape juice or wine in that cup? I’ve been receiving from the common cup for more than 40 years at this point, and can’t say I’ve ever gotten sick. Two points: when I’m ill, I abstain from the cup, and twice in recent years the diocese has restricted the cup during a flu epidemic.

        But as to journalism, while the reporter wasn’t finding out about other aspects of Catholic practice, he might have missed the fact that the laity doesn’t usually share the same cup as the celebrant. Thus, giving the Hosts might have transmitted the disease, but no more than shaking the bishop’s hand at the door after Mass.

        • Nils

          It was Maneschewitz wine, which as I can best tell from taste lies somewhere in between ;-). Oh well, I was in the first row to go up, so ideally, no worries. I’m somewhat germophobic, so today was a big step for me. I am trusting in God and in alcohol and silver’s antibiotic tendencies.

          That is true that in Roman Catholic practice, the celebrant doesn’t share the cup with the congregation, and Hep A is more often than not transmitted “oral-fecally” (a weird and kind of gross term, but that’s the medical-speak of it). So the only way possible is via the Host. Even then, I would assume the bishop had probably washed his hands prior (not that that necessarily means much, but it cuts down on the chance of infection). He may not have even been the distributor.

          • FW Ken

            Actually, Nils, we lay folk have been sharing the Cup for a few years now. True. We don’t receive from the same cup, but that’s a matter of practicality, not doctrine. At our parish daily Mass, attended by fewer than 10 people, we use one chalice.

          • Nils

            No, I know–I wasn’t saying that the laity DIDN’T receive the cup at all (I think that was more of a medieval practice). The few times I’ve been to a Roman Catholic Mass, the Celebrant seems to commune separately.

            In terms of economy, if you have fewer than 10, that makes sense ;)

  • cvg

    One question the lay population may have on this topic is the theological significance of drinking from one cup as opposed to individual cups (and being given the communion wafer as opposed to handling it directly). Are these essential communion elements or things that are nice to do in order to mimic Christ’s last supper as closely as possible?

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    In all likelihood, the bishop was not distributing the Blood of Christ from the cup, but distributing the Body of Christ, the Host. That’s typical protocol. There are rare occasions when the priest celebrant will distribute the Cup, but those are rather rare. When a bishop is celebrating Mass in his own diocese, he almost always distributes the Host. But as was said, it’s just as likely that, if he passed the disease on, he could just as easily have done it through a handshake.

  • Y. A. Warren

    I have long believed, as apparently did Cardinal Ratzinger, that the “Christian” church has to go back into small groups of believers around a home-based sacred supper table. i still believe that this is the way to true “Christian” communion.

  • Darren

    Not to worry, though; the hepatitis was just an Accident.

    (Bada-bump)

    • Agni Ashwin

      Liturgical abuse is Substance abuse.


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