Accessibility links

Breaking News

Coronavirus Vs. The Church: Orthodox Traditionalists Stand Behind The Holy Spoon

Some Orthodox traditions are being questioned amid tightening public-health restrictions.
Some Orthodox traditions are being questioned amid tightening public-health restrictions.

Efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus have rekindled a millennium-old debate within Christianity.

Should Eastern Orthodox priests use a shared spoon to distribute sacramental bread and wine to churchgoers?

The debate has resurfaced amid unprecedented coronavirus measures that are compelling religious institutions around the world to temporarily alter some traditional practices.

Those practices include worshipping in large gatherings, embracing other worshippers at church services in a sign of peace, kissing crosses and icons, or partaking in religious rituals like receiving the Eucharist -- the consumption of consecrated bread and wine in a memorial to Jesus Christ.

In Italy, where a nationwide lockdown to try to contain the raging coronavirus restricts people from leaving their homes, the Vatican has temporarily closed church events ahead of Roman Catholic Easter celebrations on April 12.

Some Roman Catholic churches in Italy are allowed to stay open for individual prayer. But all public masses have been forbidden during the lockdown to discourage crowds.

Italy has the most coronavirus infections in the world and the second-most deaths after China, with nearly 2,500 people succumbing to the disease as of March 17.

But the spread of the coronavirus has not swayed the Eastern Orthodox Church in Russia, where more than half of all Orthodox Christians live.

"I can tell you with certainty that we will neither close churches nor cancel services [due to the coronavirus]," Metropolitan Ilarion, head of the External Affairs Office of the Moscow Patriarchate, the Russian Orthodox Church's leadership body, said on state-run Rossia-24 TV, Interfax reported on March 14.

Many Eastern Orthodox Church leaders, however, have agreed to measures aimed at protecting the faithful from catching or spreading the coronavirus.

A boy receives communion from a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest in the village of Krylos, western Ukraine, in July 2012.
A boy receives communion from a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest in the village of Krylos, western Ukraine, in July 2012.

Ukraine’s rival Orthodox churches have advised worshippers to disinfect icons and crosses before kissing them, or to temporarily avoid touching or kissing the holy relics, as is common practice.

But conservative Eastern Orthodox traditionalists from Tbilisi to Athens have argued against church closures or altering their centuries-old custom of sharing the bread and wine with a common communion spoon.

That has raised concerns among health officials ahead of Orthodox Easter celebrations scheduled to take place on April 19.

'Take This And Eat It' With A Spoon

The Eucharist is a core ritual of both Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic religious services.

It’s a ceremony in which priests bless bread and wine, then share it with their congregations.

Believers consume the bread and wine as Jesus Christ did at the Last Supper -- the biblical account of the final meal Christ shared with his 12 disciples before his arrest and eventual crucifixion.

In most Roman Catholic masses, believers sip the sacramental wine from a common chalice.

Interactive Coronavirus Map: The Spread Of The Infection

Eastern Orthodox priests dip the holy bread into the chalice and use a sacramental spoon to pour wine-soaked bread crumbs into the mouths of the faithful.

Religious scholars note that the use of a sacramental spoon for communion was one of the divisive issues that led to the Great Schism of 1054 between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

Historians say the spoon tradition emerged as a custom during the 7th century in Byzantium and had become the norm in Eastern churches by the 11th century.

Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida, the Vatican’s principle papal secretary at the time of the Great Schism, published a scathing criticism of the communion spoon in 1053.

In it, Humbert wrote that Christ had not told his disciples at the Last Supper to “take this and eat it with a spoon.”

Spreading The Disease?

Nearly 1,000 years later, those arguing against the shared spoon include alarmed doctors and health professionals who argue that the practice risks spreading the deadly coronavirus.

Although Russia and Georgia have imposed some measures against large crowds from gathering, neither state has banned religious gatherings -- leaving decisions about precautionary health measures up to church leaders.

The Russian Orthodox Church on March 12 called upon its believers to take precautions during religious ceremonies. Those precautions include disinfecting icons before kissing or touching them as well as the option of bringing their own cups to mass for receiving communion.

"We believe that no virus or disease can be transmitted through communion," said Metropolitan Ilarion, of the Moscow Patriarchate, on Rossia-24 on March 7.

"But if it comes to bans or recommendations [from the state] that we are obliged to follow, then in some cases single-use (disposable) spoons will be used," he added.

However, on March 15, RFE/RL documented a Russian Orthodox mass in Kazan in which many churchgoers chose to receive communion directly from the common sacramental spoon.

Amid Coronavirus Pandemic, Kazan Congregation Shares Communion Spoon
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:01:10 0:00

WATCH: Amid Coronavirus Pandemic, Kazan Congregation Shares Communion Spoon

Georgia’s Orthodox Church has rejected calls to stop using the common spoon for communion.

Georgian church officials say -- much like Ilarion does -- that it’s not possible to become infected with the coronavirus because the spoon is dipped in holy wine.

Some argue the metaphysical properties of sacramental wine make it impossible to spread disease.

Eastern Orthodox priests from Russia, Belarus, and Georgia also have argued that sacramental wine contains strong alcohol in which diseases perish.

But most medical experts reject that premise.

They note that the very strongest fortified wine contains no more than 20 percent alcohol -- and that most wine contains around 12 percent alcohol.

The U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the ethyl alcohol found in hard liquor can destroy less aggressive viruses. But it says ethyl alcohol should be at a concentration of 60-80 percent in order to be potent against influenza.

Despite their arguments about metaphysical protections, the Georgian Patriarchate announced on March 14 that it has decided to disinfect the icons and crosses that worshippers kiss.

It also announced that it is temporarily allowing churchgoers the option of bringing their own drinking cups to mass to receive communion.

Georgian, Romanian, Greek, Bulgarian Orthodoxy United

But Georgian Orthodox priests continue to use the common spoon to ladle communion into the drinking cups of worshippers who choose that option.

Meanwhile, many Georgian worshippers also continue to insist on receiving the Eucharist directly from the sacramental spoon.

In Romania, the Orthodox Church announced “exceptional measures” against coronavirus on February 28 -- advising worshipers that they “may exceptionally ask the priest to use their own spoon” to receive communion rather than sharing the sacramental spoon according to custom.

Pope Francis and Bulgarian Patriarch Neofit meeting in Sofia in May 2019. Neofit has said that “the sacred mysteries cannot be a vector of contagion or any disease.”
Pope Francis and Bulgarian Patriarch Neofit meeting in Sofia in May 2019. Neofit has said that “the sacred mysteries cannot be a vector of contagion or any disease.”

The Federation of Hospital Doctor Unions in Greece -- home to one of the oldest and most influential branches of Orthodox Christianity -- has also weighed in on the spoon debate.

It warns that no exceptions should be made to state health warnings “for religious, sacramental, or metaphysical reasons.”

But the Church of Greece’s governing body has rejected the doctors’ advice with arguments they have in common with other Eastern Orthodox traditionalists.

The Greek Orthodox Church says inserting a spoonful of sacramental wine into believers’ mouths during communion “clearly cannot cause the spread of disease.”

It calls communion an “act of love” that conquers fear, and has vowed to continue celebrating communion “in the certainty that we commune with life and immortality.”

Bulgaria’s Orthodox Church has also assured its followers that it is not possible to become infected with the coronavirus from drinking holy wine.

“The sacred mysteries cannot be a vector of contagion or any disease,” Orthodox Patriarch Neofit said in a March 11 letter to Bulgarian clerics and worshippers.

That letter has been condemned by critics in Bulgaria like Lubomir Alamanov, a Sofia-based public-relations consultant.

“It is an absolutely unacceptable statement bordering on medieval dementia and [reflecting] sadness about feared financial losses,” Alamanov wrote on Facebook.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Georgian, Russian, Ukrainian, Belarus, Bulgarian, Armenian, Romanian, Moldovan, and Balkan services

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.