Disease and Holy Communion (Summer 2003)

Bishop Seraphim : Article
Disease and Holy Communion
[Published in the “Canadian Orthodox Messenger”, Summer 2003]

I would like to call attention to an article originally published in this newspaper in September, 1995. It responded to the great concern at that time about HIV infection and AIDS. The current concerns regarding SARS or any other diseases are addressed by this article. We recommend that all read it and remember, and trust God. The article is reproduced here and is called : “A Medical Opinion: ‘...to the Healing of Soul and Body . . . .’” by Emanuel Kolyvas, M.D., the Sign of the Theotokos Church, Montréal.

“Contrary to popular opinion, wine, and the other beverages of antiquity produced through fermentation, were probably more important in providing disease-free drinking fluids, than in their tendency to intoxicate. Ancient Greeks drank their water mixed with wine, and also used wine to cleanse wounds and soak dressings. More recently, military physicians of the last century observed that during epidemics of cholera, wine-drinkers were relatively spared by the disease, and troops were advised to mix wine into the water.

Wine has been shown to be an effective antiseptic, even when the alcohol is removed. In fact, 10% alcohol is a poor antiseptic; and alcohol only becomes optimally effective at concentrations of 70%. The antiseptic substances in wine are inactive in fresh grapes because these molecules are bound to complex sugars. During fermentation, these antiseptic substances are split off from the sugars and in this way become active. These molecules are polyphenols, a class of substances used in hospitals to disinfect surfaces and instruments. The polyphenol of wine has been shown to be some thirty-three times more powerful than the phenol used by Lister when he pioneered antiseptic surgery.

Same-year wines can be diluted up to ten times before beginning to show a decrease in their antiseptic effect. The better wines gradually improve with age over the first ten years and can be diluted twenty times without a decrease of the antiseptic effect. This effect then remains more or less constant over the next twenty years and becomes equivalent to a new wine after another twenty-five years. (Modern antiseptics and antibiotics for disinfecting wounds have surpassed wine in effectiveness because the active ingredients in wine are rapidly bound and inactivated by proteins in body tissues.)

In preparing communion, the hot water that is added to the wine will increase greatly the antiseptic effect of the polyphenols. Disinfection occurs more rapidly and more effectively at 45 degrees centigrade than at room temperature (22-25 degrees). Another contribution to the antiseptic effect comes from the silver, copper, zinc that make up the chalice itself, ensuring that microbes are unable to survive on its surface.

Throughout the centuries no disease has ever been transmitted by the taking of Holy Communion. Diseases such as Hepatitis B, known to be transmitted by shared eating utensils, have never been acquired from the communion spoon. HIV is known not to be transmitted through shared eating utensils, and considering the antiseptic qualities of the Holy Communion received by the faithful, there is no likelihood of acquiring HIV infection through the Common Cup.”

It is quite important to remember that the priest or deacon must consume what remains in the Holy Chalice, after everyone has received Holy Communion. Priests and deacons do not become sick from this. Apart from the medical facts given in the preceding article, this Chalice contains the Life-giving Body and Blood of Christ. We must not allow fears stirred up by the powers of darkness to separate us from this Chalice.

It is true that, nevertheless, before and after the service, we could take the ordinary precaution of washing hands after contacting others, as we are told is prudent. It is also important, in this context, to be sure that if people are taking a wine-water mixture after having received Holy Communion, this is done from a metal cup, and that the mixture is warm enough. Otherwise, disposable paper (not plastic) cups are acceptable (best burned afterwards). If the parish custom is to give only water at this time, then disposable paper cups are prudent.

The Church has, during epidemics in the past, provided other temporary measures in order to provide for the people, when their fears were so great as to keep them from approaching the Chalice. We would only most reluctantly bless these measures. The scientific facts can give us some confidence, and strengthen our trust in Christ Himself. Let us not be carried away by the panicky fears of those who have not hope in Christ. Let us be an example of the peace that comes from this loving communion with Christ – love which gives fulfilled and balanced life to us and to all those around us.