Church is for sinners: Exhibits A and B

July 29, 2007 | 28 comments

My husband and I went to Vigil Mass last night (sans kids again since we were heading out for a date night). My husband has been into sitting in one of the first few pews lately, so as we dashed in the building before the opening hymn began I followed him up to the very front. To my surprise, he walked past three empty pews to squeeze into the second pew from the front, finding a space just big enough for the two of us in between a religious sister who works with our parish and one of the lay missionary families.

As much as I respected his desire to be as close as possible to the presence of Christ, I grumbled a whisper (undoubtedly interrupting the prayer of those around us) that I didn’t see why we couldn’t have sat in one of the empty pews right behind us.

“What’s the difference?” he whispered back. “This way we’re a little closer.”

“I just like to have plenty of room…for when we kneel…and pray, ” I lied. Feeling a twinge of guilt for starting out the Mass with a lie, I fessed up, “OK, look. If we sat in one of those pews back there we wouldn’t have to give anyone the sign of peace. Look at all these people here! This is going to be chaos!” [Regular readers know that I’m too socially inept to handle complicated rituals like the sign of peace.]

Evidently my husband had some motivations to come clean about as well. As it turns out, his desire to sit up front was not born entirely of a yearning to be as close as possible to the Real Presence. “Well I want to sit where the fewest people will drink from the chalice before us, ” he said. “It’s just gross, you know, having a bunch of other people’s lips touch it before we do.”

“WHAT?” I said loudly enough to startle a woman praying the rosary in front of us. “Is that why you’re so into sitting up front lately?”

He gave a kind of vague answer about there being a lot of factors, that he did like to sit closer for other reasons, but that, hey, it is great if you can be one of the first people to drink from the chalice. Luckily the opening hymn began and saved us from delving any further into this conversation.

Ah, yes. You want to make sure that before you receive the Blood of Christ that was poured out for your sins, that not too many of the unwashed masses get to it before you do. Talk about missing the point! What you need to be focusing on at Mass is sitting in an area where you can ignore the maximum number of your fellow parishioners (otherwise known as the Mystical Body of Christ).

When I was first looking into religion I had this idea that church was for very holy people, a place where they could grow even deeper in their holiness and become even more Christ-like. Then I realized that church is for sinners, a place for wretched people to throw themselves before God and beg for his mercy. On this matter, I present to you Exhibits A and B.


  1. Faith

    I just became an Extraordinary Eucharistic minister, so I have some comforting words for your husband. First of all people only take tiny sips so the exposure is very small, second, wine is alcoholic so it kills germs, third, the purificator is the cloth that the priest or EM wipes the edge of the cup with. The priest or EM is supposed to wipe and then turn the chalice a quarter turn, also reducing the risk of spreading germs. I think you are far more likely to contract germs from the Sign of peace than from the chalice. But if he is really uncomfortable with it, he can choose not to receive under both species. The Church makes it a choice not a requirement. If he feels squeamish about it, it would be better to withhold until he can be truly reverent, in my very, very humble opinion. I mean that’s what I tell my kids when they want to screw up their faces in distaste because they don’t like wine.

    Also, my pastor, at least, usually states at least a couple times of year in high flu season that if someone feels they are sick or coming down with something, it might be a good idea to avoid taking from the chalice.

    I have been receiving under both species for years now and have never, ever noticed an increase in illnesses. On the contrary we as a family get sick less often now. But I think that has to do more with the kids getting a bit older.

    I have never understood folks who are uncomfortable with the sign of peace. I have heard many people complain about this and frankly I find it rather surprising. At that point in the Mass, one has been listening to the Word, signing hymns and praying for a while and one is preparing themselves to receive their Lord and Savior. I would think people’s hearts would be somewhere else besides getting uptight about shaking hands with the folks sitting near them. And I am the queen of self-consciousness but I am glad I missed out on this particular manifestation of it.

    Anyway though, you are definitely right, church is for sinners. That’s why God gave it to us.

  2. lyrl

    I believe most protestant churches serve the wine (or grape juice, or both) in tiny disposable cups, I’m guessing at least partially for this very reason.

    Just curious, what’s the theology behind Catholics all receiving from the same chalice? I understand the congregants have to receive directly from the hands of a priest or EM – but they could just as easily pass out the tiny cups as hold a chalice, right? Or would this be another hand vs. tongue issue?


    but they could just as easily pass out the tiny cups as hold a chalice, right?

    The main reason is to prevent some of the Precious Blood from being thrown out with the cups. Catholics believe that it is literally the blood of Christ, so the chalice which holds it (which would still have traces of the Precious Blood on it) is handled extremely carefully. I believe that the water used to wash the cup after mass drains directly into the ground — it’s a special kind of sink — rather than flowing into the sewers.

    It’s also significant that we are all united in being nourished from the same cup, rather than serving ourselves. It underscores our unity as the body of Christ, and it reminds us that we are like children who need to be fed.

  4. Tom

    I only receive under one kind – the host. I know a lady in our parish with Celiac disease, and she only receives the Precious Blood.
    I receive on the tongue too but I don’t kneel, I stand.

    Catholics believe that the ‘wine’ actually becomes the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ during the consecration. Because it is Christ, really and truly present, there are many norms we use to avoid sacrilege, including that the chalice can’t be made out of clay or glass, must be a precious metal, etc.
    Putting Our Lord in a Dixie cup is not respectful. Also, having one EM or priest with a chalice lessens the chance that a drop will be spilled and trod underfoot.


    I would think people’s hearts would be somewhere else besides getting uptight about shaking hands with the folks sitting near them.

    My main objection to the sign of peace is that it always gets out of hand. (Wow, that would have been a bad pun had it been intended.) Even in congregations who are generally reverent, people continue to chat and visit with each other while the Agnus Dei begins.

    My husband says that he has heard that the sign of peace was only intended to be done in a “High Mass,” such as the Easter Vigil or something. I don’t know much about this, but the idea is that it’s supposed to be reserved for special occasions.

    I’ve been to a LOT of churches, and have yet to find one where it’s not, frankly, a distraction. People don’t use it as a time to spread peace, they use it as a time to get caught up on chit-chat.

  6. N.

    Hmmm…I’ve never seen it get out of hand at all in our parish, not at the family Mass, or the full-choir, no-holds-barred late morning Mass (the one that gets broadcast on the radio around here), nor the short and sweet early morning Mass.

    A quick nod and and/or a handshake and/or a smile pretty much do it around here. No getting out of your aisle, no priest coming down from the altar, or any of that nonsense. Oh, and I kiss my husband. Most husbands and wives kiss at our Masses. Just a quick peck, but most married people tend to kiss.

    I don’t get the freak-out over this, either. I guess there are people who get obsessively weird about germs in every parish, but you kind of have to rise above and get over it. It’s good to get out of your comfort zone, anyway. Christ was big on dragging people out of their comfort zones.

    And the only thing anyone’s gonna catch after drinking out of the chalice after me is a touch of DiorAddict in Denim Rose.

  7. Jennifer F.

    At that point in the Mass, one has been listening to the Word, signing hymns and praying for a while and one is preparing themselves to receive their Lord and Savior. I would think people’s hearts would be somewhere else besides getting uptight about shaking hands with the folks sitting near them.

    I know. It’s awful. Some of us have a looooong way to go.

  8. Adoro te Devote

    So true: the Church is a hospital for the sick. Christ came for sinners, not the righteous.

    And of course, there’s no such thing as “the righteous”. I figure that if I ever get to the point that I’m one of the “righteous”, well, time to go to Confession and confess the sin of Pride.

    About recieving the Blood of Christ; I rarely do so, perhaps on special occasions, or, I’ll admit, if I’m close to the front.

    About germs; well, they can still be spread. The alcohol can’t kill everything, and there just isn’t very much in the wine used for the consecration. I’m guessing its an 8 or 9% content.

    I am prone to cold sores, so I feel it’s usually best to abstain from recieving the Precious Blood, because, again, the alcohol isn’t enough to kill that particular virus.

    I’m a huge fan of intinction (properly done!), and wish this would be done at my parish so that we may recieve without worry of germs. At a parish I attended a few years ago on Holy Thursday, they used intinction, and everyone recieved on the tongue – it was a very solid parish, clearly. There were no EMHC’s, and communion went very quickly.

  9. wifeofaddict

    HA! Jen, this literally made my day! Yeah, protestants usually use the little cups, but it’s mostly because of the time it would take to pass a cup to hundreds or thousands of people. In smaller churches I’ve attended, we’ve always passed a cup.

    Anyway, church IS for sinners! SOOO true. Thanks for reminding in such a hilarious way!

  10. Anne Marie

    Girl you are funny.

    At the sign of peace, go the Madagascar route…

    “Smile and shake girls, smile and shake.”

  11. Colleen

    I don’t have the slightest problem with people not wanting to drink out of the same cup. During my years among the Episcopelians (everything is beautiful, everything is ok, your way), I, like many others, dipped the edge of the wafer in the cup (we definitely avoided soaking it). I wonder why that could not be adopted? I am sure there is a reason…

    As for the peace, perhaps you dislike it for the same reason I do. It is an interruption and it feels forced, if not downright artificial. It is rare that the people who sit around me have acknowledged my existence (or the existence of the others in the immediate vicinity). So having to stop in the middle of the service to shake hands with them, feels very insincere.

    Maybe the answer is to try and get to know more people and always sit around them!

  12. Jeannine

    “Adoro Te Devote” is right that the amount of alcohol in wine does not kill germs; my husband the microbiologist once read a study about this very issue. Now that we know about the germ theory, it seems to me that intinction (dipping the Host) should be the usual way to receive under both species, but nobody’s asking my opinion! In the Catholic Church, intinction may only be done by the priest (or perhaps the Extraordinary Minister?), and the communicant must receive on the tongue. Anyway, we receive the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity when we receive the Host, so I choose to simply pass by the Cup.

  13. Kate

    The reason its not common to intinct (dip the host in the chalice) is, I think, because it takes such care and preparation to ensure none of the precious blood is spilled. Eastern Rites often give communion by intinction, and it is beautiful – but it could take a long time, as a server has to get this beautiful gold plate positioned under your chin as the priest uses a special spoon or tong to dip the host and place it in your mouth. No chances are taken!

    That says, I always receive the cup. I guess I’m not very afraid of germs, favoring the germ theory that says that a certain amount of exposure to germs is necessary to keep a healthy immune system. I grew up on a dairy farm where we played in manure – laced mud and never were sick, so maybe I still feel somewhat invulnerable.

  14. Jenee

    Well i just wanted to add to the germ theories and thoughts…and i can’t help but state the obvious…THIS IS THE BLOOD OF CHRIST! He wants us to drink His blood and if it’s God’s will that we get sick for some reason i can’t help but think that God wouldn’t spread disease through CHRIST’S BLOOD! Just as you shouldn’t think “ooh am i going to get germs from this homeless man if i touch him?” i don’t think you should be concerned about getting germs from drinking the Precious Blood of Christ. I don’t mean to sound condescending.
    God Bless,

  15. Faith

    Well, the argument I heard against intinction at our little training session for EM’s is that you can actually cause more germs to be spread. Not everybody washes their hands before Mass! They’ve been fingering missals, wiping their kids noses, etc. And it is very likely fingers will get the Precious Blood on them. So not only will germs be spread but it is irreverent to the Precious Blood.

    The thing is no one is required to receive under both species, so it’s really not an issue. No one will be deprived of grace by not receiving from the the cup. It is purely the communicant’s choice. And it is wonderful to have both species, especially since there are so many people lately with celiac’s disease. Seems like everybody I run into lately has just been diagnosed.

    Now for those who receive on the tongue. Let me tell you how tricky that is to get the Host on the tongue without touching the tongue and then the next person wants to receive on the tongue. . .

    And just as an aside, in my short period of distributing Communion I have been amazed at the number of people who 1)don’t say Amen 2)don’t put their hands out so I can’t tell if they want to receive on the tongue or in the hand 3) Don’t consume the host right there but walk away with it 4) barely open their mouths when they do want to receive by mouth.

    The other difference I noticed is that lots of folks who receive the host don’t have eye contact with me, but every single person who receives the Blood looks me square in the eye when saying Amen.

    I have seen the Sign of Peace get out of hand maybe twice. But the norm is that people just shake hands, nod or kiss those around them.

    And Jen, I think my phrasing about people being nervous about the Sign of Peace came off as kind of snooty. I didn’t have that intention, so I apologize. I usually typing with distractions all around me which can be a disadvantage to communicating well! Sorry about that.

  16. fivemurfs

    I have to agree with Jenee. God would NOT allow you to be sick from drinking Christ’s Precious Blood.

    For several years in a row the pastor of our parish withheld the Blood of Christ during flu season. It started out with a letter in the bulletin explaining his desire not to spread the flu through the Eucharist and directed all parishioners who felt they might be coming down with the flu to stay away from Mass for two weeks. This struck me as not only showing a total lack of faith in Christ, but also showing a total lack of logic and reason. During flu season he never suspended the sign of peace. All those people blowing and wiping their runny noses on their wet tissues or worse yet, their hands. Gross! Obviously I was not alone in my way of thinking. Last year he stopped the flu season suspension of the Precious Blood.

    I have never even considered the possibility the His Blood could be contaminated in any way. But the sign of peace? During cold and flu season I am in the habit of shaking people’s forarms or elbows. It seems more sanitary and hopefully non offensive to my brothers and sisters in Christ.

  17. Elizabeth

    I’ve been reading this blog for some time but have never commented. Thanks for a great blog and lots of interesting discussions, Jen!

    I think it’s safe to say that any way of receiving our Lord in the Eucharist can be tarnished or abused by lack of reverence or simply by lack of attention. I usually do not receive the Precious Blood though it is offered every week at my parish due to concerns about getting sick. As a mother to two young kids, I think it’s wise to avoid illness whenever possible. I don’t think that God would prevent me from getting sick. Theologically speaking, the “accidents” (as opposed to the “substance” or “form”) of the wine remains, thus it tastes like wine, smells like wine, looks like wine. So, I assume the the ability of the wine to carry germs remains as well. Of course it is in substance the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ. There’s not enough alcohol content in wine to kill germs. And the chalice, though wiped with a cloth, could have germs too.

    There’s no moral obligation to avoid minor illnesses, but it may be prudent to do so. And since we receive our Lord fully under either species, I do not think there’s anything wrong with refraining from the chalice, especially during flu season. And I do think that a person who knows they are sick SHOULD refrain from the chalice out of charity to their neighbors at mass. And yes, the Sign of Peace can spread germs too. I refrain from that if I’m ill (or if I’ve just wiped my daughter’s nose).

    Jen, you would have loved my college chapel–the priests skipped the Sign of Peace at every mass (I went to Catholic college faithful to the Magisterium, and I believe it is an option for priests to skip this, though it is rarely done).

  18. SteveG

    I appreciate and admire your reverence, but it’s not at all a lack of faith to understand that while it is the blood of Christ in the chalice, the accidents (appearance) of it is still that of wine.

    As Jimmy Akin explains..

    You need not have any fear of getting sick from the Precious Blood. However, you do have reason to be feaful of getting sick from the germs deposited on the chalices/fingers/etc. of those distributing Holy Communion.

    The sacred species are not a threat, but any germs attached to them are threats.

    It’s never been theologically held that the reality of transubstantiation miraculously would protect us from illness.

    I do totally agree that it’s illogical to be so concerned with sharing the chalice while ignoring the sign of peace as an even more significant source of contagion.

  19. Stephanie

    I have never understood folks who are uncomfortable with the sign of peace. I have heard many people complain about this and frankly I find it rather surprising. At that point in the Mass, one has been listening to the Word, signing hymns and praying for a while and one is preparing themselves to receive their Lord and Savior. I would think people’s hearts would be somewhere else besides getting uptight about shaking hands with the folks sitting near them.

    Well I suppose you wouldn’t understand it unless you’re just a hopeless introvert like me. 🙂 It has nothing to do with the fact that it’s in mass or I think it’s irreverent or anything…I would feel the same way if someone told me to shake hands with strangers around me at a concert, or a football game, or the grocery store. I would get flustered and not know where to turn first, and then feel completely awkward when I reach out to shake and they grab someone else’s hand instead, or if I hold out my hand to the person in front of me, and then even though it seems the person saw me they turn back around while I stand there with my hand out to nobody (this happened to me yesterday) and then I’ll dwell on how stupid I must have looked for the next 15 minutes to boot. No matter how many times I do it, as soon as the Our Father ends, I start to get anxious about what stupid and socially inept thing I’ll end up doing this time. 😛

  20. Stephanie

    Well, the argument I heard against intinction at our little training session for EM’s is that you can actually cause more germs to be spread. Not everybody washes their hands before Mass! They’ve been fingering missals, wiping their kids noses, etc. And it is very likely fingers will get the Precious Blood on them. So not only will germs be spread but it is irreverent to the Precious Blood.

    I think the intinction most people are favoring here (I’d also love it!) is one where the priest alone dips the host into the blood and places it on the recipient’s tongue, not where people come and dip their own. I can imagine that would pose a ton of problems, especially regarding potential drops being spilled all over the place!

  21. Melora

    This made me laugh because my husband feels the same way about the cup and germs. We dip the Host because he prefers us to (except my son, who is an acolyte and does drink from the cup), but I completely agree that neat sips from the side of the cup are less germy than grubby fingers dipping and touching the wine (not that my fingers touch the wine, but not everyone is steady of hand). I have taken communion both ways over the years, and have not noticed a difference in my incidence of illness one way or another. My husband and I were talking about this very subject yesterday, and he was really taken aback (to put it nicely) when I reminded him that the priest finishes off the remaining wine after everyone has received communion (he had never noticed this). As you say, church is for immperfect people!

  22. Kristen Laurence

    Too funny, and so true! 🙂

  23. Adoro te Devote

    Extremely important detail about intinction:

    ONLY the priest can do this. It is NOT proper for the laity, holding the Body of Christ, to approach the EMHC and dip into the Blood of Christ. The reason for this is several-fold, the most important of which is this: it is the BLOOD OF CHRIST! By dipping the Precious Body of Christ into the Blood, and then placing the Host in one’s mouth, can that individual be certain that drops of blood were not spilled, to be tread upon? It is the same reason that the wine, before the conscration, must be separated into different chalices, as opposed to being poured out AFTER the Consecration. It is OK to spill wine; it is only wine. It is NOT OK to slosh the Precious Blood of Christ all over the altar or the floor or people’s unconsecrated fingers, etc.

    Intinction can only be done by a priest; those parishes that allow the laity to dip the consecrated hosts are engaging in a very, very serious abuse.

  24. alicia

    I thought of you when the gospel talked about scorpions….

  25. Literacy-chic

    thought of you when the gospel talked about scorpions….

    Me too!! 😉

  26. knit_tgz

    Me three!

  27. tminbc

    I have always felt (not on any intellectual level) that germs aren’t spread by drinking the Precious Blood. This is, after all, THE BLOOD OF CHRIST!!! Not just any drink, it is given to me as a gift from The Lord. A gift to drink, so I drink. If the Lord Jesus stood on front of me right now, holding out His hand for me to shake, I would shake it, and not even have a thought about germs.
    Now the sign of peace – I too am uncomfortable with it, not because I am shy or anything, but because of where it is in the liturgy. I feel it is placed akwardly, and is the one part of the Mass that doesn’t seem to “fit”. It seems to me that it disrupts a very sacred part of the Mass, for me I feel like I have just had a bucket of cold water poured on my head and it is hard to “get back in the swing of things”.
    I love to share the peace, but could it be somewhere else in the liturgy? Has it ever been?

  28. Kristi

    I wouldn’t necessarily describe myself as an introvert, but I have always gotten a little anxious when the sign of peace is coming up. I think Stephanie described it perfectly. More than anything else, it feels awkward when everyone around you is shaking hands and you’re just sitting there, hoping someone will turn toward you so you won’t feel like a total loser and at the same time you don’t really feel like shaking their hand anyway.

    I think back to being at mass not long ago when I offered my hand out to an older woman who literally stared at me and then decided not to shake my outstretched hand (after kissing and shaking the hand of an elderly woman who appeared to be her mother). I still don’t know why she didn’t want to shake hands with me (no one else was sitting close enough for me to know if it was just me) but I did feel kind of crappy for the next several minutes. Nowadays I’m just grateful my husband is sitting next to me so at least I know of one person I can turn to during the sign of peace!

    Oh, and one other thing: Sometimes I really don’t feel like shaking hands with people like the man behind me who answered his cell phone —twice— during the mass, including the Eucharistic prayer, and told whoever (in normal volume) that he was in church and he’d call them back. Needless to say we don’t go to that particular church much anymore.

    I’m definitely not saying I’m any better than anyone else — I know it’s bad to be thinking about all these things during mass. Yep … all sinners. Well put.

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