How to handle Communion accidents

Q:I am a little confused over what happens when a priest (or lay person) drops the Host. What should be done? I even once saw a chalice spill. - A reader in Leesburg

A: To preface this response, in the past few weeks, several similar questions have been forwarded to "Straight Answers." So it is good for everyone to pause and review the discipline regarding receiving holy Communion and what to do when accidents occur.

Accidents do happen during holy Communion, even when the priest, extraordinary minister of holy Communion or recipient is being extremely conscientious and when the altar server is most proficient in using his paten. For example, sometimes the hosts may "stick" together because of humidity, or sometimes one just seems to "jump out" of the ciborium. Without question, for someone who is trying to devoutly distribute or receive holy Communion, seeing the Sacred Host fall on the floor causes a great pain in one's heart. As a priest, I feel sad and admonish myself when this occurs, even though I know it was an accident.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal prescribes, "If a host or any particle should fall, it is to be picked up reverently; and if any of the Precious Blood is spilled, the area where the spill occurred should be washed with water, and this water should then be poured into the sacrarium in the sacristy" (No. 280). The sacrarium is a special sink in the sacristy that empties directly into the ground, not the sewer system.

So let's look at a few scenarios. For instance, if a host is dropped, the person - preferably the priest or extraordinary minister of holy Communion - should retrieve it at once, making sure no visible particles are left on the floor. If there are no visible particles, the priest or minister may consume the host immediately or isolate it in the ciborium or on the paten for consumption after Mass.

If there are visible particles, then a linen should be placed over the area where the host fell. The area should be cleaned with water after Mass, which would then be poured down the sacrarium.

Another circumstance is when a person receives the host but then does not swallow it for some reason. For instance, I have had a few such situations occur when distributing holy Communion at the nursing home. Once an elderly lady, who seemed to be able to receive holy Communion, received on the tongue, but for whatever reason, did not swallow but ejected the host. So, I used a purificator (a linen cloth) to retrieve the host. When I returned to the sacristy, I had to soak the host (now stuck to the purificator) in water, and when the host had sufficiently dissolved, rinsed it and the water down the sacrarium.

Regarding the Precious Blood, if the priest by chance bumped his chalice so that some of the Precious Blood spilled onto the altar, or if in the distribution of the Precious Blood during Communion some spilled, then as the General Instruction prescribes, the area - the altar or the floor - would be washed with water. The stained linens would be soaked in water. Then the water would be poured down the sacrarium.

Addressing these accidents also prompts a good review. First, priests and extraordinary ministers of holy Communion must be extremely alert during the distribution of holy Communion. They must be aware of the person's ability to receive and make sure the recipients consume the whole Sacred Host. If an accident occurs, they need to take immediate action. (The altar servers also need to pay attention and use their patens strategically.)

Second, when receiving the Sacred Host, a recipient must put forth his tongue far enough so that the Sacred Host may be placed securely on it, or make a proper throne for the Lord with the hands so that it may rest securely. If receiving on the hand, the recipient should side-step, still facing the altar, and consume the Sacred Host before turning to go back to the pew.

Most accidents occur with those receiving on the hand because either the person receives poorly - one handed, trying to the grab the host or cupping the hands - or the person begins to walk back toward the pew, looking ahead rather than focusing on receiving Our Lord. Better to pause to receive, adore and consume the Sacred Host, than to rush like in a cafeteria line and risk dropping it. Frankly, I have witnessed people receive and consume the Sacred Host with the same respect they would give to popcorn or a Frito.

When receiving the Precious Blood from the chalice, a person must carefully grasp the chalice, take a sip slowly and return the chalice, making sure the priest or extraordinary minister has grasped it. If a person has trembling hands, he may prudently want to refrain from receiving from the chalice. I remember once handing the chalice to an elderly person who then started shaking, and I thought for sure there was going to be a spill; thankfully there was not.

Accidents surrounding the distribution and reception of holy Communion do occur. We all must be very conscious of our actions. Never must we become lax in our approach to holy Communion; rather, we must always be reverent and even protective, for we have the great privilege of receiving the body, blood, soul and divinity of Our Savior truly present in the holy Eucharist.

Questions may be sent to Fr. Saunders, pastor of Our Lady of Hope Church in Potomac Falls, at straightanswers@ourladyofhope.net or Our Lady of Hope Church, 46639 Algonkian Pkwy., Potomac Falls, VA 20165.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015