Bishop Frank Dewane and Coronavirus Precautions
On March 03, 2020, Bishop Frank Dewane issued a memorandum to priests on official assignment titled “Coronavirus Precautions Regarding Liturgy in the Diocese of Venice in Florida.” In this memorandum, several edicts are laid out that are based on common sense measures for reducing the possibility of disease transmission. However, on reading the memorandum carefully, one can discern two attitudes of Bishop Frank Dewane that are also apparent: his disdain for his priests and his love of money.
Bishop Dewane recommends that priests “encourage the Faithful to receive communion in the hand.” He cites the General Instruction of the Roman Missal which provides each communicant with the discretion on whether to receive in the hand or on the tongue as his reason for not prohibiting communion on the tongue at this time. One must note that even though the Faithful are required to attend Mass each Sunday, in some countries Bishops have forbidden public Masses for the overall well-being of the people. It would seem to be a much less stringent deviation from common practice temporarily to remove the option for communion on the tongue because of health concerns. In a remarkable twist of logic, Bishop Dewane states that “some Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion have expressed hesitation regarding distribution of Communion on the tongue.” He then confers on those ministers the power to deny Communion on the tongue as they please despite the fact that he wants such decisions to be at the discretion of the communicant. In a further remarkable twist, Bishop Dewane states that those wishing to receive on the tongue should present themselves “only to a Priest.” In this statement, Bishop Dewane eliminates the ability of a priest to make a decision about what is best for his own health by forcing him to distribute on the tongue, a means of distribution that is less sanitary and carries a greater possibility of disease transmission. Furthermore, Bishop Dewane offers no guidance for protocol for any minister who distributes on the tongue with regard to ensuring the health of the next communicant. Anyone who has distributed Holy Communion knows that in placing a host on a communicant’s tongue, occasional contact with the communicant’s saliva occurs. Transmission of germs cannot be avoided. In this time of heightened sensitivity, are these germs to be passed to the next communicant, even one who might receive in the hand? During this time when pathways of disease transmission are to be eliminated, it would seem that immediately after placing a host on a communicant’s tongue, a minister should be required to wash his or her hands with soap for 20 seconds according to best sanitation practice. In his memorandum, Bishop Dewane offers no protection for communicants from contact with those who receive on the tongue. Far more remarkably, in forcing priests to distribute on the tongue according to the spiritual whims of an individual, he places them in the most vulnerable position of all. Priests do not carry any special immunity. There is no explanation for this absurd policy that does not ban communion on the tongue other than to conclude that Bishop Dewane has no concern for his priests’ well-being, and that he has not thought through the implications of communion on the tongue for all who receive. Were it otherwise, he might have formulated a prudent policy.
Studies have shown that one of the least sanitary places in a Catholic Church is the holy water font. The succession of hands that move through this water make it a breeding ground for bacteria and hot spot for disease transmission. In light of this fact, Bishop Dewane has wisely ordered that parishes “should empty Holy Water fonts.” Bishop Dewane should be commended for this decision even though some people will object. Another notorious breeding ground for bacteria is money — bills and coins — which indeed is “filthy lucre.” In general, cash is more seriously infected with bacteria than public restroom facilities. To protect ushers, money counters, and people who pass baskets of cash along pews, the tradition of taking up collections at Mass should be suspended during the corona virus threat. A collection is like the Sign of Peace which Bishop Dewane has noted is “an OPTIONAL PRACTICE in the Liturgy which may be omitted.” While collections are suspended, Bishop Dewane could recommend that members of the Faithful sign up for parish programs for electronic contribution or else hold their cash resources in escrow to be provided to a parish when such a contribution would not constitute a health hazard. Bishop Dewane did not make any mention of a process to eliminate the health threat posed by cash. Based on other examples of financial management in the Diocese of Venice, one might assume that Bishop Dewane’s fear of a decrease in revenue that might result from a restrictive policy on contributions was far greater than his fear that a member of the Faithful could become ill. At the very least, he has not wished to implement any policies that would cause “the Faithful” to reassess their contributions to his coffers.
In summary, the threat posed by the corona virus requires thoughtful, compassionate, and insightful leadership from the bishop of a diocese. Such leadership has not been forthcoming from Bishop Frank Dewane in the past and is certainly absent now. We therefore urge individuals who prefer to receive Holy Communion on the tongue to put aside their wishes, perhaps as a Lenten sacrifice, and receive in the hand in the best interests of the ministers who serve and of those with whom they worship. We also urge individuals to leave their cash at home when conducting any financial transactions and find ways to support the church as they wish other than through “filthy lucre” so that contaminated collection baskets will not be passed among people who gather to pray.
The corona virus is a health hazard. Jesus’ command that we love one another requires that we look out for the well-being of others and make some sacrifices for them. Let’s include those with whom we worship in that group.