COVID-19: Malankara Orthodox Church Adapts Holy Communion for Social Distancing

Fr. Shibu Mathai (left) participates with other priests in a live streamed communion service.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed worship for Orthodox Christian communities throughout the region. Various rituals in the church have been changed to accommodate social distancing, but one of the most personal and important to the faith is communion.

“Holy Communion, for Orthodox Christians, is the true body and blood of our Lord God and Savior, Jesus Christ,” Fr. Archimandrite Sergius, abbot at The Monastery of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk in Waymart, Pennsylvania, said. “It is the most important part of Orthodox worship.” 

The Monastery of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk is America’s oldest Orthodox monastery. The community remains devout and mostly isolated, and communion has changed very little despite the pandemic. Communion, as a ritual, can really only be done in person, Sergius said.

“It is not a symbol, but it is a reality,” Sergius said. “It’s more important to us than life itself, because it really is eternal life.” 

But churches are not as isolated as monasteries, and church leaders have had to consider the risks of in-person communion. Because of COVID-19, the Malankara Orthodox churches of the Northeast American Diocese, about 52 churches total, have changed the way they give Holy Communion to congregants, looking for socially distanced and sterile ways to offer worshippers the ritual. 

Before the pandemic, priests usually delivered communion by either putting it into the mouths of the congregants with their hands or pouring it into their mouths with a spoon.

The Northeast Diocese has offered instructions for changing particular aspects of the communion service, Rev. Father Shibu Mathai, the vicar of St. Gregorios Orthdodox Church in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, said. 

“We must use a single spoon for the faithful and then must sterilize it,” he said. 

The spoon is immersed in boiling water immediately after each worshipper takes communion. A new spoon is used for the next congregant in line.  

“All the churches in this diocese are keeping that direction from our diocesan metropolitan,” Mathai said. 

Congregants can choose to receive communion at St. Gregorios’ in-person services. The church has been hosting services over livestream since the the spring, but also reserves some space in the church for those who wish to worship in person. 

Congregants must sign up ahead of time if they want to attend the in-person service and still have the option to participate over Zoom. Those attending in-person services are asked to keep their distance in the pews and wear a mask. 

Before the pandemic, at the end of each service the priest would bless congregants by touching a cross to each person’s forehead. To avoid physical contact, they have stopped doing this, Mathai said. An optional Holy Communion is now given at the end of service.  

“Now in church on Sundays, about 30 to 40 people are coming in,” he said. “I think about 50% are taking communion.”  

Not every Malankara Orthodox Christian is comfortable with taking communion in-person. Kora Mani is a member of St. Gregorios and said he would rather not take risks.

“Even if I had a chance to be in church physically, I am not sure if I would have received Holy Communion during this pandemic,” he said. “It is based on the medical advice given by CDC, and other health related news around us, to avoid any physical contact with anybody, irrespective of their situation.”

Members of St. Gregorios are able to make arrangements with Mathai to take communion in their car at the parish parking lot. They can also make arrangements with him to take it at their home. 

“If some of the faithful cannot come to the church because of COVID or [because of] health issues, we will provide them the communion,” Mathai said. “We’ll take the communion to the car and we’ll give them. That is, for special requests.” 

Mathai encourages the faithful to attend service in person only if they would not be putting others at risk.

“I want to encourage everyone to participate in the liturgy in their own circumstances,” he said. “If their circumstances allow them to come to the church, they have to come to the church and take the communion in a safe and healthy way.”

Though participating communion may be difficult, other aspects of the faith, such as prayer, are important as well, Sergius said.

Mathai encourages members of St. Gregorios, as well as other Malankara Orthodox churches, to watch the livestream of the service held online.

“As a family, we participate in the Holy Liturgy service at our parish church on Friday evenings and Sunday mornings via YouTube or Zoom,” Mani said. “Of course, even with all solemn surroundings at the family room of our home, it is still not the same as being in the church physically. Our twin sons occasionally attend the Friday service in our church.” 

Faith and worship remain important to hold onto during the pandemic, but individuals should not put themselves or others at risk just to show their devotion, Mathai said.

“If someone is working with the COVID patients like our medical health care workers, it is better to remain at home and watch the liturgy through the online media platform and participate from their own houses,” he said. “With utmost piety and utmost preparation.”

Editor’s note: Our special reporting on COVID-19 may focus on communities outside Philadelphia because many of our student journalists are now temporarily located outside of the city. Instead, our reporters will cover how the coronavirus is impacting their own communities from across the country and around the world. We will return to hyperlocal coverage of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods as soon as possible.

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