Following the Coptic Orthodox Holy Synod’s decisions of 27 June on reopening churches, which have been closed since 21 March 2020 on account of COVID-19, Pope Tawadros II explained a few controversial points as he replied to queries posed to him in a telephone call televised by the independent satellite TV channel DMC.
The Pope said that the Standing Committee of the Holy Synod decided to give freedom to bishops in the various dioceses to decide what is best for their respective parishes. He explained that figures of COVID-19 infections varied so widely in different places, that taking a blanket decision that applies to all was “not for the good”. Governorates such as Matrouh in the west of Egypt, or South Sinai reported very low numbers of COVID-19, the Pope said, whereas Cairo and Giza reported high numbers, so it did not make sense that they should follow the same rules. Once numbers decrease, he said, situations may be reviewed. Already, a number of dioceses decided to extend closure of churches, whereas others reopened while applying cautionary measures.
As to the issue of administering the Sacrament of Communion with a common spoon, a masteer, the method currently used in churches; or without a spoon altogether, as is applied when administering Communion to the sick, Pope Tawadros said: “We left this for each bishop to decide; he might prefer to follow the latter method if the number of COVID-19 cases is high in his parish.”
On Friday 26 June, Pope Tawadros had written an editorial in the biweekly magazine “al-Kiraza”, the mouthpiece of the Coptic Orthodox Church, in which he discussed the two methods of administering Communion. Controversy on the issue has been raging on social media, with liberal Copts calling for abandoning the common spoon which could be a manner of infection, whereas conservatives called for retaining it as a ritual received from the Church fathers to administer a life giving Sacrament that can never carry “death”.
Under the title “Motherhood of the Church”, Pope Tawadros spoke of the Church as a mother who has cared for all her children generation after generation, those with robust faith and those with the weaker faith. “The Church’s seven sacraments have been the foundation of her faith and godliness over the years,” he wrote. While Satan has from time to time instigated rumours, heresies, lies, and falsehoods, the Church has, through her fathers and congregation, always stood against any deviation in faith and doctrine.
“According to the Church fathers: ‘The Church makes the Eucharist, and the Eucharist makes the Church.” What is important is to offer the Sacrament, whether in homes, caves, catacombs, fields, or churches. What is important is the Sacrament.
“The Holy Body and Blood of Christ do not transmit any disease; they are the mystery of life, and far be it for anyone to say otherwise.
“Methods of administering the Sacrament have changed over the years, but the Sacrament of Holy Communion never changed, no matter the means or methods used to administer it.
“Christ’s call has been: ‘Come to Me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28). He said: ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice” (Matthew 12:7). Not all Christians are robust in faith, but the duty of the Church is to shepherd, help and serve them. The Church serves those of weaker, little, or limited faith, as well as sinners of all kind. Christ did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance, and He said: ‘Those who are well [strong] have no need of a physician, but those who are sick’ (Mark 2:17).”
Pope Tawadros explained that the Sacrament of Holy Communion is administered in two methods in the Coptic Orthodox Church. The first method is the conventional one that involves the rites of the Divine Liturgy celebrated with consecrated altar utensils [including the masteer, the common spoon]. The second method, an alternative one, [in which the Holy Body of Christ is sprinkled with the holy Blood, and given to the person partaking of Communion without need of the masteer] is used to administer Communion to the sick at home or in hospital, and to prisoners. This method may be used in church as an exception when there are large numbers of communicants and only one priest present. There are many documented references for this in the holy Euchologion book, and it is neither a heresy, nor a deviation, nor a degradation to the sanctity of the Mystery.
“At the time of the institution of the Mystery,” Pope Tawadros wrote, “there was no global pandemic that killed hundreds of thousands, and infected millions in most countries of the world. Today, however, is a time of disease and infection. This is a time that calls for extreme caution.
“God is merciful, compassionate, and laments human weakness. It is written: ‘Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful’ (Luke 6:36). It is also written: ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God’ (Luke 4:12).
“This is a time of repentance, not a time of speeches or writing … ‘but unless you repent you will all likewise perish’ (Luke 13:5).
“This is a time of atonement and reparation, not a time of stubbornness and cruelty … ‘Rise and pray, lest you enter into temptation’ (Luke 22:46).
“This is a time that calls for tears [of supplication] not for showoff or argument … ‘Lord, save me!’ (Matthew 14:30).
“For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and is himself destroyed or lost?” (Luke 9:25). What benefit can there be in using social media to attack the Church and her fathers … causing distress and pain to many?
“In the Holy Bible, we see Saint Paul becoming weak to win the souls of the weak. The Church, as a mother, applies the rules of love during this time of crisis of the pandemic’s global spread, and uses the method of giving Communion to the sick—as an exceptional method—which was a method mentioned in the rituals according to the Euchologion of Fr Abd al-Masih al-Massoudi al-Baramousi (1902) instead of the conventional masteer method, to which we will revert once normal conditions return. This is a suspension or deferral of the usual way, not a cancellation or omission. This is the voice of wisdom, especially since we do not live alone in this society. We must not be a cause of confusion for anyone or a stumbling block to souls we love.”
Pope Tawadros went on to conclude his article with a plea for God’s eternal love: “We can do nothing but seek mercy from God that He may have compassion on all of us, on our country, on our Church and on our children.”