NOGALES, Mexico (ChurchMilitant.com) - For decades, Mexico has been considered one of the most Catholic countries in the world — a nation where, after the government banned the Holy Mass and receiving Communion on the tongue in the 1920s, believers responded by taking up arms and waging a bloody, years-long civil war against regime forces, during which many faithful were tortured or executed for their beliefs.
But now, the Conference of the Mexican Episcopate (CEM), the ruling body of bishops, has banned reception of Communion on the tongue. The move is a stark departure for the Church and its liturgy in Mexico, where Communion in the hand is rare and bishops were viewed as sticklers for traditional Catholicism, often seen celebrating Sunday Mass and incensing the altar while priests hear confessions.
Episcopate officials say they are doing this as a preventive measure owing to the coronavirus outbreak. Mexican health officials say there are at least five confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country, all of them traced to people who entered the country from foreign lands.
"On the same sense, it is considered very convenient, for the same circumstance, that Holy Communion, during the eventual emergency, should be distributed in the hand and not in the mouth, according to the regulations of the Church," said the bishops in a document titled "Actions of the Church due to the Eventual Sanitary Emergency."
Other measures taken by the bishops include shortening the number of Masses and telling faithful not to shake hands during the sign of peace during Mass. They add that this does not eliminate the ritual of the sign of peace, but merely "that it avoids direct interpersonal contact and can be substituted with a reverence or a voice sign."
Several dioceses and archdioceses sent guidelines to the laity like taking the necessary sanitary measures to avoid contracting coronavirus. The archdiocese of Mexico City, the largest and most influential in the country — and site of the Basilica of Guadalupe — has spearheaded a publicity campaign to promote Communion in the hand over receiving in the mouth.
But not everyone is happy with the new guidelines. Many faithful are complaining about not receiving on the tongue and being forced to receive the Eucharist in the hand.
"With all due respect, I disagree!" said Irma Yolanda, making a comment on "Desde la fe" (From the Faith), the official publication of the Mexico City archdiocese. "Deep down, it's an absurd, irreverent and sacrilegious measure. In that case, let there not be any [school] classes, let no one go to work, let there not be any transport services."
"It's sacrilege!" wrote Yolanda López, on the same archdiocesan website. "Only the hands that are consecrated by God can touch the body of Our Lord Jesus Christ."
But it's not only the laity who are against receiving Communion in the hand. Priests like Fr. Luis Toro, Msgr. Samuel Marín and Fr. Carlos Cancelado — who is one of the most beloved priests of Mexico and an exorcist with a huge following — have vehemently opposed the practice, saying only priests are consecrated to touch the Blessed Sacrament.
"I gave a man an example. 'Here is your wife. Have you embraced her, have you kissed her?' He answered 'yes,'" Cancelado said in one of his sermons uploaded to YouTube. "Now do you permit me as a priest to touch her and embrace her? 'No!'" he answered, adding: "Well, you were consecrated to touch her. And I was consecrated to touch Him (the Eucharist)."
And long before the coronavirus syndrome reached Mexico, many priests and laity, especially in some of the country's Catholic media like Mariavision, an international television channel based in Mexico, complained about the faithful receiving Holy Communion in the hand. New commentators and YouTube vloggers have taken to social media to voice their opposition.
Luis Román, a Florida-based author and vlogger who is popular in Mexico with his social media-based program "Conoce, Ama y Vive tu Fe" (Know, Love and Live Your Faith), says that the measures taken by the Mexican bishops saddens him. He adds that in the past, when the Church was faced with a health threat, it countered with physical and spiritual warfare such as increasing the number of Masses, holding street processions and increasing prayer and devotions among the faithful:
Regrettably it has been the contrary. We are worse than the secular world. Because bars are still open, night clubs are still open. They are not telling people, "When you dance, don't touch each other, or when you drink beer, don't touch your beer." So why is it that with the things of God, which are more important and sacred, we have to take it? What we have here is evil forces that are using this to harm our Church. There you can see the crisis of faith in the Church. We've reached a point where the way the Church used to fight these battles in the past is in complete contrast to what they are doing today.
But the Mexican bishops also have their supporters among some in the laity and the clergy. José Flores Martínez, who in his Facebook profile says he's a supporter of left-leaning Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, said on "Desde la fe" that he supports Communion in the hand.
"Over 40 years ago Communion in the hand was given to communicants who wanted it and I don't think it's a lack of respect," Martínez wrote.
Priests like Honduras-based Fr. Samuel Bonilla, better known on YouTube as "Father Sam," defended receiving Communion in the hand and derided faithful who did not want to receive in the hand as "rebels." He added that these decisions to ban Communion in the mouth were not taken lightly.
"We must obey," Bonilla said in one of his recent YouTube videos.
Father Dirk Kranz, who is German and a Legionary of Christ who speaks Spanish, has worked in Colombia and is a popular preacher. He told his viewers he was shocked by how many people in Mexico criticized receiving Communion in the hand, telling them to obey their bishops.
"And don't start fighting with the ministers," Kranz told his viewers. "Because the ministers have instructions not to give the Communion in the mouth. They have to give it in the hand because it's not their choice — because they also have received indications by their superiors."
When Church Militant asked officials from the archdiocese of Mexico City to comment on the complaints regarding receiving Communion in the hand, and to clarify if the faithful who do not want to receive in the hand will be denied Holy Communion, they refused to comment.
Jorge Reyes, spokesman for the archdiocese of Mexico City, says the archdiocese adopted the Communion-in-the-hand policy after taking the advice of the bishops' conference. He told Church Militant that the archdioceses of Monterrey and Guadalajara and other dioceses have followed suit.
"As such, we believe it is convenient that the Conference of the Mexican Episcopate should be the one to dispel your doubts, because what this particular church did was to join the petition made by the CEM," he said.
CEM official Fr. Javier De La Torre Castaño said the bishops' conference was unable to comment to Church Militant, as officials are busy with other duties and were given too short notice. Church Militant contacted the archdiocese of Mexico City more than 48 hours before press time.
In addition, Church Militant contacted each of the offices of the archbishops and bishops who authored and signed the Episcopal document, but no one answered requests for interviews. These include the archbishop of Monterrey, Rogelio Cabrera López, president of the bishops' conference, and Domingo Díaz Martínez, the archbishop of Tulancingo and head of Church health.
In addition, Bp. Jonás Guerrero of Culiacán, head of the Commission for Pastoral Liturgy, and Bp. Alfonso Miranda Guardiola of Monterrey, secretary general for the Conference, also signed the document.
On Sunday, during an evening Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Nogales, Sonora, a Mexican border town just across the Arizona border, priests told the flock before Mass that they would be administering Communion in the hand. The priest gave Communion on the tongue to a few of the parishioners who insisted on receiving in the traditional manner, but afterwards he admonished them from the pulpit.
In Southern California, where there is a large concentration of Latino parishioners, mostly of Mexican origin, the dioceses of San Bernardino and Orange said via press releases that they were distributing Communion in the hand owing to coronavirus.
According to a 2014 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, Hispanic Catholics are more likely to follow traditional Church teaching than whites. Additionally, though Latino Catholics are just as likely as white Catholics to attend Sunday Mass, only 21% of Latinos receive Communion, compared to 56% of whites.
Román says that Mexican bishops are abusing their power by banning Communion in the mouth. Nevertheless, he extols Catholics who are against receiving Communion in the hand to respect their Church leaders and not be rude or disrespectful, but instead to be loving.
He adds that he counsels the faithful to do what Bp. Athanasius Schneider of Kazakhstan advises — receive Holy Communion in a spiritual way and avoid receiving it in the hand, or find priests who are willing to give Communion in the mouth in churches or in private places.
"In no way should we alter what we have to do as Catholics," Román says. "Because the Catholic Church is the light of the world. And in these times that light should not be dimmed or extinguished."