The issue surfaces whenever infectious diseases garner attention, as in the case of the 49-year-old teacher who died from meningococcemia on New Year's Day. Two days earlier, she drank from a cup shared by others during Communion at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Arlington, Texas.
Public health officials said there was little chance that others were exposed to the disease.But last Sunday, 75-year-old parishoner Otila Alcala said she wasn't taking any chances. "My son requested that I lay off Communion for one month, and I agreed," she said.
Others who attend that church said they felt no need to refrain, especially after the Rev. Thomas J. Craig counseled them during Mass. "There have been no reports of illness from the cup, and there's no reason for us to withdraw it," he said. "I would ask, however, that if anyone is ill, they would refrain from taking the cup."
A few blocks away at St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church, the Rev. James Gigliotti didn't offer wine during Mass. The congregation applauded when the priest announced a one-week precautionary break. "I've had people say to me, `Wouldn't Christ protect us from germs or disease?"' he said. "That's called magical thinking. If I have a cold or whatever and I drink from the cup, there is a possibility that the germ is going to be passed on."
As a sanitary step, Communion ministers wipe the cup and turn it each time a person drinks from it. "In a church as big as this, that purificator, which is a little cloth, cannot possibly be clean by the time you get through," Gigliotti said.
Catholics and Episcopalians use a common cup, in part, because it parallels the Last Supper accounts in the Bible. During the meal, Jesus distributed bread and passed a cup saying, "This is my body" and "This is my blood."
Each denomination allows members to receive either bread or wine, but preferably both. In so doing, they believe they're receiving the body and blood of Jesus. "Whether you receive the bread or the wine, you receive the full grace of Communion," said the Rev. Frederick Philputt, vicar at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Dallas. "The blood of Christ only conveys blessing - not the flu or cancer or AIDS."
Barbara Hammack, 55, of Dallas, a member of the church, said she has never once thought she might get sick from sharing the cup. "Think about all of the centuries of diseases and all of the people who've taken Communion and how no one has ever gotten sick," she said.
Other churches use individual cups, spoons, or disposable packets that look like coffee creamers to distribute communion, some for sanitary reasons and convenience. Many of these churches embrace a less literal theological view of the Last Supper. Trailwood United Methodist Church in Grand Prairie, Texas, uses intinction - the practice of dipping a piece of bread into grape juice. (Other churches use wine.) "People in my congregation would not want to drink after one another," said the Rev. Wes Magruder. "Putting your lips and mouth on the same cup as everybody else - that would be horrific to many Methodists."
Catholics and Episcopalians have generally frowned upon intinction. Some argue that the practice increases the threat of spreading infection because of the possibility of people's fingers having contact with the liquid.
The Potter's House in Dallas uses disposable cups of grape juice. With 7,600 people at services, that method is faster. But safety is the primary reason that the individually sealed cups are used, said spokesman Shawn Paul Wood. "It has to be that way," he said. "Otherwise, there would be so many hands touching your Communion. As long as you focus on what is being taken, it doesn't matter that it's served in disposable cups."
Offering wine as well as bread at Communion was a defining issue for the 16th-century Protestant Reformers. They objected to the Catholic practice of serving only bread, which began in the 11th century and continued until the 1960s. The cup was withdrawn during the Middle Ages for theological reasons, not disease, said Dr. Martin Connell, a liturgical theologian at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn. "As the bread and wine were seen to be closer to the real flesh and blood of Jesus, the church worried about crumbs and the spillage of wine," he said.
During the 13th century, the Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas used the word "transubstantiation" to describe how bread and wine can change in substance into the "real presence of Christ" while the color, taste, and shape of bread remain. That remains the church's dominant definition.
Catholics reinstated wine as a Communion option after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). The church teaches that receiving bread and wine is a fuller expression of Communion, but that Jesus isn't any less present in bread alone. Deacon Bronson Havard, spokesman for the Dallas Diocese, said that many Catholics who refrain from Communion chalice do so out of tradition rather than fear of disease. "I have never taken the Communion wine in my life," said Karen Fuhr, 55, who attends St. Joseph Catholic Church in Richardson, Texas. "It just wasn't something that was part of my religious education."