by Rev. Paul J. McDonald
First Let’s Consider the Case For Receiving Holy Communion in the Hand
The history of Communion in the hand is often presented in certain quarters as follows: From the Last Supper on, Holy Communion was, as the norm, continually given in the hand. So it was during the age of the martyrs. And it continued to be so during that golden age of the Fathers and of the liturgy after the peace of Constantine in 313 A.D. And it continued to be the common practice until at least the tenth century.Thus for over half of the life of the Church it was the norm.
An argument for the above is held to be found in a text of St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s fifth Mystagogic Catechesis (21f), which he preached to neophytes in 348 A.D., in which he counsels the faithful to “place your left hand as the throne of your right one, which is to receive the King [in Holy Communion]” (apudL’Osservatore Romano. English edition of June 14, 1973, p. 6). This Father of the Church further counsels great care for any Fragments which might remain on one’s hands.
According to some critics’ version of history, popular in certain quarters, Communion on the tongue became the universal norm in this way: During the Middle Ages certain distortions in the faith and/or in approaches to it gradually developed. These included an excessive fear of God and an over-concern about sin, judgment and punishment, as well as an over-emphasis on Christ’s divinity– so emphasized as to down-play His sacred humanity or virtually deny it; also an over-emphasis on the priest’s role in the sacred liturgy, and a loss of the sense of the community which the Church, in fact, is. In particular, because of excessive emphasis on adoring Christ in the Holy Eucharist and an over-strict approach to moral matters, Holy Communion became more and more rare. It was considered enough to gaze upon the Sacred Host during the elevation. (In fact, in certain critics’ minds the elevation, exposition and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament find their origins during the ‘unfortunate’ Middle Ages, a period whose liturgical practices we would do well– so they think– to rid ourselves of.) It was in this atmosphere and under these circumstances, they argue, that the practice of Communion in the hand began to be restricted. The practice of the priest placing the consecrated Bread directly into the mouth of the communicant thus developed and, they think, was unwisely imposed.
The conclusion is rather clear: We should get rid of this custom. We should forbid or at least discourage the Communion on the tongue practice whereby the faithful are not allowed to “take and eat,” and should return to the pristine usage of the Fathers and Apostles, namely, Communion in the hand.
It is a compelling story. It is too bad that it is not true.
Now Let’s Consider the Case For Receiving
Holy Communion in the Tongue
The practice of Communion in the hand was first introduced in Belgium by Cardinal Suenens in disobedience to the rubrics of the Holy See. Not wishing to publicly rebuke a brother bishop, Pope Paul VI decided to lift the ban prohibiting Communion in the hand, leaving the decision to individual bishops. The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, then president of the United States NCCB, initiated two unsuccessful attempts to introduce Communion in the hand in 1975 and 1976. In the spring of 1977, the bishops’ vote again fell short of the required two-thirds majority. Nevertheless, for the first time ever bishops in absentia were polled by mail after the conference meeting; subsequently the necessary votes materialized and the measure was declared passed. Several canon lawyers have stated categorically that this procedure was illegal. An interview with Bishop Blanchette in the National Catholic Register (June 12, 1977) confirms that Communion in the hand was unlawfully introduced into the United States. Fr. John Hardon likewise has affirmed the fact that retired and dying bishops were polled to make sure the measure for Communion in the hand would be passed.
But let’s view it’s origins …
The sacred Council of Trent declared that the custom whereby only the priest-celebrant gives Communion to himself (with his own hands), and the laity receive It from him, is an Apostolic tradition. (1)
A more rigorous study of available evidence from Church history and from writings of the Fathers does not support the assertion that Communion in the hand was a universal practice which was gradually supplanted and eventually replaced by the practice of Communion on the tongue. Rather, facts seem to point to a different conclusion: Pope St. Leo the Great (440-461) is an early witness of the traditional practice. In his comments on the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel he speaks of Communion in the mouth as the current usage: “One receives in the mouth what one believes by faith.” (2) The Pope does not speak as if he were introducing a novelty, but as if this were a well established thing.
A century and a half later Pope St. Gregory the Great (died in 604) is another witness. In his dialogues he relates how Pope St. Agapitus performed a miracle during Mass, after having placed the Body of the Lord into someone’s mouth.
We are not claiming that under no circumstances whatever did the faithful receive by their own hands. But under what conditions did this happen? It does seem that from very early times on, it was usual for the priest to place the Sacred Host into the mouth of the communicant. However, during times of persecution, when priests were not readily available, and when the faithful took the Sacrament to their homes, they gave Communion to themselves by their own hand. Rather than be totally deprived of the Bread of Life, they could receive by their own hand. The same applied to monks who had gone out into the desert, where they would not have the services of a priest and would not want to give up the practice of daily holy Communion. St. Basil the Great (330-379) indicates that receiving of Communion by one’s own hand was permitted precisely because of persecution, or, as was the case with monks in the desert, when no deacon or priest was available to give It. (3)
In his article on “Communion” in the Dictionaire d’Archeologiae Chretienne, Leclerq declares that the peace of Constantine in 313 A.D. served toward bringing the practice of Communion in the hand to an end. After persecution had ceased, evidently the practice of Communion in the hand persisted here and there. Church authority apparently judged that it invited abuse and deemed it contrary to the custom of the Apostles.
Thus the Synod of Rouen, France, in about 878 directed: “Do not put the Eucharist in the hands of any layman or laywomen, but only in their mouths” (“nulli autem laico aut feminae eucharistiam in manibus ponat, sed tantum in os eius”). (4) A non-ecumenical Council of Constantinople known as “In Trullo” in 692 A.D. prohibited the faithful from giving Communion to themselves (which is of course what happens when the Sacred Particle is placed in the hand of communicants), and decreed a censure against those who would do so in the presence of a bishop, priest or deacon.
Promoters of Communion in the hand generally make little mention of the evidence we have brought forward, but do make constant use of the text attributed above to St. Cyril of Jerusalem, who lived in the fourth century at the time of St. Basil. But scholars dispute the authenticity of the St. Cyril text, according to Jungmann-Brunner, op. cit., p. 191, n.25. It is not impossible that the text is really the work of the Patriarch John, who succeeded Cyril in Jerusalem. This John was of suspect orthodoxy, as we know from the correspondence of St. Epiphanius, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine.
But is it not a form of clericalism to allow the priest to touch the Sacred Host and to forbid the laity to do the same? But even priests were not allowed to touch the Blessed Sacrament except out of some need to do so. In fact, other than the celebrant of the Mass itself, no one else receiving Communion, not even a priest, could receive It in the hand. And so, in the traditional liturgical practice of the Roman Rite, if a priest were assisting at Mass (and not celebrating) and if he wished to receive Holy Communion, he did not do so by his own hand; he received on the tongue from another priest. The same would be true of a Bishop or even a Pope. When Pope St. Pius X was on his deathbed in August of 1914, and Holy Communion was brought to him as Viaticum, he did not and was not allowed to receive in the hand. He received on the tongue according to the law and practice of the Catholic Church.
“Receiving Communion On The Tongue;
An Invitation For Greater Reverence!”
This confirms a basic point: Out of reverence it seems better that there be no unnecessary touching of the Sacred Host. Obviously someone is needed to distribute the Bread of Life. But it is not needful to make each man, woman and child into his own ‘eucharistic minister’ and multiply the handling and fumbling and danger of dropping and loss of Fragments. Even those whose hands have been specially consecrated to touch the Most Holy Eucharist, namely the priests, should not do so needlessly.
As for the present situation, in those countries where the indult for Communion in the hand has been granted by the Holy See, an individual bishop may forbid the practice; but no Bishop has authority to forbid the traditional way of receiving Our Lord on the tongue.
But surely the Apostles received Communion in the hand at the Last Supper? It is usually presumed that this was so. Even if it were, though, we would point out that the Apostles were themselves priests, or even Bishops. But we must not forget a traditional custom of middle-eastern hospitality which was in practice in Jesus’ time and which is still the case; that is, one feeds his guests with one’s own hand, placing a symbolic morsel in the mouth of the guest. And we have this text of St. John’s Gospel (13:26-30): “Jesus answered, ‘It is he to whom I shall give this Morsel when I have dipped It.’ So when He had dipped the Morsel, He gave It to Judas… So, after receiving the Morsel, he [Judas] immediately went out…”
Did Our Lord place this wet Morsel into Judas’ hand? That would be rather messy. Did He not perhaps extend to the one whom He addressed later in the garden as “friend” the gesture of hospitality spoken of above? And if so, why not with Holy Communion, “giving Himself by His own Hand”?
Communion in the Hand vs Communion in the Tongue Reference Sheet
Fr. Paul McDonald, Pastor, St. Patrick’s Church
Blogger Note: All headlines and emphasis are my own. Thanks Father for permitting me to publish this article.
By Their Fruits … Discerning Whether To Receive Communion In The Tongue vs. In The Mouth
When discerning rather to receive Holy Communion in the tongue or in the hand its always best to discern the fruits of the Holy Spirit. It much more simple than one would imagine especially when discerning something with a 40+ year track record. First of all it is not a sacrilege to receive Communion in the Hand, to say so is an act of disobedience towards Rome and our local bishops. Obviously disobedience is not one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, but it doesn’t mean that both methods are equal.
To help your discernment, here are some simple questions comparing today’s Catholic to pre-Vatican II Catholics. Let’s make the assumption of comparing today’s average Catholic with pre-Vatican II average Catholic.
- Are people more or less reverent before, during and after Mass?
- Which generation had a stronger prayer life?
- Is the Eucharist the source and summit of the community life?
- Does the body display more or less of a posture of reverence? i.e. kneeling, genuflecting properly, hands folded during prayer, beach attire, etc…
- How casual is our relationship with our Creator?
- Do you get the picture? Pretty simple stuff when you look at it.
There is a decision here to be made. Are you willing to take the next step? Receiving Holy Communion on The Hand vs. Receiving Holy Communion on The Tongue, You Make the Call!
Let’s have it. What are your comments? We won’t know unless you leave one.