Holy Communion in the Hand: The True Story


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.

  1. Are people more or less reverent before, during and after Mass?
  2. Which generation had a stronger prayer life?
  3. Is the Eucharist the source and summit of the community life?
  4. Does the body display more or less of a posture of reverence? i.e. kneeling, genuflecting properly, hands folded during prayer, beach attire, etc…
  5. How casual is our relationship with our Creator?
  6. 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.


31 Responses to Holy Communion in the Hand: The True Story

  1. Mary Smith says:

    Being raised to receive Communion in hand…I viewed on the tongue as being unsanitary, a broach of my personal space, an intimate action..and there was no way that I would consider allowing a mere priest to invade my space.

    BUT…finally learning and loving the Lord has changed my acceptance of the most Holy presence of the Lord on my tongue. The priest is my vehicle to finding and cherishing the Lord at the time of receiving the eucharist.

    ..Please Lord, let me be vulnerable to your most holy love…let me be pure and innocent to accept your precious body, for I am your poor, disobedient, but loving child.


  2. Greg Wagner says:

    I began the practice of recieving on the tongue about two years ago. There were a few others in our parish who did likewise. About 2 months ago, our pastor gave a homily, quoting from St Cyril of Jerusalem, as a reason to “not” receive on the tongue.

    I continue to receive on the tongue (as I believe it is much more reverent) in other parishes where I attend Mass, but out of respect for our pastor, I receive in the hand.

  3. Mary Smith says:

    Why would a priest have an opinion??

    And do priests “frown” on those who genuflect before receiving communion?

    And do priests genuflect before the tabernacle?


  4. Susie says:

    WHEW! I was scared reading the first few lines and paragraphs, so thanks for clearing that up soon! 🙂 I receive on the tongue as of about 1 year ago. I am humbled and do believe it is more reverent, too. Plus not the chance that the precious Host can be taken out of the sanctuary and abused and desecrated.

  5. Juliana says:

    I began asking the Lord what He wanted. Sometimes it was in the hand, sometimes on the tongue, but I realized I was focusing too much on HOW to receive it than receiving Our Lord. The last few days I have been receiving on the tongue because I don’t want to desecrate a single crumb in my hand. I am receiving the full host in my mouth.

  6. Owen says:

    An excellent and very timely article for me. A related if more anecdotal post is presently on my blog here: <a href=”http://onionboy.typepad.com/luminousmiseries/2008/07/lessons-on-the.html#comment-124167750″Lessons on the tongue It was in the comments of that post that a friend referred me to this post. If you choose to read the post please read all of it and the few but meaningful accompanying comments. ::thrive! O

  7. Owen says:

    Apology for the broken html in the link above. Let’s try that again

  8. Pat says:

    I grew up at the time that we were only allowed to receive on the tongue. I know receive by hand and I don’t feel that it is less holy for receiving that way. I am still receiving my beloved savior.

  9. Audrey says:

    Over the last couple of years a new priest to our parish has gone about implementing his own understanding and agenda having to do with postures and the GIRM. Our parish is so fractured now and he has insulted and bullied a number of people. I am the cantor and recently at Mass was the last to receive ( which is usual ), I genuflected, as I always do and was greeted with “Body of Christ – DON’T DO THAT” I was so upset that he would desecrate the reception of Our Lord – I almost broke down. I had a meditation song to sing and for a moment thought “I can’t do this, I’m too upset!” But I offered the whole situation up to God and asked for Him to give me strength to praise Him properly and joyfully. Since then, I have been looking for up to date information on whether I can be told not to genuflect – or better yet – something that shows that I CAN genuflect before receiving Our Lord. I usually do so one or two persons before I receive. HELP!

  10. Mike says:

    There is a fantastic book, an interview with Maria Simma called “Get Us Out of Here”, containing comments from the Holy Souls who use to visit Simma on a regular basis. It seems the Holy Souls have a lot to say about communion in the hand versus on the tongue. The book is frank, fair and candid about what the Holy Souls’ thoughts are on many issues. It is an inspirational and educational read.

  11. Jay says:

    Whether someone receives on the tongue or the hand, it is the same Lord who enters their body and soul. The Eucharistic grace we receive comes from the One we are receiving, not from the manner in which we choose to receive Him.

  12. vincent says:

    I think that whoever has started the movement of communion in the hand and Eucharistic Ministers are the SATANS OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH. I THINK A DAY SHOULD COME WHEN ONE OF THEIR HANDS SHOULD BE PARALYSED.

  13. Brenda says:

    I have always received Holy Communion on my tongue since my first Communion in 1963 I was just a month from my sixth birthday.Nowadays I feel awkard going to receive because of all this about Communion in the hand,when one is brought up not to touch the Host with one’s hand it is hardIf we are meant to take the Host in our hand why don’t they bless every child hands on their first Communion Day.I hope they never ban us from taking the Host on our tongue,I was told Pope Benedict XVI would prefer for his flock to receive the Host on their tongues,is this true?

  14. mercyknight says:

    Yes, Brenda … along with all of our popes, including Paul VI and John Paul II, our Holy Father would like to see the faithful receive Communion on the tongue.

  15. Paul Hughes says:

    I think that there is one point that must be presented that I often do not see.

    This is that there is difference between the allowance to receive in the hand versus the actual way it is done.

    While nobody can make a case – by saying that when a layperson touches the Blessed Sacrament that it is intrinsically evil and that therefore the act is wrong.

    However the question need’s to be asked is the way that people receive wrong? Well in the majority of times a case can be made that people do receive in a way that causes the loss of fragments of the Blessed sacrament which is therefore wrong.

    Redemptionis Sacramentun does actually state that where there is such risk of profanation that this method of Cith is to be forbidde. The case is that every parish in the world falls under this prohibition.


  16. Ronald S. Wolfe says:

    Two women were given the vision that in the Last Supper Jesus put pieces of bread, His Body, right into the Apostles’ mouths. One of them, i think, was Maria Simma. (Notice that in many cases, visions, locutions and the like were granted to humble, simple persons or children, not necessarily to the princes of the Hierarchy). It was told that this was customary then for a host to honor his guests at meals. I saw such in Chinese television on an ethnic program, except that in this case the host used chopsticks to put food into his guests’ mouths. This may be the basis for communion in the mouth / on the tongue.

  17. nikos emmanuel maria says:

    What is important for me is the good inner disposition before receiving this August Sacrament..but I would say: for convenience–in the hand..for reverence–on the tongue!

  18. Irvin Kloska says:

    Consider this please. The priest hands were consecrated for a reason. My hands have not been consecrated. When receiving in the hand the tiniest particle remains in the hand after placing the host in your mouth. We subsequently fold our hands and as we do those small particles fall on the floor and we step on Jesus. We must show great reverence for the Jesus that died for us. Pope John Paul II would never give you Communion in the hand. Help us to recover that great reverence for the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.

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  22. Our Blessed Virgin Mary Our Mother ..Once I read about HER pledge to us to receive Our Lord Jesus by out tongue.. Our Lord does exist in the SACRAMENT OF EUCHARIST.. So right now I am practicing mine on tongue. Why did peoples keep on talking about this anyway? It is clear that we should receive our HOLY HOST in the state of GRACE right???. It’s clear we should be clean so that we won’t HURT OUR LORD just like the PARISEE does. I prefer to have mine handed directly from the ANOINTED HAND without land first in my filthy hand.. full of sins .. than feed it in my mouth. OHHHH NOOOOO…. NEVER!!!! in my lives would I like to do that again… I hope I can have mine feed by the Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

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  24. Oreste Manno says:

    Communion in hand is a sacrilege. The Virgin Mary says to receive it on the tongue because the hands are not consecrated(Holy). She says the way to receive the Host is kneeling and on the tongue. If non-consecrated hands touch the Host it is sacrilegious and she says The Lord will account you for your behavior.

  25. Gabriel Sorzano says:

    The church is not divine, it is an association of men to worship God. Believing the Church divine is idolatry. How you take communion is of no importance, trying to make other people do what you like with no reason lacks charity, that really disrespects God.

  26. […] that he did not hesitate to consider it a grave fault.” (And see, similarly, here, here, here, and so […]

  27. tiza says:

    It is an act of mercy and infinite love from Our Lord to permit His Most pure Body be even received on the imperfect tongues of sinful men. It is the least form of reverence so to speak, that we mortals can express by allowing the priest to administer holy communion on the tongue and not in the hand. Objection to this equates a form of pride and disobedience and therefore the wrath of God is incurred.

  28. Michael Foster says:

    This topic drives me crazy and I can’t personally work out what I should be doing. I know communion on the tongue was the common way I grew up with till the altar rails were dispensed with and people stood up and received communion in the hand.

    I followed suite and received communion in the hand which never lessened my love for Jesus in the sacrament. Lately I have been feeling guilty and thinking I am offending the Lord by my reception of the Eucharist in the hand purely based on all these videos and topics of Catholics saying it is basically evil that is behind it.

    I went back along time back to reception on the tongue and felt that this must be pleasing to the Lord however whilst watching ninety nine percent of my congregation receiving communion in the hand.
    I could not believe that all these people were committing some act that Satan was behind this, this did not make any sense to me at all and still doesn’t.

    Before I woke this morning out of nowhere I had a dream that lasted only seconds, I saw people lining up for communion when out of nowhere everyone knelt down and altar rail appeared.

    I took this to mean reception of communion for me the Lord is asking of me is the way I first received communion on the tongue .
    Though it is clear communion in the hand is not wrong because the Popes who act on behalf of Christ with the keys of St.Peter have permitted the faithful to act this way.

    My dilemma is this I personally prefer the reception of communion in the hand because nearly everyone does it this way.

    Reception on the tongue I personally feel more uncomfortable with this practice also because my congregation the people do not do this.

    My dream however makes me feel the Lord personally wants me to receive communion on the tongue even though this is not my will but his.

    I am pretty confused, however if I do receive communion on the tongue I have no guilt in receiving the host in this fashion I just personally don’t like doing it but when I receive communion in the hand I feel that perhaps I am offending Christ. Though I prefer this option.

  29. Chris says:

    A practicing catholic cannot consecrate the Holy Eucharist and wine unless they are an ordained priest so what have they the right to receive the sacraments by hand. If the priest accidentally drop the host to the floor only a priest ant not a practicing catholic can gather it up from the floor. Therefore it is not okay to receive communion in the hand. Period!!!!

  30. Orin new Mays says:

    I read on line that Jesus made 17 promises to those who would always receive Him on the tongue to Catalina Rivas in the book Passion”. I got the book but cannot find in it where he made the promises.

  31. Peter Munns says:

    A very good blog, but did’nt our blessed Mother say that it grieves her when people recieve on the hand?.
    Also St Johns gospel is very compelling that we should recieve on the tongue,as its not rocket science, the Priests hands are consecrated, why bother with specially blest Eucharistic ministers, when people recieving in the hand not so.

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