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Holy Communion in the Hand?

by Paul Kokoski

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  • Description:
    In this essay Paul Kokoski discusses claims brought forth by Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, secretary of the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, that the practice of receiving Holy Communion in the hand — rather than kneeling and on the tongue — has led to indifference, disbelief, and sacrilegious behavior toward our Lord in the Eucharist.
  • Larger Work:
    Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  • Pages: 16 – 18 & 20 – 22
  • Publisher & Date:
    Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, November 2008

Father Regis Scanlon, who is spiritual director for Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity, has said that "the doctrine of the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is one of those wonderful truths by which Christianity shines forth as a religion of mysteries far exceeding the capacity of the human mind. The Catholic Church has defined the dogma of the real presence by stating that Jesus Christ is present whole and entire under the appearances of bread and wine following the words of consecration at the Eucharist."1

The reception of Holy Communion at Mass has always been a moment of tremendous reverence and awe, traditionally preceded by the ringing of the bells, burning of incense and observation of silence.

Sadly there are many Catholics who no longer believe in the real presence. No doubt this has been due to the toning down, and in some cases the deletion, of these and many other symbols and signs of adoration. One such sign of adoration that has been drastically toned down is the practice of receiving Holy Communion on the tongue.

This has led Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, secretary of the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, to recently suggest the policy of giving Communion in the hand be revised or "abandoned altogether."2 It is Archbishop Ranjith's belief that the introduction of this practice after Vatican II has resulted in indifference, outrages and sacrileges toward our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, causing great harm to both the Catholic Church and to individual souls.

In the preface to a new book by Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Kazakhstan, Dominus Est: Meditations of a Bishop from Central Asia on the Sacred Eucharist, Archbishop Ranjith notes that the practice of receiving Communion in the hand was not mandated by Vatican II, nor was it introduced in response to calls from the laity. Instead, he argues, the established practice of piety — receiving the Eucharist kneeling, on the tongue — was changed "improperly and hurriedly," and became widespread even before it was formally approved by the Vatican.3 In this essay I will briefly discuss Archbishop Ranjith's claims from the perspective and situation of the Catholic Church in Canada — which I suspect is essentially the same or very similar to the situation in the U.S. and in other countries where Communion in the hand was adopted.

The practice of receiving Holy Communion in the hand first began to spread in Catholic circles during the early 1960s, primarily in Holland. Shortly after Vatican II, due to the escalating abuses in certain non-English speaking countries (Holland, Belgium, France and Germany), Pope Paul VI took a survey of the world's bishops to ascertain their opinions on the subject. On May 28, 1969 the Congregation for Divine Worship issued Memoriale Domini, which concluded: "From the responses received, it is thus clear that by far the greater number of bishops feel that the present discipline [i.e., Holy Communion on the tongue] should not be changed at all, indeed that if it were changed, this would be offensive to the sensibility and spiritual appreciation of these bishops and of most of the faithful."4 After he had considered the observation and the counsel of the bishops, the Supreme Pontiff judged that the long-received manner of ministering Holy Communion to the faithful should not be changed. The Apostolic See then strongly urged bishops, priests and the laity to zealously observe this law out of concern for the common good of the Church.

Despite this statement of the Holy See, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) decided at its Plenary Assembly of November 1969 to submit a formal request to the Holy Father for permission to distribute Holy Communion in the hand. The CCCB informed its members that "the growing participation in the Eucharist, especially by sacramental communion, has created within man the desire to see re-established the venerable custom of receiving the Eucharistic Bread in their hands."5 The CCCB further advised its members that "the Pope thought it better not to change the [old] discipline for all the Church, but, rather, to study on an individual basis the requests submitted to him by national conferences of bishops."6 What Pope Paul VI actually said in Memoriale Domini, however, was "if the contrary usage, namely, of placing Holy Communion in the hand, has already developed in any place [it had not, at that point, in Canada] . . . the Holy See will weigh the individual cases with care."7

Permission for Communion in the hand was eventually granted to the Canadian bishops on several strict conditions, including that "the new manner of giving Communion must not be imposed in a way that would exclude the traditional practice."8 The Canadian bishops nonetheless advised its instructors of the new practice to provide the faithful with only the "good reasons which justify the introduction of the new rite."9 While not explicitly forbidden Communion on the tongue, the faithful — especially first communicants and converts — were "encouraged to receive the Eucharistic Bread on the flat palm of the hand."10

This movement toward adopting a new, single policy was reinforced by the removal of the Communion rail, which is compatible with receiving Communion on the tongue. For those not familiar with the Communion or altar rail, it is an architectural feature, usually made of marble or some other precious material, that separates the sanctuary from the body of the church. A clean white cloth of fine linen, which was usually fastened on the sanctuary side of the rail, would be extended over the length of the rail before those who receive Holy Communion to act as a sort of corporal to receive any particles that may by chance fall from the hands of the priest. The communicant would kneel, take the cloth in both hands and hold it under his chin.

Once the faithful were effectively forced to stand for Holy Communion11" and the practice of receiving in the hand became the norm, lay people were then invited to come up to the altar and distribute Holy Communion. Eventually and unfortunately this practice also became normalized.

One of the major arguments given for supporting the practice of receiving Holy Communion in the hand was that it "emphasizes an active personal involvement, one of the goals of liturgical renewal."12 If, however, this was one of our bishops' primary motivations behind their quest for legitimate renewal, one has to wonder why the most solemn act of kneeling at the moment of Holy Communion was considered expendable when for centuries it was employed because of its immeasurable benefit of predisposing one to holiness.

Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, has noted that kneeling is "an expression of Christian culture, which transforms the existing culture through a new and deeper knowledge and experience of God."13 He reminds us that "the word proskynein alone occurs fifty-nine times in the New Testament, twenty-four of which are in the Apocalypse, the book of the heavenly liturgy, which is presented to the Church as the standard for her own liturgy."14

In his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, the Pope speaks of a "story that comes from the sayings of the Desert Fathers, according to which the devil was compelled by God to show himself to a certain Abba Apollo. He looked black and ugly, with frightening thin limbs, but, most strikingly, he had no knees. The inability to kneel is seen as the very essence of the diabolical."15

Ironically, while the practice of kneeling is widely accepted in secular circles such as those instances when one is in the presence of state royalty or some other important dignitary, our Catholic bishops make no such stipulation when one is in the presence of God himself in the Blessed Sacrament.

Though modern liturgical theorists, designers and consultants tout the newer practice, which opposes the Communion rail and its conduciveness to receiving Holy Communion on the tongue, there has been no ecclesiastical document that has come out against the Communion rail or one that sanctions its removal from churches.

St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us, with respect to Communion in the hand, that reverence demands that only what has been consecrated should touch the Blessed Sacrament. He writes:

The dispensing of Christ's body belongs to the priest for three reasons. First, because . . . he consecrates in the person of Christ . . . Secondly, because the priest is the appointed intermediary between God and the people, hence as it belongs to him to offer the people's gifts to God, so it belongs to him to deliver the consecrated gifts to the people. Thirdly, because out of reverence toward this sacrament nothing touches it but what is consecrated, hence the corporal and the chalice are consecrated, and likewise the priest's hands, for touching this sacrament. Hence it is not lawful for anyone else to touch it, except from necessity — for instance, if it were to fall upon the ground, or else in some other case of urgency.16

Any emergency justifies that the privilege be extended to a lay person because emergencies do not imply a lack of respect for the holy body of Christ. This aside, there is no reason for receiving Communion in the hand; only an immanent spirit of paltry familiarity with our Lord.

In his apostolic letter Dominicae Cenae, Pope John Paul II also states: "How eloquent, therefore, even if not of ancient custom, is the rite of the anointing of the hands in our Latin ordination, as though precisely for these hands a special grace and power of the Holy Spirit is necessary. To touch the sacred species, and to distribute them with their own hands, is a privilege of the ordained, one which indicates an active participation in the ministry of the Eucharist."17

During the reception of Holy Communion it is Jesus who transforms us into himself, and not we who transform him into our substance. The superior being is the one to assimilate the inferior. Is not Communion on the tongue (where one receives directly from the priest in persona Christi) more expressive of this theology and hence more reverent than Communion in the hand (where one takes and gives to oneself)? One of our esteemed high-ranking clergy rejected this latter argument that Communion in the hand is equivalent to "self-communicating." He commented: "If I offer you something to eat, and you accept it in your hand, as is normal, then it is I who am giving and you who receive. Only if you were to help yourself to something in the kitchen, would you be 'taking and giving to yourself.'"18 This may sound coherent but the various bishops and bishops' conferences obviously believed otherwise when they made an appeal for the new practice on the grounds that it represented an "active personal involvement" of the laity. Implicit in this argument is the admission of there being an additional "active" step taken by the communicant during the transfer of the Sacred Host from the priest to the recipient — a step supporting the idea that Communion in the hand is a form of self-communicating. If this were not the case then there would have been no need to introduce it in the first place. In any event it would seem the introduction of this practice was unwarranted.

The "kitchen" example does, however, raise a new concern. That is exactly what happens when — during the Mass and after the consecration — a member of the laity opens the tabernacle, takes the Sacred Host and distributes it to the faithful. This practice, which is becoming more and more common, would not have been possible had it not been for the prior legitimization of the practice of receiving Holy Communion in the hand. This demonstrates how easily the practice of Communion in the hand can and in fact does open the door to all sorts of accidental and even intentional abuses.

Our bishops have argued that Communion in the hand is the proper way for the faithful to respond to our Lord's invitation: "All of you, take and eat this." What the bishops overlook is the fact that while our Lord did speak these words he issued them within the context of instituting the sacrament of holy orders. These words were addressed to the apostles and not to all Christians indiscriminately.

Arguments for Communion in the hand based upon the fact that this practice can be found among the early Christians are also not valid. Pope Pius XII spoke in very clear and unmistakable terms against the idea of re-introducing customs from the time of the catacombs. This is because customs of a previous era can assume completely new functions today. For example, many Protestants right up to the present time receive Communion in the hand as an implicit denial of the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. It is in this environment, culture and context, and not that of the early Church, that our Catholic bishops have adopted the practice. One calls to mind the longstanding principle of Catholic worship, "lex orandi, lex credendi" — let the law of prayer be governed by the law of belief. Catholics should worship in accordance with what they believe.

The practice of Communion in the hand has been detrimental to Christian unity ever since it was employed, causing divisions within the Church and confusion among those separated brethren who share with us an explicit and orthodox belief in the Holy Eucharist.

Despite the widespread practice of Communion in the hand, the universal discipline of receiving Holy Communion on the tongue has not changed. A bishop, for example, may forbid the practice of Communion in the hand but not the practice of Communion on the tongue. The Church strongly encourages the latter but not the former. With respect to the former, the Church speaks only in a cautionary tone because of the many abuses that often accompany this practice. These include the increased likelihood of dropping or stealing the Sacred Host. This unfortunately has happened in these days of revived Satanism. Consecrated hosts have been known to be sold for blasphemous uses.

Dietrich von Hildebrand asked why ultimately the Church should continue to allow Communion in the hand when "it is evidently detrimental from a pastoral viewpoint, when it certainly does not increase our reverence, and when it exposes the Eucharist to the most terrible diabolical abuses? There are really no serious arguments for Communion in the hand. But there are the most gravely serious kinds of arguments against it."19

Mother Teresa reportedly said, "Wherever I go in the whole world, the thing that makes me the saddest is watching people receive Communion in the hand."20 Father John Hardon, S.J. also proclaimed, "Behind Communion in the hand — I wish to repeat and make as plain as I can — is a weakening, a conscious, deliberate weakening of faith in the Real Presence . . . Whatever you can do to stop Communion in the hand will be blessed by God."21 Even the great Pope John Paul II reportedly said: "There is an apostolic letter on the existence of a special valid permission for this [Communion in the hand]. But I tell you that I am not in favor of this practice, nor do I recommend it."22

The abusive and hurried manner in which the practice of Communion in the hand was imposed after Vatican II lead to a widespread lack of reverence for the Eucharist and caused great pain for many in the Church. It disoriented many people, who with real justification — especially in light of the recent and overwhelming loss of faith in the Eucharist as the real presence — feared that the very heart of Catholic belief had been compromised. Further, as Communion on the tongue helps to foster a proper sense of reverence and piety, I believe it is high time this practice be returned to its former place of prominence — not only for the greater glory of God but for the salvation of souls.

End Notes

  1. Father Regis Scanlon, O.F.M., Cap., "Eucharistic Piety: A Strong Recommendation" (Theotokos, the newsletter of the Auraria Catholic Club).
  2. Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, Catholic News Agency (February 1, 2008).
  3. Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, Catholic World News (February 1, 2008).
  4. Congregation for Divine Worship, Memoriale Domini (May 28, 1969).
  5. Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, "Internal Communication Directive" (March 23, 1970), hereafter cited CCCB.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Memoriale Domini.
  8. Congregation for Divine Worship, En response a la demande ("To presidents of those conferences of bishops petitioning the indult for Communion in the hand," May 29, 1969: AAS 61 [1969] 546-547; 351-353).
  9. CCCB, ref. 628.
  10. Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Nation Bulletin on Liturgy (# 77 P. 31).
  11. The Communion rail was effective in serving as a brace for those who had trouble kneeling on their own, especially the frail, weak or elderly. Its removal not only deterred the faithful from kneeling, since one could now approach the altar rail and remain standing for Holy Communion; for those who were infirm and who wished to kneel, it made kneeling practically impossible. In some of the older churches the Communion rail physically remains but is, nonetheless, not usually used for the Novus Ordo Mass.
  12. CCCB.
  13. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), p. 185.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid., p. 193.
  16. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (III, Q. 82, Art. 3).
  17. Pope John Paul II, Dominicae Cenae, no. 11.
  18. Comment made by a member of the Pontificium Consilium ad Christianorum Unitatem Fovendam in a personal letter of December 17, 1999.
  19. Dietrich von Hildebrand, "Communion in the hand should be rejected," November 8, 1973.
  20. As reported by Father George Ruder in his 1989 Good Friday sermon at St. Agnes Church, New York.
  21. Father John Hardon, S.J., November 1, 1997, Call to Holiness Conference, Detroit, Michigan.
  22. Pope John Paul II responding to a reporter from Stimme des glaubens magazine during his visit to Fulda, Germany in November 1980.

Mr. Paul Kokoski holds a B.A. in philosophy from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. His articles have been published in several Catholic journals, including Catholic Insight and Challenge Magazine. His last article in HPR appeared in June 2008.

© Ignatius Press

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