As a priest and as a pastor, I am asked, not infrequently, what I think about widespread practice of receiving Holy Communion on the hand. To younger Catholics this might seem like a bit of a non-question. For many of us who have grown up in the English Church within the last forty years our only experience of receiving Holy Communion has been in the hand.
There is, it would seem, much debate and controversy surrounding the practice of receiving Holy Communion in the hand. Just five minutes on the internet will expose anyone who wishes, to view the strongly held and divided views that exist on this issue. The most recent video images that appeared on my Facebook feed from Newman’s canonisation in Rome (Deo Gratias!) showed stewards reminding priests to give Holy Communion on the tongue only. The argument accompanying the feed went along the lines: well this is what Rome is insisting on now, so this is what we should all do. As I understand it, however, the practice of only ministering Holy Communion on the tongue at Vatican Masses has been tightened up on recently to help prevent tourists treating the Host as a souvenir from Rome, and in outdoor Masses particularly, it also prevents the Host blowing away. (Incidentally, I have ministered Holy Communion in St Peter’s at two Masses celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI and a prohibition of Communion on the Hand was not mentioned, indeed most people received in the hand)
As I understand it, the main thrust of the argument against the practice of receiving Holy Communion in the hand is that it emerged via the ‘back door’ as it were, after Vatican II. The argument runs that it was not really something that was in the mind of the Church. I find all of this, however, a bit of a red herring. It’s a non-argument because Church teaching and discipline emerges organically and in many instances the practice of the faithful is constituting factor. However which way it occurred the fact remains that receiving Holy Communion in the hand is licit, and it is normative in large parts of the Catholic Church. The personal opinions of individuals whether they be Cardinals, clerics or laypeople do not change the fact that it is licit to receive Holy Communion in the hand.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, (GIRM) is the go-to document if we want to know how to celebrate a proper, noble and licit celebration of the Holy Eucharist. The GIRM is promulgated by the Holy See, and read alongside the Code of Canon Law, gives us the Church’s liturgical laws and norms. The GIRM also may have documents prepared by the local bishop’s conference. In our own country ‘Celebrating the Mass’ (CTM) is the document which interprets the GIRM for the territory of England and Wales. The GIRM states that ‘the consecrated host may be received on the tongue or in the hand, at the discretion of each communicant.’ This is reiterated in the English and Welsh Bishops document ‘the conference of Bishops allows the reception of the Body of the Lord in the hand. However, the choice whether to receive in this manner is the prerogative of the communicant.’ (see GIRM 160 and CTM 211)
As a Catholic and as a priest I believe firmly and truly that the Holy Spirit animates the Church and preserves the Church from teaching moral and doctrinal error. I believe that the Bishops in communion with the Pope are successor to the Apostles and are the authentic teachers of the faith. I have faith and confidence, therefore, that what is taught by them, is put simply, legit! Opinions on these issues, including my own, whether they be from good Catholics or bad, lay or cleric, right-wing or left-wing do not enjoy the authority and reliability of Church teaching which is promulgated through her Bishops in communion with the Pope.
So, when I’m asked, ‘what do I think about Communion in the hand?’ my first answer is that it is a legitimate way to receive Holy Communion. To be clear, this does not mean that I am against receiving or giving Holy Communion on the tongue, far from it. I find administering Holy communion on the tongue, and to people kneeling, a deeply moving experience. When people are reverent towards Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, actually, truly and tangibly present in the Eucharistic species I am delighted, and I am moved. Few things pain me more as a priest than the complete lack of awareness and irreverence shown to the Mass and to the reception of Holy Communion in general. When I think of the saints and martyrs and those who gave their lives for their faith, and when I think of our brothers and sisters across the globe who are persecuted and cannot receive the Eucharist or get to Mass as we frequently do, I am deeply disturbed at the cavalier attitude with which many people seem to approach the holy of holies. In some cases and in some parishes, it may well be that kneeling at altar rails for Communion (whether receiving on the tongue or in the hand) could be a good way to restore a sense of the sacred to what is the most sacred of all acts. Nevertheless, I would hesitate to say that this should be the case in all parishes.
What is more at issue here, however, is how Holy communion is received in the heart. Whether Holy Communion is received on the tongue or in the hand is not the real issue, the real issue is whether it is received with reverence and humility. In some cases, this can be helped by receiving on the tongue, but not always. Receiving on the tongue can become just as mechanised as any other human activity unless the heart and mind is truly engaged. How receive Holy Communion in our heart is the most important thing.
I maintain, however, that receiving Holy Communion on the hand (kneeling or standing) can be a good thing, and it’s a good thing principally because it says something powerful about the nature of the Mass itself.
The Mass is both a Sacrifice and a Meal, it is at once the same sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and it is the paschal banquet instituted by Christ at the Last supper. It is not a sacrifice only nor is it a meal only. These two intrinsic dimensions, meal and sacrifice, therefore, must find expression in our celebration of the liturgy. The altar itself expresses these two profound realities. As an altar it is a place of sacrifice, but furnished with cloth, candles and gathered around it is also the Table of the Lord.
I would argue, however, that during the post Tridentine period, the dominant image of the Mass (up until Vatican II) was the Mass as the Holy Sacrifice. This of course was not wrong; the Mass is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices because it is Jesus’s sacrifice. The problem, however, was that the meal and banquet dimension to the Eucharist was obscured and thus overlooked. One of the major strengths of the revised Roman Rite (Ordinary Form of the Mass) is that it keeps both the sacrifice and meal dimension of the Eucharist in a healthy balance. One of the ways the meal dimension has been restored is with the strong encouragement for the faithful to receive Holy Communion under the form of consecrated bread and from the chalice. The catechism reminds us that ‘the sign of Communion is more complete when given under both kinds, since in that form the sign of the Eucharistic meal appears more clearly.’ (CCC 1390)
I would argue, then, that the reception of Holy Communion in the hand is a further helpful expression of the meal dimension of the Eucharist where we are fed with Jesus as spiritual food and bread from heaven. Furthermore, it should be noted, that there is not any record in scripture of Christ placing the host on the tongue of his disciples, rather he ‘gave it’ to them and, since they were at a meal, one assumes they took it and ate it, in their hands!
To be clear this does not mean that receiving Holy Communion on the tongue is wrong, rather Communion on the tongue (especially when kneeling) can be an image of kneeling at the foot of Cross and receiving from the side of Christ his very life, as it is poured out into us. Receiving Communion on the hand expresses more clearly being seated around the Master in the upper room and sharing in an intimate meal. Both are correct, both are powerful images, and when both occur at the same celebration, I would argue that they more effectively communicate the essential and profound truth: that the Eucharist is both a Sacrifice and a Meal.
Church practices are not monolithic but develop over time, it’s too easy for us with our limited and Western view of the Church to assume that what we do must be the only way to do things and thus it is universally valid. St Cyril of Jerusalem, reminds that receiving Communion on the tongue cannot have been always universally practised:
In approaching therefore, come not with your wrists extended, or your fingers spread; but make your left hand a throne for the right, as for that which is to receive a King. And having hollowed your palm, receive the Body of Christ, saying over it, Amen.
(Catechetical lecture 23, par 21. This translation: New Advent)
Whatever way one receives Holy Communion, I believe, the most important thing is that we are properly disposed and receive with the right intention and due reverence. The Church currently allows for Holy Communion on the hand, if this discipline changes then, as a son of the Church I would enthusiastically teach the new discipline. If it did, however, we would have to find other ways to communicate the important teaching that the Eucharist is both a sacrifice and a meal.