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Receptivity Fitting For The Lord by Fr. Roger J. Landry - July 11, 2008

In a June 25 interview with the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, the Papal Master of Ceremonies Msgr. Guido Marini caught the attention of the Catholic world when he announced that henceforth Pope Benedict would distribute Holy Communion only on the tongue to people who are kneeling.

He was confirming what Pope Benedict had already begun in practice. At Masses in Rome on May 22 and in Brindisi on June 15, the Holy Father had kneelers brought out during the Communion rite for all those receiving the Eucharist from him.

When asked why the Pope had decided to give Holy Communion exclusively in this way, Msgr. Marini responded, "It is necessary not to forget that the distribution of Communion on the hand continues to remain, from the juridical standpoint, an exception (indult) to the universal law, conceded by the Holy See to those bishops' conferences who have requested it. The form used by Benedict XVI attempts to underline the force of the valid norm for the entire Church." In other words, the normative way Catholics receive the Eucharist is in the mouth after or during an act of humble, loving reverence. Receiving Holy Communion on the hands is allowed as a valid option only in those countries — like the United States — that have requested and received an exception from the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship. There are some countries where communion on the tongue remains the only manner faithful receive.

Msgr. Marini added, however, that Benedict's purpose went beyond merely reminding Catholics that reception of the Eucharist on the tongue, rather than on the hand, is the Church's normative and preferred way. He said that receiving Communion on the tongue "better highlights the truth of the real presence in the Eucharist, helps the devotion of the faithful, and introduces more easily the sense of mystery — aspects which, in our times, pastorally-speaking, it is urgent to highlight and recover."

Benedict's principal motivation, therefore, is to recover a Eucharistic piety based on our Eucharistic faith, to translate the Church's amazement and adoration of the Eucharistic Lord into liturgical posture and action. While Benedict is not, at this point, publicly considering eliminating the exception to allow communion on the hands in various countries, it is clear that, out of love for the Lord, the Church, and Catholics, he has deep concerns about the effects of the practice overall on Eucharistic devotion.

He's not the first to have these concerns. It is well-known that Pope Paul VI, who made possible the indult in 1969, did so only with the greatest reluctance. He was, in fact, very much opposed to the practice, as were the vast majority of bishops in the world whom he had polled individually. Even as the most progressive liturgists around him noted at the time, he conceded the possibility of an indult only in order to veil the disobedience of bishops and priests in certain European countries who were distributing Holy Communion in the hands despite the Pope's repeated directives to curtail the practice. In the 1969 Instruction Memoriale Domini, which Paul VI authorized, the Congregation for Divine Worship described at length the many reasons in favor of retaining the practice of receiving Holy Communion only on the tongue. It stated that the Pope "strongly urges bishops, priests, and people to observe zealously this law, valid and again confirmed, according to the judgment of the majority of the Catholic episcopate, in the form which the present rite of the sacred liturgy employs, and out of concern for the common good of the Church." But then, with an undisguised reference to the disobedience in various countries as well as to the problems that disobedience had already engendered, it added, "If the contrary usage, namely, of placing Holy Communion in the hand, has already developed in any place, in order to help the episcopal conference fulfill their pastoral office in today's often difficult situation," the Apostolic See would allow them, by a two-thirds secret-ballot vote of their Episcopal Conference to request an indult. The Instruction clearly stated, however, its reservations about the practice, and said that the bishops in those countries had a special responsibility to provide "that any danger is avoided of insufficient reverence or false opinions of the Holy Eucharist arising in the minds of the faithful and that any other improprieties be carefully removed."

Likewise, Pope John Paul II publicly expressed his concerns about the practice. In a November 1980 interview with the German magazine Stimme des Glaubens, a journalist asked him, "Holy Father, what is your opinion with reference to Communion in the hand?" Pope John Paul II replied, "There is an apostolic letter on the existence of a special valid permission for this. But I tell you that I am not in favor of this practice, nor do I recommend it. The permission was granted only due to the insistence of some diocesan bishops."

Many priests and faithful have long expressed misgivings about the practice of communion in the hand. It is not that individual believers cannot receive the Lord in the hand with the same reverence and love with which they could receive him on the tongue, but that, as a whole and especially with less fervent believers, the practice of communion in the hand, rather than buttressing Eucharistic piety, diminishes it.

Historians know that in the early days of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Bucer, in order to try to eliminate the Catholic "superstition" that Christ was truly present in the Eucharist, persuaded Thomas Cranmer to institute communion in the hands through changing the rubrics in the Church of England's 1552 Book of Common Prayer. Bucer, Cranmer and other reformers did not believe they could extirpate belief in Christ's real presence as long as people continued to kneel and receive Holy Communion on the tongue. The body language of adoration, Centurion-like humility, and child-like receptivity involved in kneeling to receive on the tongue would reinforce that they must be consuming something more than blessed bread.

The body language involved in receiving communion on the hands, they knew, is different. Kneeling is a sign of adoration; standing is often a sign of respect, but not worship. Receiving food from another in the mouth occurs when we're children (and we are beloved children of God), or sick (like those needing the Divine Physician to give them the "medicine of immortality") or happily married (like a groom's giving his bride wedding cake, and we are the Bride of Christ receiving within the Bridegroom in the consummation of our nuptial union). In most circumstances feeding ourselves with our hands is considered bad manners, or at least informal.

Priests, deacons and extraordinary ministers, while they have certainly seen many communicants piously receive the Lord on the hands, also regularly see much else: how people rarely make the required external sign of reverence before receiving; how few make a throne with their hands to receive the Lord, even after decades of catechesis, and how many rather try to receive with dirty hands, gloves, casts, sleeve-covered fingers, or with their fingers in the form of tweezers; how some people begin to walk away without ingesting the Lord; and how easy communion in the hands makes it for those who wish to steal a host for sacrilegious purposes, like black masses. They also note the profound practical inconsistency between their piously purifying their fingers and vessels of any Eucharistic particles while there is no similar practice for those who receive such particles along with sacred hosts in their hands.

The question that needs to be asked, after four decades of the indult for communion on the hands, is whether the practice has strengthened Eucharistic piety based on belief in Christ's real presence or whether Paul VI's initial concerns have proven valid. Surveys show that there are many Catholics who do not believe in the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. While the causes for this lack of faith certainly go beyond the practice of communion in the hand, it must be asked whether communion in the hand exacerbates or mitigates the crisis.

In the early Church, the practice of Communion in the hands was widespread, especially during the times of persecution. Eventually, however, the leaders of the Church saw that such a practice was inconsistent with fostering true devotion to the Eucharistic Lord overall and gradually eliminated it.

By setting the example of changing the way he gives Holy Communion at the papal Masses, Pope Benedict seems to be urging his fellow Catholic bishops, priests and Catholic faithful to make a similar examination at a personal level and for the good of the Church as a whole.

Father Roger J. Landry is pastor of St. Anthony of Padua in New Bedford, MA and Executive Editor of The Anchor, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River.