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Communion-in-the-Hand: An Historical View, from Aquinas Multimedia, May-June 1996 issue

If you are among the many who have wondered over the past decade just how the practice of communion-in-the-hand originated and for what reasons, the following provides a concise history as well as a brief look into what has resulted from the institution of this curious practice.

The History

The practice of communion-in-the-hand was "first introduced in Belgium by Cardinal Suenans, in flagrant disobedience to the rubrics given by the Holy See. Not wishing to publicly reprove a brother bishop, Paul VI decided to lift the ban prohibiting Holy Communion in the hand, leaving the decision to individual bishops" (Von Hildebrand, The Latin Mass Society, Nov 1995).

In 1969, Pope Paul VI polled the bishops of the world on the question of communion-in-the-hand and subsequently proclaimed that, while there was no consensus for the practice worldwide, in those areas where a different practice prevails it may be introduced by a two-thirds vote of the bishops (of each conference).

In 1976 Call to Action, an influential group of Catholic dissenters (recently condemned in Nebraska by Bishop Bruskewitz), added to their agenda the promotion of communion-in-the-hand. Other publicly-dissenting Catholic groups, already holding wildly disobedient do-it-yourself liturgies, also actively promoted it. Outside these circles of dissent, however, the practice of receiving the Blessed Sacrament in one's hand was rare. In truth, only a handful of self-styled "progressive" parishes had disobediently introduced the practice and the only demand for it came from dissenting clergymen and chancery apparatchiks.

Despite the fact that communion-in-the-hand could hardly be considered a prevailing practice in the United States, the Archbishop of Cincinnati, Joseph Bernardin, then president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), initiated two unsuccessful attempts to introduce the practice in 1975 and 1976, stating that communion-in-the-hand had become universally popular as a natural expression of the pious sentiments of the faithful

In the Spring of 1977 at Archbishop Bernardin's last meeting as president of the NCCB and with San Francisco's Archbishop Quinn acting as the chief designated lobbyist for communion-in-the-hand, the bishops' vote again fell short of the necessary 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. Soon thereafter the practice of communion-in-the-hand spread rapidly throughout the country, and in a few years the new practice became normative amongst American parishes.

The Results

Frequently it is said that those who place any importance on how the Blessed Sacrament is received are no better than the biblical Pharisees who focused upon the externals of faith rather than the internals. For the Pharisees the external replaced the internal, but it does not follow that the lack of external reverence today can be divorced from the internal disposition of the faithful.

The consequences of introducing this practice are far-reaching, and one need only look to the parish Mass for proof. Not the least of these consequences is the common lack of respect shown for the Blessed Sacrament. Only with the belief that the Holy Eucharist is not supernatural, can this practice of communion-in-the-hand not matter. Since it is truly the most extraordinary substance on earth, surely our comportment should reflect that? Surely our faith in the Holy Eucharist, which deserves our greatest reverence, should reflect into our actions in actually receiving the sacrament?

Alas, it is not so! Communion-in-the-hand weakens faith in the Real Presence. The consequences are profound. May we make up in our love of the Eucharist for all the outrages and indifference which now surround Our Lord’s magnificent gift to us.

6. Rome