A few months ago, I wrote a blog post on the availability, or lack thereof, of sacraments for the homebound, titled Have Sacraments, Will Travel. After writing that post, I searched for an appropriate image to illustrate it. I settled on a photo of two pairs of hands, both female, one pair of hands placing the Eucharist into the obviously older hands of the other. Click on the link to that post, provided in this paragraph, if you would like to see the image. When I chose it, I thought it was a lovely image of someone bringing Communion to a homebound person.
When the post was published, some readers took exception not to the post itself but to the image, expressing their conviction that offering Communion in the hand is a grave evil and that the Church ought to forbid it once and for all. Lest you think I am exaggerating about just how seriously grave some Catholics consider Communion in the hand, here is a representative comment I received in response to a question-and-answer I recently fielded (which, coincidentally, was also not on the topic of Communion in the hand).
Mother Teresa said [Communion in the hand] offends our Lord even more than abortion.
(Nota bene: There are many quotes attributed falsely to Bl. Teresa of Calcutta, and this isn’t even a direct quote. On the contrary, we do know that while Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity ordinarily receive Communion on the tongue, Mother Teresa told her sisters, “This is like the permission of the bishops given some years ago for receiving holy Communion in the hand. It is allowed, but not an order.” She also called abortion “the greatest destroyer of love and peace.”)
A throne fit for the King
Perhaps then we should review what the Church has to say about the practice of Communion in the hand. In the United States, the Norms for the Distribution and Reception of Holy Communion Under Both Kinds state:
Holy Communion under the form of bread is offered to the communicant with the words "The body of Christ." The communicant may choose whether to receive the body of Christ in the hand or on the tongue. When receiving in the hand, the communicant should be guided by the words of St. Cyril of Jerusalem: "When you approach, take care not to do so with your hand stretched out and your fingers open or apart, but rather place your left hand as a throne beneath your right, as befits one who is about to receive the King. Then receive him, taking care that nothing is lost" (41).
Clearly, the current practice for reception of Communion by the laity in the United States allows for the laity to receive Communion in the hand. It is not required though, and it is a dispensation granted from the universal norm in the Latin church that the faithful receive Communion on the tongue (cf. Redemptionis Sacramentum). In fact there are circumstances under which a priest might choose to restrict distribution of Communion to placing it on a communicant’s tongue.
Special care should be taken to ensure that the host is consumed by the communicant in the presence of the minister [of Communion], so that no one goes away carrying the eucharistic species in his hand. If there is a risk of profanation, then holy Communion should not be given in the hand to the faithful (RS 92).
There are indeed cases in which the Eucharist has been subjected to profanation because congregants did not consume Communion in the presence of the minister, an act made easier when Communion is placed in the hand. Over the years I have heard many horror stories of hosts found in pews, on the floors of churches, stuck between pages of hymnals, even found embedded in wads of discarded gum. If possible, the abuses of the Eucharist can become even more grave when Communion is taken to the homebound.
Catholics are quite rightly appalled when they hear of this profanation of our Lord’s body and blood, sacramentally present under the appearances of the consecrated bread and wine. Sometimes though, a few Catholics will extrapolate from that to the conclusions that Communion in the hand is inherently evil and that permission to receive Communion in the hand should be revoked entirely. Let’s look at both conclusions.
Is Communion in the hand inherently evil?
If reception of Communion in the hand is inherently evil—meaning an evil by its very nature—we would expect to find it always and everywhere condemned by the Church. Instead, as we saw in the norms promulgated by the U.S. bishops for distribution of Communion, Church Fathers not only did not always and everywhere condemn Communion in the hand, they even gave instruction in how to receive Communion in this fashion. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, quoted by the U.S. bishops, said (here in a different translation):
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." So then, after having carefully hallowed your eyes by the touch of the holy body, partake of it; giving heed lest you lose any portion thereof; for whatever you lose, is evidently a loss to you as it were from one of your own members (21).
In this passage, which is taken from lectures St. Cyril gave to catechumens—people who were being instructed in the faith in preparation for baptism—St. Cyril is taking for granted that Communion will be distributed in the hand. Not only that, he takes for granted that Communion in the hand can be done in a reverent fashion. Note his instruction about a communicant hallowing his eyes by touching the consecrated host to them before consuming the host—not an option the Church allows for today, but still an indication that the consecrated host not only is not profaned by being touched to the hands of anyone besides the priest but makes holy that which it touches.
A couple of centuries after St. Cyril’s time, the Church in the West had reached the conclusion that Communion on the tongue should be adopted as the normative means of receiving the host. Apparently, according to this summary of an article on the history of receiving Communion, Pope St. Gregory the Great “chastised priests who resisted that consensus, and it was [to] become an ‘almost universal practice’ in the early Church.”
Why did the normative custom shift to Communion on the tongue? “By administering Communion on the tongue, priests were able to foster greater devotion to the Eucharist; Bishop [Athanasius] Schneider [who wrote the original study summarized at the link above] remarks that that form is ‘an impressive sign of the profession of faith in the Real Presence.'”
Communion in the hand was revived as part of the liturgical reforms of the mid-20th century, in a wide-ranging effort at ressourcement, or a return to the earlier sources of the Church before the Council of Trent. One of the leading voices for ressourcement at Vatican II was, by the way, the young priest-theologian Joseph Ratzinger.
Should Communion in the hand be disallowed?
In recent years, cases of profanation of the Eucharist have led a number of Catholics, clerical and lay, to ask whether permission for Communion in the hand ought to be revoked. The summary of the historical argument for Communion on the tongue concluded with this observation:
The article published in L'Osservatore Romano [by Bishop Athanasius Schneider], and now translated in Catholic Response, summarizes the more complete argument that Bishop Schneider put forward in his book, Dominus Est. That book, released in Italy earlier this year, drew special notice for two reasons. It was published by the official Vatican press, and a preface was contributed by Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, the [then] secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship, who said it was "high time to review" the policy of allowing laymen to receive Communion in the hand.
Certainly a case can be made for revoking the permission for Communion in the hand. Profanation of the Blessed Sacrament is a grave evil, and needs to be addressed by the Church.
But a case could also be made that there is no need to abandon an ancient custom of the Latin church because there have been cases of abuse. To argue that Communion in the hand must be abandoned because some laity do not receive it in their hands in worthy fashion is not all that different from arguing that priestly celibacy must be abandoned because some priests do not keep their vow to celibate chastity.
A legitimate option
Until the Church makes its decision, one way or the other, Communion in the hand is a legitimate option, in some countries, for reception of Communion at Masses in the ordinary form of the Roman rite. So, how should we respond? Here are some suggestions.
Do not overreact. If Communion in the hand is an issue that bothers you, it is fine to make your opinion known and to argue for a return to Communion on the tongue. But if your purpose is to change hearts and minds, it is self-defeating to make outrageous claims—such as the one noted above that Communion in the hand is more offensive to our Lord than the murder of children in the womb. Keep your claims modest, and within your ability to substantiate with direct quotes from the documents of the Church.
Make an informed, but not rigid, decision. When I was being catechized in preparation for baptism, my RCIA class was taught both methods of receiving Communion. I chose to receive in the hand. A few years later, I transitioned to receiving Communion on the tongue because, in my personal opinion, I thought it to be more reverent. To this day, I generally receive Communion on the tongue. But, occasionally, when I have cold sores on or near my mouth, I receive Communion in the hand rather than force the minister of Communion to have to put his or her fingers near my mouth. There may be cases for you in which it could seem appropriate to make an occasional exception to a general rule for how you receive Communion. If so, do not scruple over making those occasional exceptions.
Avoid rash judgment. Many Catholics in the U.S. choose to receive Communion in the hand. For some, it may be how they were taught to receive Communion; for others, they may simply prefer to receive the host in their hands because the Church allows them to do so. It is uncharitable to assume that these Catholics receive Communion in the hand out of bad faith, or that they are offending God by their choice. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty . . . of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor (CCC 2477).
Regarding rash judgment, the Catechism goes on to note that:
Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another's statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved (CCC 2478).
Focus on the Lord. For the most part, how individuals receive Communion at Mass is not the concern of their fellow members of the congregation. It is the primary responsibility of the ordinary and extraordinary ministers of Communion, not of individuals in the pew.
Now, certainly, if a Catholic happens to see a host drop to the floor—or, God forbid, notices someone abscond with a host—then that Catholic has the right and obligation to inform either a minister of Communion of an immediate problem (e.g., a dropped host) or their pastor of a grave problem (e.g., theft of the Blessed Sacrament). Such circumstances, though, likely will be rare incidents for most people.
For most Catholics, most of the time, it seems to me that there is little need to pay attention to how anyone else receives Communion. Rather, if all of us resolve to mindfully focus on how we personally receive the Lord in Communion, and then offer our gratitude for that gift in interior prayer, we will not be scandalized by how others receive. And, in so doing, we may even be able to offer reparation for any profanation that does occur.
I ask everyone, especially ordained ministers and those who, after adequate preparation and in cases of genuine need, are authorized to exercise the ministry of distributing the Eucharist, to make every effort to ensure that this simple act preserves its importance as a personal encounter with the Lord Jesus in the sacrament. . . . All Christian communities are to observe the current norms faithfully, seeing in them an expression of the faith and love with which we all must regard this sublime sacrament (Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis).