If you’re at all a Vatican watcher like me then you’ll have heard something of the remarks made by Cardinal Robert Sarah this past week. Cardinal Sarah, a Guinea-born priest, is prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. The African priest, being a bit more conservatively-minded in his approach to the Liturgy, is often at odds with Pope Francis in that respect and, as a result, is often in the news.
The media love a good fight.
In the past, Cardinal Sarah has come out in favour of celebrating the Mass in its traditional Latin setting; in the priest facing ad orientem, away from the congregation during the consecration, and, recently, in his emphasis on the importance of receiving communion kneeling, on the tongue.
A Very Short History of Communion-in-the-Hand
The way Catholics receive communion, like many of the more quote-on-quote “conservative” elements of the Mass were changed, rearrange, or abandoned following the Second Vatican Council. It was, by all accounts, the spirit of the 1960’s and a time of incredible cultural change. Many well-meaning clergy and laypeople in the Catholic Church saw it as an occasion to catch up with the times. But the result of what we’ve come to call the Spirit of Vatican II was nothing short of devastating. Clergy and laypeople who saw it as a chance to modernize the Church ended up, for the most part, stripping it of its reverence, its sense of holy, and its deeper meaning.
It saddled the Church with a whole generation of Catholics who didn’t learn their faith—because it wasn’t that important and ancient liturgical practices were abandoned in favour of making the Catholic Church what evangelicals would call more “seeker sensitive.”
Making the mind-boggling rituals of the Catholic Mass more accessible to non-Catholics.
The overall goal was laudable, and honest, but the result was not entirely what Vatican II intended. It was the spirit but not the intention and where the Fathers of Vatican II saw a more open, inclusive Church where its laypeople had a more bonafide place to participate, the resulting transformation of the Mass ended up, in many cases, stripping away its most mysterious, sacred elements.
One of those elements which was already slowly eroding in the West was how Catholics received communion.
Long received, kneeling and on the tongue, Catholics had been slowly permitted to receive in the hand instead. Amongst the sweep of changes which came with Vatican II, communion in the hand, widespread today, became the norm.
Why Communion on Kneeling, on the Tongue?
So why do some prominent Catholic leaders like Cardinal Sarah, the prefect in charge of liturgical norms, insist we try celebrating Communion a different way? After all, communion in the hand is permitted. It’s perfectly fine. And, its practice can be traced to the Early Church Fathers—although its unclear how prevalent or widespread the practice was then it certainly wasn’t unheard of.
Proponents of communion kneeling and on the tongue, however, insist on its importance and its relevance to Catholics today precisely because it is so counter-cultural, because it is so shockingly reverent, and because it orients us—me and you—in exactly the right place in relation to God.
In a break-neck culture which places the greatest emphasis on self, receiving communion kneeling down and on the tongue is so entirely other. Imagine, if you will, what it would feel like to process up the aisle one Sunday morning only to kneel down in front of the priest or eucharistic minister, to fold your hands, and to stick out your tongue.
The act is entirely unexpected in a cultural which values me above all else. By kneeling down I am saying, instead, that I am very small. That I am unworthy. That I am second (or third or forth) to Christ. He is the emphasis here and I belong below. Lower, some how.
And that kind of a statement while it should be counter to the culture of the world, it should be the culture of the Church. The culture of the Church, by a large, should be a culture which says Christ is first and I am second and if kneeling down to receive communion can do any little part to remind us, to emphasis that element of our faith to our fellow Catholics—and to ourselves—then we should give it a try.
It’s Shockingly Reverent
One of the incredible draws of the Catholic Church, as an evangelical, was the high reverence which infused so many of its practices. Not least of all is the idea of bowing down, kneeling, and receiving communion on the tongue.
To kneel in front of Christ not only expresses an incredibly counter-cultural attitude—one rightly oriented in the Church—it is shockingly reverent and puts God in his right place.
How can I express my gratefulness for what God’s done for me? For forgiving my sins and stupid mistakes? For welcoming me into his Kingdom? For righting my paths and leading me on and desiring for me the best possible life I could live?
To kneel down and receive communion on the tongue recognizes the God that does all of these things and more. That I am, like I say on a Sunday morning, “unworthy that He should enter under my roof.”
It is, probably, the least we will do when we come face-to-face with our Creator. After all, we can barely even imagine all the ways in which he’s blessed us; all the times in which he’s intervened to steer us onto the right course; all of the prayers which have been answered; all of the gifts we’ve received.
If we knew, I suspect, we’d fall down onto our knees and never get back up again.
It Orients Us Exactly Where We Belong
Finally, receiving communion kneeling down and on the tongue places us exactly where we need to be.
Picture again what it would feel like to walk down the aisle of your parish church and to humbly, reverently, kneel down before the eucharistic minister or priest, to fold your hands, and to stick out your tongue. It’s not only incredibly counter-cultural and shockingly reverent but it’s crazy—am I right?—and enormously humbling.
For me, a closet introvert, the act itself would be very embarrassing and difficult to do. I know because I’ve tried, and chickened out—over and over again.
Forcing myself to stand there in front of another human being and get down onto my knees is scary.
What if I trip someone? What if I trip? What if I make the eucharistic minister awkward? What if they drop the host?
My neurotic brain goes over all of these thoughts in tandem as I make my way towards the altar and I end up losing my nerve.
It’s hard. It’s scary. And it’s so weird.
But this, I would argue, is precisely why we need to give it ago.
Because in the face of the God that loves us and saves us and gives us his actual flesh and blood to sustain us, we should feel small, it should be somewhat difficult, and we should feel just a little bit of healthy fear. No?
My going down onto my knees and being all weird and awkward provides that level of humility which I know that I need in my life—God help me—and maybe you do, too.
You Should Receive Communion Kneeling, On the Tongue
You should, I think, at least give it a try.
We all should, myself included.
So I dare you.
I dare you the next time you’re at Mass to commit to trying to receive Holy Communion by kneeling down and on the tongue.
I dare you to consider how counter-cultural the whole act of it would be—yet how perfectly in line it is with the culture of the Church. I dare you to consider how shockingly reverent the act is—what it would be like not only to recognize, intellectually, that Christ is our Maker and Saviour, but to physically acknowledge the fact too. And, I dare you to imagine how it would feel to humble yourself in front of God—to awkwardly get down onto your knees, excusing yourself of everyone around you, and then try to get back up again without making a scene—how it would feel to do something so decidedly weird and inconvenient and how that position is, probably, exactly how I need to see myself in relation to my God anyway.
I dare you.
Or, as my wife remarked when I told her I was writing this article, you could just kneel down and end up looking like a pompous, self-righteous son of a mule.