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Saturday, 13 January 2007

Communion in the hand

In 1969, the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship issued the instruction Memoriale Domini on the manner of distributing Holy Communion. Speaking of the custom of receiving Holy Communion onto the tongue, it said:
This method of distributing holy communion must be retained, taking the present situation of the Church in the entire world into account, not merely because it has many centuries of-tradition behind it, but especially because it expresses the faithful's reverence for the Eucharist. The custom does not detract in any way from the personal dignity of those who approach this great sacrament: it is part of that preparation that is needed for the most fruitful reception of the Body of the Lord.
At the same time, in many parts of the world, especially in "Masses for special groups", there was a more or less open defiance of this instruction. As a result, Pope Paul VI gradually gave permission to one Bishops' Conference after another for the introduction of the practice of Holy Communion in the hand. Permission was granted in England on 6 March 1976. One widely used justification of the permission was that it would take away the scandal of disobedience. This did not work - people continued to be disobedient to other liturgical norms, witness the series of condemnations of liturgical abuses that have been published since then.

Some time ago, I posted about early evidence for communion on the tongue. More recently, in response to the post Dancing, Football, and Communion in the Hand, a commenter asked me what my own views were on the subject.

I believe that the introduction of Communion in the hand was a mistake and that it has contributed to the lessening of belief in the real presence and reverence for the Blessed Sacrament. I am also concerned that the risk of sacrilege is increased.

Toddlers give unerring signals of the way that Communion in the hand tends to lessen belief. Frequently, if a mother brings her toddler to the Communion rail for a blessing, the little one says "Mummy, can I have some?" Giving Communion into the hand appears to the toddler as though the priest is handing out sweeties. Putting Communion onto someone's tongue does not have the same appearance. Someone might say "Oh but the Eucharist is our food." The answer to that is found in St Justin's early description of the Mass where he said that we do not receive the Eucharist as "common food." The Last Supper was not a normal meal, it was a ritual meal and all the elements of it were special. Holy Communion is not common food and it is fitting that it is received in a special way. Communion on the tongue places that little bit more of an obstacle to the idea that we are going to "get the bread."

Communion in the hand can also lead to sacrilege. People can walk away from the altar rail (or the queue) with the sacred host in their hand and then put it in their pocket on the way back to the bench. This rarely happens in my parish now, but only because people know I take this sort of thing seriously. At school Masses, it is always a danger. Some schools post teachers on a kind of "sentry duty" to prevent it happening. Communion on the tongue would largely solve the problem. Not wholly, I know - those who are determined on sacrilege have always found ways to remove the host from their mouth secretly. But it would prevent casual sacrilege done out of ignorance or silliness.

I have also found that dropping the host is more frequent with Communion in the hand. People will put their hands into all sorts of strange formations to receive Holy Communion. If they swing their hands away, the protection of the communion-plate is circumvented.

Then there is the question of visible fragments. Just as a reminder in case anyone is unsure about this, Our Lord is present in any fragment of the host that has the appearance of bread - rule of thumb is that if it is visible to the naked eye, Our Lord is present.

Excursus: We know that there will be molecules of the Eucharistic host invisibly present all over the place - Catholic doctrine is that Christ is present under the appearances of bread and wine. If, for example, a negligent priest allowed hosts in the tabernacle to decay, Our Lord would cease to be present once the Eucharist no longer had the appearance of bread. Our Lord ceases to be present in his Eucharistic presence once the host is broken down in the digestive system - he continues to be present spiritually in the person's soul, of course.

Giving Communion on the tongue, using a communion-plate, I find that even with "sealed edge" wafers that are advertised as being crumb-free, there are usually some fragments visible on the communion-plate after giving Communion at a Sunday Mass. It is reasonable to expect that there will be fragments left behind in people's hands, then desecrated by being dropped randomly.

So what can a parish priest do? I try to reflect the canonical status of the two ways of receiving Communion. Communion on the tongue is allowed universally. Communion in the hand is permitted by indult. The two do not have equal status. So I talk to people about the care necessary when receiving Communion in the hand and then say that of course they can always receive Communion on the tongue.

In my parish, over the past two years, the children preparing for first Holy Communion are taught to receive Communion on the tongue. One girl who had been taught earlier, saw a film of Mother Teresa of Calcutta where she received Holy Communion on the tongue and then told her mother "That is how I want to receive Communion."

That lovely story gave me the courage to mention from time to time Blessed Teresa's famous statement when asked "What is the worst problem in the world today?" She could have picked any one of a number of answers. What she said was:
"Wherever I go in the whole world, the thing that makes me the saddest is watching people receive Communion in the hand."
Checking that quote, I found a very good article by Jude Huntz from the March 1997 issue of The Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Rethinking Communion in the Hand. (Instead of writing all the above, I could have just referred you to the article!)
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