The Reception of Communion
The Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist is among the greatest teachings of the Magisterium and is fundamental to all Catholic beliefs. The Eucharist is a practice and belief that Catholics have maintained as truth through the Tradition handed down by the Apostles, through Scriptural references, and through the authoritative Magisterium. It has been held since the time of the Apostles that the Eucharist is the real presence of Jesus Christ made present through the consecrated hands of the priest who is acting in persona Christi. The Person of Christ is made present to the faithful in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as instructed by Christ Himself. This profound reality prompts those in attendance at the Sacrifice of the Mass to act in a manner becoming of those in the presence of the Lord; which is nothing short of fervent reverence. Indeed, even those who are not in attendance but aware of the Presence nearby should observe silence out of respect, just as Catholics cross themselves as they pass a church in which they know the Blessed Sacrament resides. It is for this reason that Catholics bless themselves with holy water upon entering a Catholic Church and it is why they genuflect before the tabernacle. In keeping with this profound sense of reverence towards the Eucharist, Catholics should receive the sacred species on the tongue rather than continue the practice of receiving communion in the hand.
Reception of communion in the hand is a misnomer, since the reception of the sacrament actually consists of consuming the sacred species. Thus, when the Eucharist is distributed via the hands of the communicant he is actually becoming his own extraordinary minister. Which by its very name—extraordinary–implies that it is not something to be done under normal circumstances; and yet that is exactly what has happened. While extraordinary ministers are permitted by the Church, they are to be used with discretion and not before they have received suitable training, in order that the proper reverence toward the sacrament is observed. However, in most situations, the extraordinary minister is extraneous and the distribution of the host should be reserved to those whose office it is to represent Christ. Thus, Pope John Paul II stated, “How eloquent therefore, even if not of ancient custom, is the rite of the anointing of the hands in our Latin ordination, as though precisely for these hands a special grace and power of the Holy Spirit is necessary! To touch the sacred species and to distribute them with their own hands is a privilege of the ordained, one which indicates an active participation in the ministry of the Eucharist.” In addition, St. Thomas Aquinas states, “…out of reverence towards this sacrament, nothing touches it, but what is consecrated; hence the corporal and the chalice are consecrated, and likewise the priest’s hands, for touching this sacrament.”
Unsurprisingly, the practice of receiving communion in the hand is actually nonexistent in the majority of the Catholic world and is mainly confined to the United States and other Western countries. Originally, the practice was strictly forbidden until the Archbishop of Belgium introduced it in his diocese, in response to which Pope Paul VI released Memoriale Domini. In his encyclical, Paul VI reinforces the traditional method for receiving communion while expressing grave concerns about introducing a new method. The late Pontiff states, “A change in a matter of such moment, based on a most ancient and venerable tradition, does not merely affect discipline. It carries certain dangers with it which may arise from the new manner of administering holy communion: the danger of a loss of reverence for the august sacrament of the altar, of profanation, of adulterating the true doctrine.” Although in this same document the Pope allows for the distribution of communion in the hand he severely restricts its practice and authorizes it only under certain terms and conditions. First, if a bishop wishes to introduce the new procedure he must first obtain permission from the Holy See backed by a sufficient reason. Also, “the new method of administering communion should not be imposed in such a way that would exclude the traditional usage.” Furthermore, the Pope asseverates that the new method should be introduced with perspicacity as to safeguard the reverence towards Christ and to prevent any misunderstanding.
The extensive practice of receiving communion on the hand demonstrates an ignorance of the Churches traditions and the law as promulgated by Paul VI. The new method was never meant to become so widespread but rather was only supposed to be used under special circumstances for fear that a lack of respect and reverence would be introduced into the Sacrifice of the Mass. It is for this reason that Fr. John Hardon wrote, “Behind Communion in the hand-I wish to repeat and make as plain as I can-is a weakening, a conscious, a deliberate weakening of faith in the Real Presence.”
The reception of communion on the tongue helps advocate the minister’s attentiveness to ensure that no fragment of the Eucharist is dropped or profaned; something against which many of the Church Fathers have warned, as St. Cyril says, be careful “…not to lose any part of it; for if you do lose it, it is as if it were part of your own body that is being lost.” This is also why, since its earliest days, the Catholic Church has used patens while administering communion. A strict adherence to the traditional method of receiving communion would also aid in the prevention of stealing the Eucharist for some sacrilegious purpose.
Thus, the traditional practice of receiving the Eucharist on the tongue should be reinstituted in those parts of the world where the new method has been disproportionately introduced and inappropriately used. For, as Paul VI states, the traditional method “…ensures more effectively, that holy communion is distributed with the proper respect, decorum and dignity. It removes the danger of profanation of the sacred species…,” and “…ensures that diligent carefulness about the fragments of consecrated bread which the Church has always recommended.” The Eucharist, as the foundation of the Catholic faith and as the Body of Christ, should always be given the proper respect and reverence which, while receiving communion worthily, is best exercised by administering the sacred species on the tongue.