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How Ancient Is Communion in the Hand?

A fourth-century bishop and theologian defended receiving Communion in the hand. Or did he?

A perennial source of debate, and occasionally of conflict, is the way we receive Holy Communion. In this article I would like to examine one of the sources often cited in this debate and place the issue into some historical context.

Up until the time of the Second Vatican Council, lay Catholics received Holy Communion under the species of bread alone, kneeling, and on the tongue. They had done so for many centuries. Reception on the tongue was mandated by a local council, at Rouen, in 878, and St. Thomas Aquinas explains that only the consecrated fingers of a priest should touch the host (Summa Theologiae IIIa, Q82, a3). In the East, leavened bread is consecrated, and soaked in the Precious Blood, and Holy Communion is distributed directly into the mouth with a spoon.

The details of earlier liturgical practice—that is to say, what Catholics did in the early centuries of the Church’s life—can be difficult to pin down. In the fourth century, St. Cyril of Jerusalem described the practice of his own time and place in a famous passage (Mystagogicae catecheses 5,21):

Coming up to receive, therefore, do not approach with your wrists extended or your fingers splayed, but making your left hand a throne for the right (for it is about to receive a King) and cupping your palm, so receive the body of Christ, and answer, “Amen.” Carefully hallow your eyes by the touch of the sacred body, and then partake, taking care to lose no part of it. Such a loss would be like a mutilation of your own body. Why, if you had been given gold dust, would you not take the utmost care to hold it fast, not letting a grain slip through your fingers, lest you be by so much the poorer? How much more carefully, then, will you guard against losing so much as a crumb of that which is more precious than gold and precious stones!

This passage is often cited to support the modern practice of receiving Holy Communion in the hand, with adherents insisting that Cyril’s testimony roots the practice in antiquity—and thus even makes it more respectable than Communion on the tongue.

But Cyril’s description differs from the way Holy Communion is received in the hand today. Today, those who receive in the hand have the right hand under the left. The priest puts the host in the communicant’s left hand, and the communicant, with his right hand, transfers the host from his left hand to his mouth. In the practice described by Cyril, the host is placed directly into the right hand, which is lifted up to the mouth. There is no picking up the host with the fingers—nor is there the curious practice, as Cyril notes, of the communicant touching his eyes with the host.

And so, all in all, there are notable differences between the ancient practice and the modern one.

The purpose here is not to express an opinion on whether the modern practice of receiving Communion in the hand is acceptable, or even whether the practice does indeed have its origin, in whatever form, in the early Church. Rather, the point is to show that anyone who wants to establish an ancient pedigree for Communion in the hand will have to make his case elsewhere from St. Cyril of Jerusalem, whose exhortation on how to receive the Blessed Sacrament (a) differs significantly from how the faithful receive today and (b) shows no evidence that the practice he describes was widespread even in his time.

In the 1969 instruction Memoriale Domini, the Holy See offered the bishops of the world permission to distribute Communion in the hand, if requested by a two-thirds majority of each bishops’ conference. Yet the instruction states,

[The traditional] 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.

This document foresaw two particular dangers with the novel practice: that it would suggest that there was some “wavering on the part of the Church in its faith in the eucharistic presence” and a “danger or even suggestion of profanation.” Surveys inform us that belief in the Real Presence has declined. No doubt, the causes for this are complex, but it is indisputable that profanation has become easier with the reception of Holy Communion in the hand, since communicants can, deliberately or inadvertently, take the host away without consuming it.

It is true that the modern method of receiving Communion in the hand seems more natural than receiving on the tongue (and more natural than what St. Cyril prescribes). Indeed, a number of less “natural”-looking practices mentioned here and there in the early centuries of the Church—the ritual washing of the hands before and after the reception of Holy Communion, for example, or the fountains for this purpose in front of churches in some places, or communicants kissing the feet of the priest distributing the Eucharist—were not revived in the 1960s, when the new practice was introduced. But there is a danger that in adopting a practice that seems most natural, a community might end up with a practice that is more natural because it is more desacralized. It is not necessarily ideal that we consume the Bread of Angels in the same way as ordinary food, and that is certainly not what Cyril is recommending.

The pre-Vatican II practice, which was clearly in use for a much longer period of time than either the practice described by St. Cyril or the modern practice (or both put together), retains value as a way of emphasizing the special status and value of the eucharistic presence of our Lord. Pope Benedict XVI insisted on it when distributing Holy Communion in St. Peter’s and explained his decision in a book-length interview with Peter Seewald: “By requiring Communion to be received kneeling and on the tongue, I wanted to give a sign of profound respect and put an exclamation point on the Real Presence.”

As a brief postscript, a most unfortunate development has been attempts by priests and even some bishops to enforce uniformity in the manner of receiving Holy Communion by refusing it to those who wish to receive on the tongue, or by remonstrating with them afterward. Memoriale Domini forbids pressure on the faithful to confirm to the novel practice, as does a later instruction, Redemptionis Sacramentum: “It is not licit to deny Holy Communion to any of Christ’s faithful solely on the grounds, for example, that the person wishes to receive the Eucharist kneeling or standing,” and “each of the faithful always has the right to receive Holy Communion on the tongue, at his choice” (91, 92).

This is surely a matter in which everyone should be able to tolerate those who hold to the more longstanding practice, as an effective sign of the Faith we all share.

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