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Tradition Meets the Spirit of the Council

Peggy Frye

A phrase I often use to measure whether something is worth the fight is, “What hill do you want to die on?” Will a victory here be worth the possibility of losing the fight?

In the sixteen years that I have been fielding apologetic calls at Catholic Answers, a year doesn’t go by that I don’t receive calls or emails from frustrated parents of children preparing for their First Communion who want their children to receive the host on the tongue but are told by the teacher that it’s not an option. When the parents protest, the teacher stands firm. No budging. The decision has been made. Period. End of story. The parents are stunned. Not knowing what else to do, they call us for help.

A recent call went something like this:

Caller:  I just heard from my child’s teacher that all the children preparing for their First Communion will only be receiving in the hand.

Me: Why is that?

Caller:  She said Vatican II called for the practice of receiving Communion in the hand, and that the parish has been instructing children to receive only in the hand for years, and no one has objected. When I told her that the Church permits the reception of Communion on the tongue, she said she follows the “spirit of the Council” on that issue. I didn’t know what to say after that. How do I respond?

The time-honored traditional practice of receiving Communion on the tongue continues to be the liturgical norm for the Latin church, and the practice of receiving Communion in the hand remains an indult in some places (except when Communion is offered by intinction). By law, it is a right of the faithful to receive on the tongue, and the faithful must not have their rights denied. Even children’s rights in this matter are addressed by the Church.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal states:

The consecrated host may be received either on the tongue or in the hand, at the discretion of each communicant. . . . The priest raises the host slightly and shows it to each, saying, Corpus Christi (the body of Christ). The communicant replies Amen and receives the sacrament either on the tongue or, where this is allowed and if the communicant so chooses, in the hand (160–161).

And here:

Certainly it is clear from the very documents of the Holy See that in dioceses where the eucharistic bread is put in the hands of the faithful, the right to receive the eucharistic bread on the tongue still remains intact to the faithful. Therefore, those who restrict communicants to receive Holy Communion only in the hands are acting against the norms, as are those who refuse to Christ’s faithful [the right] to receive Communion in the hand in dioceses that enjoy this indult. . . . However, let all remember that the time-honored tradition is to receive the host on the tongue.

The idea that Vatican II called for the practice of receiving Communion in the hand is a myth. No Vatican II document called for the reception of Communion in the hand. Zero, zip, nada. It wasn’t until several years after the close of the Council, when certain dioceses were acting in disobedience to the law of the Church on the method of distributing Communion on the tongue, that a special indult was given to permit Communion in the hand—first to the French bishops, then later to the United States. Pope Paul VI in the 1969 document Memoriale Domini spoke about the growing disobedience to liturgical law, explained the ancient usage that once allowed the faithful to take Communion in the hand, and reminded the Church that the method of distributing Communion on the tongue must be retained and recognized as an expression of the faithful’s reverence for the Eucharist.

As for the teacher’s remark that the parish has been instructing children to receive the Eucharist only in the hand—ignoring the truth for personal prejudice—and then justifying this practice because no one has complained is beyond tragic. It’s unconscionable. Unfortunately, in this day and age, there is no shortage of misguided catechists who lack proper formation in the Catholic faith. Even so that does not give them a pass to teach as they please. As catechists they have a sacred obligation to teach the truth and nothing but the truth. Not their truth; the Church’s truth.

To those parents who are struggling with what do when a teacher refuses to give their child Holy Communion in the traditional manner of receiving our Lord, I say don’t be afraid to speak the truth in love. Arrange to meet with the teacher to discuss the problem. Be sure to bring to the meeting the specific documentation that verifies the right of each communicant to receive the Eucharist in the traditional manner. Be charitable. Keep your own opinions or personal prejudices out of the conversation, and don’t argue.

As respectfully as possible, let the teacher know that because the Church has affirmed that children have the option to receive Communion in the hand or on the tongue, you’re confident the option to receive in the traditional manner will be offered in her class. Leave on a positive note. Be strong and stand firm. Pray daily, perhaps the rosary, for your priest and for all the teachers and leaders in religious education. Make regular visits to the Blessed Sacrament.

Making a decision to take action to right a wrong usually comes with a boatload of fear and a price, but when the truth is on our side, aren’t we called to “fight the good fight” (1 Tim 6:12)?  After all, if we don’t stand up for the truth, then who will?

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