If you enjoy controversial topics, you’ve come to the right place. In this article, I will take on one of the most contentious, emotional and persistent topics in the Catholic blogosphere: Communion in the Hand. Most people engaging in the debate are expressing emotion and opinion. Do we really know the Church’s position on receiving in the hand? What is the norm, and what is the exception? While receiving in the hand is allowed in today’s Church, is it really the right thing to do, and is it time to finally revisit the decision to allow this made 50 years ago? This article will explore those questions, within the framework of the document that started it all, Memoriale Domini.
Communion in the Hand
In most Catholic parishes in the United States, it is most common to see the faithful lining up to receive the Eucharist in the hand. In general, most young people (and most old) invariably receive in the hand. Few realize that this is not the established norm of the Church, rather it is an indult, or exception, to the standard of the laity receiving the Eucharistic bread on the tongue. Many are shocked to hear this, and in fact, question the veracity of this claim. Many suggest that even if this were a rule, it is simply a “man-made rule,” out of step with historical reality. Almost always it is asserted that earlier Christians, as well as Jesus and the Apostles, consumed the Eucharist using their hands.
The reality is that in the late 1960’s, Blessed Pope Paul VI issued a document called Memoriale Domini, “Instruction on the Manner of Distributing Holy Communion” which basically invited bishops’ conferences to request an exception to the norm of receiving on the tongue. The document recognized that the return of the Church to receiving the Eucharist under two species, bread and wine, as a result of Vatican 2, had raised the question of receiving in the hand:
“These changes have made of the eucharistic banquet and the faithful fulfillment of Christ’s command a clearer and more vital symbol. At the same time in recent years a fuller sharing in the eucharistic celebration through sacramental communion has here and there evoked the desire to return to the ancient usage of depositing the eucharistic bread in the hand of the communicant, he himself then communicating, placing it in his mouth.” Memoriale Domini
The document makes it clear that although this apparently was a practice in the early Church, great care was always taken to ensure that reverence was always given to the consecrated bread, steps were taken to limit those able to distribute the bread, and that caution was always given that no particles ever be lost.
“This reverence shows that it is not a sharing in “ordinary bread and wine” that is involved, but in the Body and Blood of the Lord, through which “The people of God share the benefits of the Paschal Sacrifice, renew the New Covenant which God has made with man once for all through the Blood of Christ, and in faith and hope foreshadow and anticipate the eschatological banquet in the kingdom of the Father.”” Memoriale Domini
These alleged new-found appreciations for the Eucharist under both species had precipitated a request from some bishops’ conferences, and individual bishops, for the Eucharist to be distributed into the hand of the faithful. Its a little fuzzy as to how reception in the hand enhances the notion of protecting the Eucharist and enhancing our reverence for Our Lord, but the leap is made. The next part of the document is shocking, at least I found it so.
Paul VI: Not Supported by the Majority
According to a survey taken by the Vatican of all the bishops in the world, the majority of the bishops were against the proposed practice of receiving communion in the hand. That’s right, folks, they were against introducing this practice. Here are the survey results:
1. Do you think that attention should be paid to the desire that, over and above the traditional manner, the rite of receiving holy communion on the hand should be admitted?
Yes: 597, No: 1,233, Yes, but with reservations: 315, Invalid votes: 20
2. Is it your wish that this new rite be first tried in small communities, with the consent of the bishop?
Yes: 751, No: 1,215, Invalid votes, 70
3. Do you think that the faithful will receive this new rite gladly, after a proper catechetical preparation?
Yes: 835, No: 1,185, Invalid votes: 128
Paul VI: Receiving on the Tongue is the Norm
The document then states:
“Therefore, taking into account the remarks and the advice of those whom “the Holy Spirit has placed to rule over” the Churches, in view of the gravity of the matter and the force of the arguments put forward, the Holy Father has decided not to change the existing way of administering holy communion to the faithful.
The Apostolic See therefore emphatically urges bishops, priests and laity to obey carefully the law which is still valid and which has again been confirmed. It urges them to take account of the judgment given by the majority of Catholic bishops, of the rite now in use in the liturgy, of the common good of the Church.”
A Pathway to Exception
As important and solid as this decision sounds, the Holy Father then out of respect for the bishops granted a pathway to request an exception to this rule, even pointing out a document that had been published earlier in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis describing the stipulations for such an exception being granted by the Holy See. Pausing for a moment to consider the debates I have witnessed, it would be pretty safe to say that most people advocating communion in the hand do not recognize (nor would they readily accept without verification) the statement made by the Holy Father in the preceding section. The stipulations for granting the indult would perhaps be even more troubling to both proponents and opponents of the change if serious objective consideration is given to the changes that have occurred since the indult has been put in place. Most bishops’ conferences eventually did request and receive the indult, with the United States being granted their exception on June 17, 1977.
Stipulation 1. The new method of administering communion should not be imposed in a way that would exclude the traditional usage.
Children are taught to receive in the hand, not on the tongue as a rule. In many areas, the traditional practice is frowned upon, especially if the communicant wishes to receive in the kneeling posture.
Stipulation 2. The rite of communion in the hand must not be put into practice indiscriminately…catechesis must succeed in excluding any suggestion that in the mind of the Church there is a lessening of faith in the eucharistic presence and in excluding as well any danger or hint of danger of profaning the Eucharist.
The proof is in the pudding. Church attendance is down to around 28%, and those believing in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is at an all-time low of around 40%. Around 60% of 18-20 year-olds leave the faith by their second year in college.
Stipulation 3. The option offered to the faithful of receiving the Eucharistic bread in their hand and putting it into their own mouth must not turn out to be the occasion for regarding it as ordinary bread or as just another religious article…Their attitude of reverence must measure up to what they are doing.
Again, I would cite the fact that 60% of Catholics, as of four years ago, no longer believe that Jesus is truly present. Most Catholics do not receive the sacrament of Penance before receiving the Eucharist. The lack of modesty and good behavior in church, depending on the parish, can readily be observed. We do not behave as if we are in the presence of God, let alone at the foot of the Cross or at the Empty Tomb.
Stipulation 4. Recommends having a priest or deacon distribute the Eucharist, although originally allowing the faithful to take the host themselves!
The latter part was later rescinded, but extraordinary ministers of communion have proliferated. This is another controversial topic which we will cover in a future article. The rule for extraordinary ministers of communion has its own stipulations, most of which are ignored today, especially that this was allowed in rare and urgent situations in which the priest or deacon cannot distribute.
Stipulation 5. Whatever procedure is adopted, care must be taken not to allow particles of the eucharistic bread to fall or be scattered.
When was the last time you’ve seen a parish have an altar boy with a paten catching the particles? If you are a hand-receiving Catholic, have you looked at your hand after consuming the host? In the past when I received in the hand, there were plenty of particles. I consumed them, but most people appear to fling them on the floor. Again, another sign of irreverence and unbelief. Particles of the Body of our precious Jesus are dropped on the carpet to be walked on, profaned, and violated. When I was a server and held the paten, the particles collected there were obvious. Many, many particles were present, which we took great care in handling. Today, we don’t seem to care.
Stipulations 6 and 7 have to do with not receiving a host which has been dipped in the eucharistic wine in your hands, and a requirement for a six-month report following implementation.
Is It Time to Reconsider?
The Church is in a crisis of belief. A large majority of our people no longer come to Mass on a regular basis, no longer understand the tenets of the faith, and most importantly no longer believe Our Lord is present: body, blood, soul, and divinity. Its time for some soul-searching among the laity, and among our bishops and the Holy Father. We all should ask ourselves, has the indult to allow communion to be received in the hand now become the rule instead of the exception it was meant to be? Has it failed the tests that Blessed Paul VI demanded before implementing? There are many things, including bad catechesis, contributing to the crisis in faith, but it can and should be credibly asserted that the stipulations above have not been met and that this experiment in allowing “greater freedom” has failed. We must consider what are our duties before the Lord, putting aside what we perceive as rights and freedoms.
It’s time to rescind the indult.