A couple of weeks ago Elizabeth Harrington, writing as the Education Officer for the Liturgical Commission of the archdiocese of Brisbane, penned an article in the diocesan tabloid, The Catholic Leader, on the issue of the reception of Holy Communion in the hand. It ignited a small bushfire of controversy. Kate at Australia Incognita was tersely unimpressed, and the brethren at Cooees in the Cloister were roused out of a relatively lethargic summer to fisk vigorously Ms Harrington’s article in some detail. And just recently Rorate Caeli has stepped into the fray to take issue with a particular assertion made by Ms Harrington.
Now that the dust is settling, we might look afresh at the issue. To be sure, Ms Harrington’s article, being from someone in an official ecclesiastical position, was unfortunate to say the least, and largely unhelpful to the cause she was championing. It was a reactive article, prompted by her clear displeasure at an online petition started by two Victorian priests, which asks the Holy Father to abolish Communion in the hand, and restore Communion on the tongue as the sole proper means for receiving the Host. The heat of outrage rarely produces the best, clearest or most coherent arguments, as she proves with her article.
Ms Harrington’s case for Communion on the hand
Early in her article she quotes the General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM, to wit, #161), that the choice of how to receive the Host is the communicant’s alone, and that “(n)o minister may dictate whether communicants receive in the hand or on the tongue”.
Two problems arise immediately. First, in the very next sentence she declares that
Receiving Communion on the tongue when the majority receive in the hand disrupts the unity that uniformity of posture and practice at Communion symbolises and builds.
This rather stunningly contradicts her previous approving reference to GIRM by effectively dictating that communicants ought not to receive on the tongue when others are receiving in the hand. But apart from this logical flaw, there is another problem, less obvious if one does not read the paragraph in GIRM she refers to, namely #161. If you do read it you will see that it makes no assertive declarations about a minister having no right to dictate how a communicant receives. It does say that a communicant should receive the Host “either on the tongue or, where this is allowed and if the communicant so chooses, in the hand”. The tone of this section is not as Ms Harrington would make it out to be. Yes, it does allow a communicant to decide to receive in the hand, but there is a caveat of sorts – “where this is allowed”. Here is a clue to something we will return to in the next blog entry: Communion in the hand is a concession, an exception to the general and centuries-old rule that the Host is received normally on the tongue, and it is an exception granted rather unwillingly by Pope Paul VI to bishops’ conferences which requested it. Ms Harrington would seemingly wish to make this exception the rule.
As the article goes on, things do not improve. She asserts that Communion on the tongue is “unhygenic”, because it is difficult for ministers to avoid passing on to communicants others’ saliva. Rorate Caeli took exception to this un-substantiated assertion, and quoted a response made by the American Society of St Pius X. They make the valid point that in the pre-conciliar liturgy there were clear and specific rubrics on how to receive the Host on the tongue, which if followed would ensure no physical contact between the priest’s hand and the communicant’s mouth. Indeed, they point out, there is more physical contact in the process of giving the Host in the hand. We have seen the priest purify his fingers; but has the extraordinary minister of the Eucharist (if there is one) done so? they ask (and in some places, they do, deo gratias). Moreover, if saliva is the issue, then surely (they state with good reason) the shared chalice provides far more opportunity for the faithful to share in each other’s saliva; this is especially so if the chalice is not purified adequately after each communicant.
If she makes an argument for anything, Ms Harrington is providing one for restricting the use of Extraordinary Minsters of the Eucharist (“Extraordinary” clearly implying they are meant to be an exception allowed in time of pressing, extraordinary, need, another exception that has become a rule in too many places). If they are not trained to distribute Communion properly, then they should not be allowed to do so. One woman has decided now that if she is forced to receive from an extraordinary minister, she will receive on the hand given the obvious confusion of the ministers at her parish when faced with administering the Host in the tongue.
And if communicants do not know how to receive the Host on the tongue properly, then they should be instructed how to do so. It is not hard. Even Ms Harrington makes the same point. Perhaps those who make a meal of it (no pun intended) have been made nervous by the palpable opprobrium of those around them, who (like Ms Harrington) feel they are “disrupt(ing) the unity that uniformity of posture and practice at Communion symbolises and builds”. Which begs the question, is the unity of the congregation really built just on uniformity of posture and practice; or is the paramount constituent of unity not rather faith in Christ into whose death we are baptized and whose Body and Blood we receive and so continue more and more to become?
If faith is the prime building block of a congregation’s unity, a baptismal faith communally proclaimed and renewed in the Creed, then we cannot ignore faith in the real presence of Christ in the sacred species of the Host and the Chalice. Ms Harrington has thought of this point and has sought to muddy the issue by asserting that
Christ is present in several special ways at Mass apart from in the consecrated elements, for example in the assembly which gathers. We “touch” Christ in these other manifestations, so it would be inconsistent not to be able to take Christ under the form of bread in our hands. The bread which becomes the body of Christ is described in the liturgical texts as “work of human hands”. There is nothing unworthy about our hands. After all, we use them to do Christ’s work. As St Teresa said, “Christ has no other hands but yours”.
This is an old chestnut, and one really that is so dis-credited it is embarrassing to see it employed yet again. The four modes of the presence of Christ in the Mass (the priest, the people, the scriptural Word and the sacred species) are here simplistically, and erroneously, equated. In enumerating this four-fold presence of Christ the Second Vatican Council stated clearly though briefly (considering it to be so well-established in the the Church’s understanding that it needed no elaboration) that Christ is present “especially under the Eucharistic species” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, #7 – emphasis mine). To clear up any doubt about the primacy of the Real Presence, the Catechism of the Catholic Church does elaborate:
The mode of Christ’s presence under the Eucharistic species is unique. It raises the Eucharist above all the sacraments as “the perfection of the spiritual life and the end to which all the sacraments tend.” In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist “the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.” This presence is called ‘real’ – by which is not intended to exclude the other types of presence as if they could not be ‘real’ too, but because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present.”
Could it be clearer? The presence of Christ in the scriptural Word, the priest and the congregation is a spiritual and intangible presence. In the Host and Chalice it is a real presence in the proper sense of the word – it is a substantial presence, a physical presence. The sacred species are Christ “himself wholly and entirely present”.
So the issue is not, as Ms Harrington alleges, the supposed unworthiness of our hands. We are all ultimately unworthy of the Mystery, even the priest. If we were already worthy then there would be no need for the Eucharist in the first place. St Paul was clear about the righteousness that comes only from God to those who have faith in him:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14)
The Eucharist is a crucial part of the process by which the Christ, through his Church and its sacraments, is making us worthy of him, of allowing us to obtain the righteousness that only he can give. This is grace, and we can do or merit nothing without it.
Rather, at the heart of this issue is faith. If we truly believe that Christ is wholly, entirely and substantially present in the Host and the Chalice, then surely that faith must find expression in our behaviour. As human persons our bodies must express what our minds hold to be true and important; our interior conviction must be mirrored in our exterior disposition. Otherwise our faith is lacking integrity.
Ms Harrington blithely, and distressingly, asserts that “(i)t was only later that over-emphasis on Christ’s divinity and on human sinfulness led to a ban on people receiving Communion in the hand”. The only possible “over-emphasis on Christ’s divinity” would be to deny his humanity. But there would be no Eucharist without his humanity; it is only because he first took a human body that he can make that body sacramentally and substantially present in the Eucharist. Faith in Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist is itself faith in his humanity. It is more likely that the Host came to be received kneeling and on the tongue out of a strengthened faith in the real presence of Christ in the Host, a result of the development of our understanding of the mystery. Moreover, the practice of the early Church is hardly ipso facto a template for practice now. If so, the light penances of modern confession would have to yield to the years-long public penances of the early Church, and the solemn and public rituals of reconciliation she employed.
The practice of the early Church
So indeed Communion was administered into the hands of the faithful in the early Church. But earlier than is often claimed today, the practice of Communion on the tongue was introduced. Pope St Leo the Great (in his commentary on John’s gospel) and Pope St Gregory the Great (in his Dialogues), popes of the 5th and 6th centuries, give clear indications that they administered Communion on the tongue. But given that Communion was for a time given on the hand, do we take it that the modern practice reflects that of the early Church? A little research makes it all too obvious that, on the whole, it does not reflect the early Church’s practice when receiving Communion on the hand.
One of the more distressing sights at Mass now is to see people coming up and receiving the Host as if it were a corn chip (and grasping and swilling from the Chalice as if it were a beer after work). What sort of faith does that sort of body language betray? Yet in the early Church it was not like this. Bishop Athanasius Schneider in his book, Dominus Est!, provides some telling examples. St Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386 AD) exhorted his flock to
take care not to lose part of It [the Body of the Lord]. Such a loss would be 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 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 or precious stones?
His point is clear. If you have faith that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ, the Church’s most precious possession, then surely you should treat it as such. He goes on to cite examples of an equally strong concern for the least particle of the Host in the writings of Tertullian, Origen, and St Jerome. Moreover he quotes a particularly eastern Father, St Ephrem the Syrian (306-373 AD), who wrote
That which I have now given you, says Jesus, do not consider bread, do not trample underfoot even the fragments. The smallest fragment of this Bread can sanctify millions of men and is enough to give life to all who eat It.
In the same vein Schneider quotes the rubrics of the Coptic Liturgy, which evince a zeal for protecting the sacred species from falling to the ground and profanation.
Indeed this clear concern of the Fathers of the Church for the protection of the sacred species down to the least fragment, lest it be trod underfoot (a common specific fear), rather suggests that this, in fact, was an occurrence that was more common than was desirable. Thus the need for exhortations and reminders to be careful with the Lord’s Body. Could this have been a major factor in the transition to Communion on the tongue in both the eastern and western branches of the Church? Perhaps receiving in the hand was soon seen as more dangerous for the sacred species, and more conducive to a laxity in faith.
This is all the more worrying for us today when it is remembered that these early Christians did not simply stand in line as in a bread queue, receive the Host and head back to their places. Schneider gives clear evidence that the faithful washed their hands both before and after receiving Communion, and bowed in adoration before receiving it. Theodore of Mopsuestia even exhorts his flock to kiss the Host before consuming it. St John Damascene in his De Fide Orthodoxa, instructed Christians to compose their hands in the form of a cross to receive “the body of the Crucified One”.
A Happy Compromise?
In the next blog entry we will briefly look at the process by which Communion in the hand came to pass in so many countries (though not all). For now, perhaps we might adopt a compromise that would allow those who are committed to receiving in the hand to do so peacefully and without risking scandal to those who have found the practice disturbing thus far.
Ms Harrington herself gives the clue to the compromise when she refers approvingly to St Cyril of Jerusalem’s instruction to his catechumens:
When you come forward for Communion, do not draw near with your hands wide open or with fingers spread apart; instead, with you left hand make a throne for the right hand, which will receive the King. Receive the body of Christ in the hollow of your hand and give the response: Amen.
The unwary miss it the first time reading this passage. St Cyril tells his flock to make a “throne” with their hands. It is clearly a deliberate and careful posture, meant to show great reverence. But there is more. Schneider (p.38) quotes the ancient canons of the Chaldean Church which, strikingly, forbade the priest from using his fingers to put the Host in his mouth. He was directed to consume it straight from his palm, to signify clearly that the Host was not ordinary but “heavenly food”.
That this unusual and striking canon was included clearly implies that in the early Church the laity did not use their fingers to place the Host in their mouths: they consumed it straight form the palm. Many Anglican converts still receive this way, and it is most edifying. Usually they will also lick or gently suck on their palms to ensure that no fragment of the Host is left behind.
So might it not be a good and charitable thing to do for Christians who are committed for whatever reason to receiving Communion on the hand:
- To bow or genuflect before approaching the priest or deacon distributing Communion (when I was at my Jesuit school in the late 1970s/early 80s, we were taught to genuflect when we reached number three in line);
- To place the left hand over the right in the form of a cross, cupping them slightly to make a throne, or for the Christmas-hearted, a crib;
- To bring the Host on the palm straight up to one’s mouth, licking or gently sucking on the palm to ensure no fragment is left;
- Before walking off, to make a sign of reverence for the holy food just received, the sign of the cross being the obvious one. Any appearance of rushing at Communion time is to be avoided at all costs. We can spare the Lord a few more minutes, surely.
If all who did not receive on the tongue were to do this then perhaps we might find that faith in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist might be the stronger, and the more obvious. Such a witness could only benefit us all. I suspect it is only when we pay due reverence to his Real Presence in the Eucharist that we might be able to pay the proper reverence to Christ’s spiritual presence in our neighbour.
As mentioned above, next time we will look at the introduction of the modern concession for reception of Communion on the hand.
And do not forget to read the Catechism!