Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Last week, I scratched the surface of questions surrounding the distribution of Holy Communion, with the promise to resume the examination this week. The universal discipline for the Catholic Church throughout the world is to receive on the tongue, with some countries sharing in a special indult that allows reception in the hand as an exception to the norm. In the US, one may choose to receive on the tongue or in the hand. The story of how that indult came to be applied in our country is interesting and bears reflection.
How did Communion in the hand start, and why does it seem to some that it is encouraged by the Church? Some history is helpful. As far back as the papacy of Pope St. Sixtus I in the early 100s, the historically recorded practice was for people to receive Communion on the tongue. Over the centuries, there were variations from this practice. For example, St. Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386 AD) is often cited as having offered instructions for receiving Communion in the hand. The practice, however, was usually limited to times of persecution and was not a universal practice. That said, there can be no debate that the practice of receiving in the hand existed in the early centuries of the Church. The practice of receiving Communion on the tongue was always present also, and this method developed to become the universal practice in the Roman Catholic Church. This remained true until after the Second Vatican Council. In fact, the norm for receiving Holy Communion in the Roman/Latin/Western liturgy even today is on the tongue. In response to violations of this norm in certain European countries, Pope St. Paul VI surveyed the world’s bishops to find out if the practice was widespread and if it was desired in many places. Overwhelmingly, the bishops responded that it was neither common nor desired. The Congregation for Divine Worship issued a document called Memoriale Domini in 1969. In this document, permission was given for bishops to allow Communion in the hand in their dioceses if the practice already existed, by way of a special indult. In other words, the practice was permitted as an exception to the norm, in those countries where the violation of the norm was already happening. With the document came an additional note from Paul VI cautioning that Communion in the hand could easily lead to lack of reverence for the Eucharist and loss of faith in the True Presence. Many bishops around the world did not accept the indult, concerned that accepting the indult would be the same as allowing disobedience to the Church’s liturgical norms to go on unremarked.
Before continuing, it is worthwhile to ask why the Church has always promoted reception of Communion on the tongue. Did the Apostles receive that way at the Last Supper? Didn’t the theological currents preceding Vatican II, and in the years following, point to a renewal of the early Church’s practices?
The Church has always promoted reception of the Eucharist on the tongue inspired by a desire to safeguard and protect the sanctity of the Body of Christ present in every host. In ancient Israel, the offerings made as a sacrifice had to be consumed in their totality. Thus, every sacrificed animal was eaten and what was left was burned carefully. In the Mass, every fragment of the Consecrated Host must be cared for and either consumed by the priest or faithful. A saint often invoked as patron of altar servers, St. Tarcisius, was a young boy in Rome during the persecution of the Emperor Valerian. As the Church gathered in the catacombs to celebrate Mass in secret, many sick Christians were unable to join them. Tarcisius volunteered to bring the Eucharist to the sick. The priest was reluctant to entrust the task to one so young, but after ensuring Tarcisius understood the import of Who and What he carried, he gave him the Eucharist. While carefully holding the sacred species close to his heart as he walked along, some people demanded to see what he was carrying. When he refused to show them, they realized he was a Christian carrying the Eucharist and beat him to death. Tarcisius, a child, was willing to give his life for the truth that Jesus is present Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Eucharist! The Church has always known that the Eucharist is not only viaticum – that is, food for the spiritual journey we all walk in this life – but also a source of unity in faith. Reverence for the Eucharist, care for the Eucharistic species, caution in the celebration of Mass and distribution of Communion, the location and method for keeping the Eucharist with us in the Tabernacle, all contribute to an understanding of the accompanying presence of Jesus with us in every moment and an understanding of our faith and unity with others who share this profession.
We cannot know how the Apostles received from Jesus when he gave them Himself in the Eucharist for the first time at the Last Supper. Many scholars point to a custom in the ancient world, which Jesus almost certainly would have known, whereby a host would place a morsel of food directly in the mouth of his guests as a sign of hospitality. We do know that the Apostles gathered the first Christian believers to read the Word of God and to break the bread. In the Eucharist, they found Jesus, who is the source of unity for the whole Church. In the years preceding the Second Vatican Council, many leading theologians of the “resourcement” school sought to recover the ideas and practices of the Early Church. One such theologian, Joseph Ratzinger, would later become Pope Benedict XVI. Returning to the Patristic theologians provided great insight into the Church’s belief, and indeed proved to be a renewal in theological study – few can match Ratzinger’s contributions to this renewal! In recovering ancient practices, some were genuinely recovered, while others were restored without proper context. Just as the doctrine expressed by the Fathers of the Church has been applied and developed by subsequent generations in the Church, so the practice of the Early Church has developed throughout history. Note that development is not synonymous with change, though. The Fathers of the Church unanimously believed in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Subsequent theologians – St. Thomas Aquinas preeminent among them – found new ways to explore this truth and express its beauty. But none changed or challenged it. The antiquity of belief is a mark in favor of its authenticity. So in the Church’s practice. From the earliest days of the Church, the practice of receiving Communion on the tongue existed, inspired by the Church’s unanimous belief that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharistic species. While the practice of Communion in the hand also existed, as the Church grew in appreciation of Eucharistic doctrine, the practices of the Church cemented around Communion on the tongue as an outward, communal reflection of the Church’s faith. It is legitimate to say that the Early Church practiced communion in the hand, but unlike belief in Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist, this practice was not unanimous, nor was it consistent.
Thus, we see that Memoriale Domini represented a pastoral accommodation to a practice that was being introduced incorrectly. Next week, I will examine how the indult provided for certain European countries in 1969 came to be applied to the Church in the United States in 1977. As I concluded last week, so I will conclude this week: we have a responsibility as a family of faith to both foster reverence for the Eucharist and reverence for the health and safety of all around us. Fortunately, these two things are not mutually exclusive, and, I believe, if we are renewed in our appreciation for the reverence the Eucharist deserves, we will also be able to act in a way that protects the health and safety (and reverences the dignity) of every one of our brothers and sisters in faith.