Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Over the last two weeks, this space has been dedicated to examining how we receive the Eucharist at Mass and why. In my previous column, I sketched the history of the Church’s discipline and provided some reflections on the nature of the Eucharist and how the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist informs the Church’s practice. The most recent change in practice, as I wrote last week, came in 1969 with the Congregation for Divine Worship issuing a special indult (Memoriale Domini) to allow reception of Communion in the hand in those countries where the abuse of the Church’s norm had already taken root. This moment really did mark a departure from the long-standing practice of the Church, and it is important to remember that it was meant as a pastoral accommodation to a situation, rather than as a universal shift in practice.
It was only in 1977 that, after they twice rejected communion in the hand, the US bishops were again polled by the Archbishop Joseph Bernadin, then the president of the bishops’ conference, on the question. Falling short of the necessary votes a third time, he had to count the votes of bishops who were absent or retired, and thus ineligible to vote, in order to get the required number to request American inclusion in the indult. Memoriale Domini made clear that the indult could only be applied in countries where the violation of the norm had already become standard practice – in the United States, the practice did not exist as a norm prior to Bernadin’s vote-counting gymnastics. Unfortunately, with the introduction of this practice in our country, many people came to understand that the Church encouraged or wanted Communion in the hand as the norm. In some places, priests and catechists even told children they were only allowed to receive in the hand, and in explaining the change of practice to parishioners, claimed that Vatican II said it should be done. But this conclusion is not supported by Memoriale Domini, nor is it supported by any documents of the Second Vatican Council, nor can encouragement of this practice be found in any official documents of the Church or in the writings of any of the popes since Pope St. Paul VI. The documents issued by the Church’s office responsible for the celebration of Mass, the Congregation for Divine Worship, are consistent in affirming that the norm is reception on the tongue, that Communion in the hand cannot be obligatory, and that proper reverence for the Eucharist must be maintained. In short, the Church has never encouraged the practice of Communion in the hand, but only permitted it as an exception to the norm.
Reception of Communion in the hand does, in fact, entail numerous pitfalls. It is easy for small fragments of the host to fall to the ground or remain on one’s palm, and thus, though unintentional, the sacred species is profaned. Dropping the host is an unfortunate and common occurrence. While many people, of course, receive in the hand with tremendous reverence – and they are to be commended for their reverence and devotion! – there are also a significant number who receive seemingly as a matter of routine, or who do not receive in the hand in a proper manner. There is a danger of people attending Mass who have no idea what the Eucharist is, especially if they are not Catholic, and simply getting in line, taking the host and walking away with it, unintentionally carrying (or even pocketing!) the sacred Body of our Lord in an irreverent manner. Worse still is the risk of the Eucharist being taken by those who have a more nefarious, even satanic, purpose in mind. The more “ordinary” receiving Communion seems, or the more receiving the Eucharist seems like consuming any other food, the less reverence we give to Jesus in the Eucharist, and the less we acknowledge Him present for us under the form of bread and wine. In the years since the US Bishops adopted the indult, Pew research tells us that the belief in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist has declined to barely 50% of self-identified Catholics. Regular Mass attendance has also plummeted since the practice was introduced in 1977. If something seems ordinary or mundane, it can easily seem unimportant.
These are the facts of the way Communion came to be distributed in the hand. But here is where we find ourselves at the intersection of questionable practice and legitimate authority. You see, the Church through her bishops has a legitimate governing authority and that legitimate authority applies particularly in the area of sacramental practice. I may not personally like the liturgical law in force in the United States, but because it is the legitimate law of the Church, I am bound to follow it. The Church’s authority to teach me and to guide me (especially in regards to the sacraments) help me to better engage with the graces God desires to give. I do well to remember that the Mass is the Church’s prayer, and as such, I do not get to invent anything. When I follow the law of the Church as it pertains to the Mass, I get more from the Mass.
When the Church’s legitimate authority offers a choice, it helps to know the reasons for the choice and what the choices actually entail. In the case of receiving Holy Communion in the United States in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, the Church’s governing authority allows the communicant to receive on the tongue or in the hand. I believe that the reasons outlined in this space over the last few weeks strongly favor reception on the tongue as the better option. Weighing current circumstances, though, one can in honesty and full integrity come to a different conclusion. There is legitimate concern for health and safety that deserves consideration. Each individual should receive (or refrain from) Communion in the way they believe is most prudent, while doing so with heartfelt reverence. If receiving on the tongue, remember that it is sufficient to open your mouth – your tongue need not extend out beyond your bottom lip. If receiving in the hand, remember to hold your palm flat, left hand resting on top of right – upon receiving the Host in your hand, immediately and reverently place it in your mouth before moving. The Diocesan norms for distributing Communion during this time require the priests to sanitize their hands frequently and to wear masks throughout the distribution. A reminder that, prior to receiving, one should always remove their mask so that the Eucharist is not being handled one-handed while mask loops are being fumbled with. In other words, no masks when receiving Communion, please. Reverence for Jesus in the Eucharist demands our full attention, and mask removal while holding the Eucharist is a distraction from that demand of reverence.
At St. Pius, our altar rail serves both to provide an easily identifiable location for appropriately distanced reception and the option to kneel or stand while receiving. The altar rail is an ancient architectural feature that sets the sanctuary apart, both physically and symbolically, from the rest of the church. It is meant to foster reverence for the Eucharist and be a place of encounter between each communicant and our Eucharistic Lord. Without any directive from the Church, many parishes removed their altar rails in the late 1970s, and thus removed this place of encounter. It was bad practice. Even Mel Brooks knew it wasn’t right to remove altar rails…you’ll see a nicely decorated altar rail in the chapel on planet Druidia when Princess Vespa runs away from her wedding in “Spaceballs,” and that masterpiece came out in 1987. When one exercises the option to kneel at the rail, the distribution of Communion is made significantly easier. As I wrote last week, the reverence required for the Eucharist and our concern for personal and communal health are not mutually exclusive. I am not convinced (by experience or research) that one way of receiving is more sanitary than another, but I am absolutely convinced that I have a responsibility as a pastor to both foster devotion and reverence for the Eucharist and foster safe practices so that our church can be a healthy and holy environment for everyone. However we receive, let it always be in accord with the Church’s law, and with outward signs of reverence that reflect an interior disposition of love for Jesus who feeds us with His very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Eucharist.