Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, parishes the world over were forced to delay or reschedule numerous events and adapt to a very different, limited way for carrying out their ministries. Our own First Communion students – and our RCIA catechumens and candidates – had their reception of the Sacraments delayed by several weeks. It is a scenario no pastor wants to face but face it we must!
Two weeks ago, we began to celebrate Masses for our First Communion students. How beautifully they showed us all what reverence and joy before the Lord means. In a normal year, we practice several times with our students so that on the day they first receive the Eucharist, they feel confident and prepared. This year, that practice was impossible. Parents stepped in at home to review with their children what to do, and before Mass began, we verbally examined each step they would take. And to a child, each of our First Communion students received with appropriate reverence and awe. It was a privilege to witness their evident excitement (even nerves!) and the innocence of their reception. As a parish, we should rejoice with these children, be proud of their resilience in a challenging situation, and show our gratitude to their parents for fulfilling their role as the first catechists their children have.
Photographs of the First Communion were posted to our parish Facebook page, so that everyone could celebrate with our second graders and their families. A post meant to spark nothing but joy if ever there was one. But this is social media, and therefore nothing can be so simple. Within the first hour the post was up, some people – who are not parishioners, and who had not attended the First Communion Masses – dropped comments about how irreverent Communion in the hand is, how the parish is taking steps backward by having an altar rail, and erroneously asserting things about the Church’s actual disciplines for the reception of Holy Communion. Pictures of second graders receiving Jesus in the Eucharist sparked a strange reaction, indeed.
So first: to our families who were excited to see pictures of this special day posted and who are rejoicing with their child at the reception of this precious Sacrament – I am sorry that some total strangers decided to hijack what should have been a celebratory post. Your children received with utmost reverence. I am grateful to you for being flexible and understanding, I am proud of you and your children, and I cannot wait to see you again at the altar.
Second, to those who felt that commenting on a post about children receiving First Communion was the appropriate forum to open a debate about liturgical practices, to criticize our parish architecture, or imply that the parish is somehow deficient: it was not an appropriate forum. If you would like to criticize the parish, or raise issues surrounding Eucharistic piety and reverence, please feel free to call me, email me, send me a letter – communicate with me, but do not for a moment think that it is appropriate to troll children receiving First Communion. There is room for legitimate questions about the method of receiving Holy Communion. But that place is not in comments on pictures of children reverently and joyfully encountering the Lord in Holy Communion for the first time.
That said, though the venue was wrong, the questions raised were good questions to ask, and it would be good for us as a parish to find serious answers rooted in the Church’s teaching, documents, and practices. Is Holy Communion more sanitary when given on the tongue or in the hand? How did the practice of Holy Communion in the hand develop? Does the Church require it or encourage it? Is an altar rail a step backwards? What is the Church’s liturgical discipline for the distribution of Holy Communion? In what remains of my space here, I will begin to answer, with the promise to continue this topic next week.
First, the question about receiving in the hand or on the tongue. The clergy of this parish have made no secret of their preference for reception on the tongue. The sacrament of Holy Orders gives a man the ability to confect the Eucharist and forgive sins – it does not remove his ability to have preferences or opinions. In this case, we the priests of this parish have expressed our preference because we sincerely believe that reception of Holy Communion on the tongue is more reverent, as it is an outward sign of interior humility and receptivity as the communicant approaches the Lord, and it reduces the possibility of accidental (or deliberate) desecration of the Blessed Sacrament. At the same time, we respect and acknowledge that the decision about how to receive in the Ordinary Form is up to the person receiving. The legitimate liturgical law in force in the United States of America governing this matter allows for both ways of reception of Communion in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite.
Is Holy Communion on the tongue or in the hand more sanitary? There is legitimate concern either way, highlighted especially by the pandemic we currently endure. Several articles have been published in the last few months about this, and numerous medical groups have offered advice to their local bishops. Most have suggested that, though it seems counterintuitive, Communion on the tongue is more sanitary. The others suggest that the two forms of receiving Communion are more or less equal in terms of possible spread of germs. In sum, there is no strong scientific consensus, at least that I have seen, that would indicate a preferred practice. I leave the scientific answer on this to those who are more qualified. I can say only anecdotally that when distributing Communion, I make far more contact with people’s hands than with people’s tongues. The extremely brief time spent in front of someone receiving does not seem, from the information published on the spread of coronavirus, to be sufficient enough to be a significant source of virus shedding. Given very legitimate concerns for health and safety, it is up to each individual to receive as they feel is most prudent at this time. Whenever someone receives on the tongue, the minister sanitizes their hands to help prevent the spread of the virus.
As you can see, these questions are important and bear real engagement…more than a social media comment can offer. Especially in the context of a pandemic, we must all take personal responsibility for our own health and, in charity, protect the health of others. This care cannot come at the cost of the reverence that we still must show for our Lord who is present in the Eucharist. The good news? We can do both! Next week, we will examine the origins of Communion in the hand, as well as revisit the purpose and use of the altar rail.