Popular Misconceptions About the Catholic Mass, Part III: Communion Reception

posted by Michael Raia

Pope Francis gives communion to a child. Photo source: catholicherald.co.uk

Pope Francis gives communion to a child. Photo source: catholicherald.co.uk

“The concept that communion in the hand is the only or preferred form of reception for Catholics since Vatican II is mistaken.”

Also in this series:
Popular Misconceptions about the Catholic Mass Part I: Music

Popular Misconceptions about the Catholic Mass Part II: Ad Orientem

With this third and final piece in our series on popular Mass misconceptions, we again approach a complex and somewhat heated topic for some: bodily posture for the reception of holy communion. For Catholic Christians, everything in the life of the Church flows from, revolves around, and returns to the Eucharist – our God with us, our food for the journey, our foretaste of the heavenly banquet – or as Pope Francis has stated, "not a prize for the perfect... but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak." The greatest of the sacraments, holy communion is the focal point of all spiritual pursuits in the Christian life. As such, it is very important how we approach and receive this most precious gift, both inwardly in our minds and hearts, as well as externally with our bodies. As with the previous topics regarding the use of Latin and chant in the Mass, and the use of ad orientem posture of the presiding priest, we have considered how our prayers and actions reflect the heart of our worship. And like these topics, the mention of communion on the tongue (sometimes kneeling) versus in the hand (usually standing) immediately stirs strong emotions for some about what is allowed or required since Vatican II, what is right, or what is best. In this final article we will attempt to outline the diversity of practices of communion reception with respect to both historical context and pastoral implications in the hopes of encouraging greater understanding and unity among the Catholic faithful. 

Introduction

During the 1970s, changes in practice began to take place within Catholic parishes and Catholic faithful in the United States in the physical manner of receiving communion – whether communicants receive the host in hand or on the tongue (whether standing or kneeling). Differences in practice remain to this day, and like certain other postures in the Mass that might differ from person to person or from place to place, these things can pose a risk of becoming an obstacle to the communion we should strive for – most especially while receiving holy communion! Seeing actions of others that differ from our own can present the temptation to pass judgement on our brothers or sisters in Christ as being too casual or overly pious, or perhaps too showy or too accident-prone. Many of us lack the historical and liturgical expertise to know the ins and outs of how the Church views certain individual practices, and without complete information these reactions can cause us to quickly dismiss an entire group of people based simply on their liturgical preferences.

History

Due to widespread change in practice, many Catholics today mistakenly assume that a change in posture for receiving holy communion was something that was changed by Vatican II. It should be stated that the concept that communion in the hand is the only or preferred form of reception for Catholics since Vatican II is mistaken. Similarly, in the U.S. and other jurisdictions where reception of communion in the hand is approved, communion on the tongue is not viewed as the more correct or preferred method. Both forms of communion reception are allowed for Catholics in the U.S. with oversight from the bishop or ordinary, who retains ultimate authority over the practice. No preference in jurisdictions where this has been approved has been issued for Novus Ordo / Ordinary Form liturgies.

So when did this change in practice arise in the U.S.? The Congregation for Divine Worship under Pope Paul VI in the 1969 Instruction Memoriale Domini granted permission to certain jurisdictions to allow reception of communion in the hand while standing (confirmed by U.S. bishops in 1977), with a list of qualifications to be met if bishops' conferences did decide to implement this allowance in their respective countries. Some proponents of communion received on the tongue cite that this instruction was a compromise following a minority dissent with the then-current practice (of communion on the tongue while kneeling) which followed a universal survey of bishops. Paul VI discovered the majority of bishops felt the allowance should not be made, at least not universally. Indeed, the notes following the instruction list the actual numbers of votes and plainly state as much:

“From the returns it is clear that the vast majority of bishops believe that the present discipline should not be changed, and that if it were, the change would be offensive to the sentiments and the spiritual culture of these bishops and of many of the faithful.” 

Nonetheless, approval was granted with certain stipulations. Practice in different dioceses and parishes range in their faithfulness towards observation of these stipulations. The document is definitely worth the read and some prayerful consideration of the cautions cited by the Congregation when reflecting on our own individual disposition to reception of holy communion, particularly because Roman Catholics are afforded the option of both forms – in the hand or on the tongue. Memoriale Domini is clear in underscoring the importance of the instruction and reverence towards the Blessed Sacrament that are paramount regardless of the manner of reception:

“...it is a matter of great concern to the Church that the Eucharist be celebrated and shared with the greatest dignity and fruitfulness. It preserves intact the already developed tradition which has come down to us, its riches having passed into the usage and the life of the Church.” 

Cautions Against Assumptions 

One should be careful not to assume that in places where the exception is allowed, such as the U.S., that communion on the tongue while kneeling remains preferred simply because it was previously normative and remains so elsewhere. The document cites that even when looking to our past for direction, prior practice has varied as well:

“The pages of history show that the celebration and the receptions of the Eucharist have taken various forms. In our own day the rites for the celebration of the Eucharist have been changed in many and important ways, bringing them more into line with modern man's spiritual and psychological needs. [...] It is certainly true that ancient usage once allowed the faithful to take this divine food in their hands and to place it in their mouths themselves.”

Conversely, one should also be careful not to assume that because communion in the hand while standing is the practical norm in many areas of the U.S. that it is somehow preferred or that it disallows the former practice. Again, Memoriale Domini spells this out very clearly: 

“This method of distributing holy communion [on the tongue] must be retained, taking the present situation of the Church in the entire world into account, not merely because it has many centuries of-tradition behind it, but especially because it expresses the faithful's reverence for the Eucharist. [...] 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.' [...] Further, the practice which must be considered traditional ensures, more effectively, that holy communion is distributed with the proper respect, decorum and dignity. It removes the danger of profanation of the sacred species, in which 'in a unique way, Christ, God and man, is present whole and entire, substantially and continually.' Lastly, it ensures that diligent carefulness about the fragments of consecrated bread which the Church has always recommended: 'What you have allowed to drop, think of it as though you had lost one of your own members.'” (citing Justin Martyr's ApologyEucharisticum Mysterium, and Cyril of Jerusalem's Mystagogical Catechesis

Pastoral Considerations

An accompanying letter that was issued with the Instructions states "The new method of administering communion should not be imposed in a way that would exclude the traditional usage..." There is concern that by some reports, certain pastors have illicitly banned the optional reception of communion on the tongue and refuse to distribute communion to persons wishing to receive in this manner. In addition, casual or even careless practices in distribution and purification during and after communion are frequently observed, typically from a lack of proper teaching – something Paul VI and the Congregation for Divine Worship clearly feared and vocally warned against.

Some parishes have retained or even built communion rails to allow or encourage the practice of receiving communion on the tongue while kneeling. Perhaps in combination with, or instead of a communion rail, some parishes have retained the custom of acolytes extending the communion plate below the mouth or hands of the recipient to protect against the loss of communion fragments – a practice instructed by Redemptionis Sacramentum (93) and mentioned in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (118) as well. In other parishes, the absence of these elements and practices, along with very narrow aisles for communion distribution seems to discourage the practices of kneeling or receiving on the tongue. Advocates of communion on the tongue might contend that in addition to reducing the risk of fragments being dropped, the nature of the action of receiving is more evident  in receiving communion on the tongue rather than in the hand, which then requires communicants to place the host in one's own mouth.

In accord with Memoriale Domini, other documents such as Eucharisticum Mysterium (Instruction on Eucharistic Worship, 1967),  Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass (1973), Saint Pope John Paul II's 2003 Encyclical Eucharistia Ecclesia, and Redemptionis Sacramentum (2004) strongly urge any effort to foster recognition of Christ's true presence in the Eucharist and a devotion to worship of the sacrament (also known as latria) as an expression of this understanding. While all of these cite Eucharistic adoration as the supreme means of achieving both, could greater catechesis and instruction result in a more reverent reception of Holy Communion, whether on the tongue or in the hand? Memoriale Domini certainly says as much, and we do well to remember that this responsibility came as a necessary condition to the allowance of the change in practice in the first place. Perhaps this desire to catechize and encourage the faithful is why, as many have noticed, Pope Francis continues to practice many of the liturgical observances of his predecessor Benedict XVI – including a standing instruction (no pun intended) for Vatican Masses that communion is to be given on the tongue. All the while, Francis continues to urge Christian unity and promote a culture of life, authentic love, radical discipleship, equity, justice, and mercy – concepts that, despite the media's frequently misunderstanding, are entirely aligned with – and in fact are fruits of – the source and summit of life in Christ: the eucharist.     

Summary

These articles have been written to shed some light on the current practices, options, and accompanying instruction, and to dispel some myths about what Vatican II actually mandated versus practices that have since changed due to a variety of circumstances. It should be stated again that each of these topics presents options for pastors, musicians, architects, and the lay faithful that should be prayerfully considered. The intent of the content in these three articles has been to acknowledge our diversity by virtue of the valid options at our disposal, and to strengthen and unify the Church by encouraging education, enrichment, and charitable dialogue. The practices we have explored above and in the two preceding posts not only present legitimate options, but can also change in time, as they are pastoral applications of the teachings and practice of our faith. Lest anyone be quick to accuse those who might prefer a Mass said in Latin or celebrated ad orientem (Ordinary or Extraordinary Form), or regularly receive communion on the tongue – or on the other hand, judge someone who prefers Mass in English or communion in the hand as being any less faithful or legitimate, let us remember the Church's primary concern in these matters: that the sacraments are understood to be the sacred sources of grace that they are and that they be treated accordingly. 

We might also bear in mind that any trend towards these (what might be considered more 'traditional') liturgical practices we have addressed could be understood in different ways. Perhaps the most constructive is to see them as a movement of the faithful towards a deeper understanding, appreciation, or profound reverence in approaching the sacraments. This sentiment extends beyond Roman Catholic boundaries and points to a culture that is starved for an encounter with the sacred in an increasingly secular culture. A resurgence of interest in 'traditional' liturgies particularly among millennials (including Orthodox, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and even some non-denominational Christians), parallels those in the Catholic Church and has been documented widely. It seems to be a substantial opportunity for renewed intra-denominational dialogue. May the liturgy serve to fulfill Christ's prayer that we be one as he and the Father are one. And may the heavenly banquet of the lamb not be a source of division in this life, but instead be one of communion like that which we will have in the next.

 

This post is the third in a series. See also Part I: Music, and Part II: Versus Populum.