Communion on the Hand vs Communion On the Tongue - By Dr Jeffrey Brushwood

Recently a priest friend of mine at a popular shrine in Kandy, Sri Lanka, had to ask a lady parishioner to consume the Sacred Host she had just received on her hand at communion and had begun to walk away with it.

In a small closely-knit community, this action of the priest had been perceived by some as ‘high handed’ since the communicant meant no ill will towards Our Lord in the Eucharist, but had piously wanted to converse with Him lying on her hand before she consumed Him.

Such misunderstandings abound where communion is received on the hand. My priest friend, I must add is not against the practice of communion on the hand, as are many priests and laity in the Church today. However, this seem to stem from a lack of understanding of what we do at Mass and Whom we receive.

If given the option of being one with the Lord or merely parlaying with Him the choice should be obvious.

Since Jesus wanted us to be familiar with Him, is Eucharistic reverence necessary?

John Paul II describes the Eucharistic Body and Blood as the gift par excellence that Christ has left His bride, the Church.

In his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, John Paul II speaks of the wonder and adoration before the unsurpassable gift of the Eucharist saying that “there can be no danger of excess in our care for the mystery in this sacrament which recapitulates the whole of our salvation” .

As Prophet Ezekiel symbolically received the word of God directly into his mouth “so I opened my mouth and he gave me the scroll to eat” and “it was in my mouth sweet as honey” (Ez 2:8-9) it is the Word-made-Flesh, God of the Universe whom we receive in Holy Communion.

The Jews received the Ark of the Covenant with so much reverence, yet it contained only a bit of manna collected in the dessert, fragments of the tablets of law and the rod of Aaron, however in our Tabernacles we contain God Himself, who allows us to consume Him in His desire to love us so.

How much should we repay that love that shed His blood to pay the price of our Salvation?

Benedict XVI when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, observed that “by going to communion without discernment we fail to reach the heights of what is taking place on the Alter and we reduce the Lord’s gift to everyday ordinariness and manipulation”.

Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman taught that: “to believe and not to revere, to worship familiarly and at one’s ease is an anomaly and a prodigy unknown even to false religions”.

So in short, why venerate? because Christ is God and because the reality of the Sacred Species is a Divine reality.

Didn’t the Apostles take and eat at the last supper? So why can’t we?

The common argument that on initiating the Eucharist at the last supper Jesus asked his disciples to ‘take and eat’ therefore we could too, misses a crucial element to say nothing of the fact that the Apostles themselves were priests and indeed Bishops.

There is a traditional practice of middle-eastern hospitality, of the host feeding his guests with his own hand, placing a symbolic morsel in the mouth of the guest.

And we have scriptural evidence of this as well: Our Lord dipped a morsel of bread into some wine, and gave it to Judas (St. John's Gospel 13:26-30).

Indeed, there are similar practices in Sri Lankan culture when a bride and groom feed each other at their wedding.

This custom emphasizes trust on the part of the person receiving and humility on the part of the person feeding.

Christ followed traditions to the letter, and he washed his disciples’ feet that night. So why can’t we believe he fed them?

Wasn’t communion on the tongue an invention of the Church during the Middle ages?

No, the church established norms of receiving communion early and St. Basil (330-379) says clearly that to receive Communion by one's own hand is only permitted in times of persecution or, as was the case with monks in the desert, when no deacon or priest was available to give it. (Letter 93)

Saint Pope Leo the Great (440-461) is an early witness of the traditional practice of communion on the tongue.

In his comments on the sixth chapter of St. John's Gospel he speaks of Communion as "One receives in the mouth what one believes by faith."

The Pope does not speak as if he were introducing a novelty but as if this were a well-established practice.

The Council of Trullo (692) prohibited the faithful from giving Communion to themselves. It decreed an excommunication of one week's duration for those who would do so in the presence of a bishop, priest or deacon.

The Synod of Cordoba (839) condemned the sect of ‘Casiani’ for their refusal to receive Holy Communion directly into their mouth.

The Council of Rouen (878) said, "Do not put the Eucharist in the hands of any layman or laywomen but only in their mouths”

The Council of Trent (1545) said (Tradition.11 Sess. 13, c. 8) "Now as to the reception of the sacrament, it was always the custom in the Church of God, that laymen should receive the communion from priests in the mouth; but that priests when celebrating should communicate themselves; which custom, as coming down from an apostolical tradition, ought with justice and reason to be retained."

Bishop Athanasius Schneider in his reflections on Holy Communion titled ‘It is the Lord’ establishes that at the end of the patristic age the practice of receiving Holy Communion directly into the mouth had become an universal practice stemming from Eucharistic devotion.

But is it not a form of clericalism to allow the priest to touch the Sacred Host and to forbid the laity to do the same?

Priestly ordination makes an ontological change in a man’s soul and prepares him by anointing of his hands to handle the Sacred Species.

It is also a priest alone who can say the prayers that make transubstantiation to occur at Holy Mass.

Prior to the Second Vatican Council no one other than the celebrant of the Mass could receive Communion on the hand.

If another priest assisted at Mass - but not celebrate - if he wished to receive Holy Communion, he could not do so by his own hand; he received on the tongue from the celebrant.

The same would be true for a bishop or even a pope. When Saint Pope Pius X was on his deathbed in August of 1914, and Holy Communion was brought to him as Viaticum, he did not receive in the hand but on the tongue according to the law and practice of the Church.

What does the present Church law say about Communion on the hand?

In the apostolic letter ‘Memoriale Domini’ (issued by The Congregation for Divine Worship on May 29, 1969) Paul VI said “Therefore, taking into account the remarks and the advice of those whom ‘the Holy Spirit has placed to rule over’ the Churches, in view of the gravity of the matter and the force of the arguments put forward, the Holy Father has decided not to change the existing way of administering holy communion to the faithful.”

The letter allowed a special dispensation only in extreme situations to allow communicants to receive on the hand.

However, the status of receiving communion on the hand under liturgical law at present is that any local ordinary can absolutely ban the practice but no bishop has authority to forbid the traditional way of receiving Our Lord on the tongue.

What about infection spread and hygiene?

During the swine flu epidemic in Europe, some priests insisted on a Communion on the hand only policy.

However, as a practicing medical doctor, I can say that this is a woefully inadequate precaution since flu causing viruses have an airborne transmission.

Furthermore, a meta-analysis of pub med articles have not revealed a single instance of disease transmission from Communion on the tongue.

In any case, if one really believes that during the mystery of transubstantiation bread and wine have been turned into Our Lord’s Sacred body and blood and they no longer exist in the form they appear, then Our Lord’s body and blood would not carry disease.

Surely, in engaging in an act of piety the faithful would be preserved from contracting an illness transmitted via the priest’s anointed fingers?

Is it wrong to receive Communion on the hand?

The short answer is Yes. The Communicant should have a child like attitude of receiving the Kingdom of God, being fed by the Church and not by himself.

St Cyril of Jerusalem explains impressively “take care to lose no part of the Body of the Lord. Such a loss would be the mutilation of your own body. Why, if you were 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 poorer? How much carefully then will you guard against loosing so much as a crumb of that which is more precious than gold or jewels?”

How should we then receive Communion?

As Benedict XVI guides us: kneeling and on the tongue.
“The Council of Saragossa (380): Said that anyone who dared receive Holy Communion in the hand is excommunicated. The same condemnation was repeated at the Synod of Toledo (400).”

I read during study that only those with Consecrated Hands ie PRIESTS are allowed to touch the Blessed Sacrament.

So..... Rather than touch the Holy Eucharist in these days of apostasy - I approach the Priest with …
“The Council of Saragossa (380): Said that anyone who dared receive Holy Communion in the hand is excommunicated. The same condemnation was repeated at the Synod of Toledo (400).”

I read during study that only those with Consecrated Hands ie PRIESTS are allowed to touch the Blessed Sacrament.

So..... Rather than touch the Holy Eucharist in these days of apostasy - I approach the Priest with outstretched hand as we are informed we must, but rather than commit Sacrilege, my outstretched hand has an open PYX in it. Father places the Consecrated Host into the PYX and not my hand. I then raise the Pyx to my mouth and tip the Host in without ever having to touch Our Lord.
Awomen! (as they say in Shebrew)