Further Thoughts on Receiving Holy Communion in the Hand

Further Thoughts on Receiving Holy Communion in the Hand October 18, 2016


My daughter Angelina on the day of her first Holy Communion at our beautiful church, St. Joseph’s, in Detroit (7-24-11).




[this is a follow-up to my earlier paper, Thoughts on Communion in the Hand]


[I’ve written many times about this; also about abuses in the use of eucharistic ministers; see the papers on my Eucharist & Liturgy web page on my blog; linked below. This was in response to questions received in some private correspondence]

Encouraging communion on the tongue as a preference or recommendation is one thing, and I have no problem with that. What I have a problem with (and what I would say is contrary to the Mind of the Church) is when people get legalistic and claim that those who do it the other way (in the hand) are / must be liberals or modernists or bad Catholics or “neo-Catholics.” The latter is radical Catholic reactionary thinking or close to it; the former is simply a preference for traditional liturgy.

As usual, I am sort of in the middle (and not infrequently, am intensely criticized by both sides!). I always receive on the tongue at an altar rail in my own parish, but I’m not legalistic about it at all. I receive in the hand in other parishes, and I defend the practice as also traditional, because the evidence shows that it was actually the preferred method in the early Church for several hundred years. For example, in St. Augustine’s own parish, Holy Communion was done exactly as it usually is today: standing and in the hand: even with the crossing of the hands beforehand. I’ve also seen the exact same thing in St. Basil the Great’s accounts.

I think many liberals pushed communion in the hand for the nefarious purpose of (as Fr. John A. Hardon, S. J. put it) “a conscious, deliberate weakening of faith in the Real Presence.” It doesn’t follow, however, that it itself is intrinsically irreverent (else St. Augustine and virtually the entire early Church also was, which is ludicrous). One can also believe (as I strongly do) that it is often (even very often) less reverent in practice because of what is in people’s hearts (as piety, like idolatry, starts there), but again, that doesn’t touch the intrinsic nature of it.

To argue that communion in the hand is intrinsically inferior is similar to arguing that the Ordinary Form of the Latin / Roman Rite Mass is intrinsically inferior. Both are wrong. One can argue, however (on various grounds) that one is preferable (on an individual basis) because of a, b, c, d. I do that, myself, while not ever condemning communion in the hand or individuals who practice it.

I think my view is the middle position: one can acknowledge that the liberals were trying to do one thing, but that the practice itself comes down in the end to interior disposition, and has historical pedigree.

If I myself receive in the hand (as I usually do in other parishes), I know I’m not being irreverent because I know what my own disposition is, and I believe in the Real Presence 1000%. Therefore, in my case it is not all this wicked stuff that reactionaries too often claim, in broad-brushing fashion. And if so in my case, then it can conceivably be so for anyone who does it with the right attitude. But many have an inadequate interior disposition, irregardless of how they may receive communion.

I agree with what Pope Benedict XVI wrote:

I am not opposed in principle to Communion in the hand; I have both administered and received Communion in this way myself.

The idea behind my current practice of having people kneel to receive Communion on the tongue was to send a signal and to underscore the Real Presence with an exclamation point. One important reason is that there is a great danger of superficiality precisely in the kinds of Mass events we hold at St. Peter’s, both in the Basilica and in the Square. I have heard of people who, after receiving Communion, stick the Host in their wallet to take home as a kind of souvenir.

In this context, where people think that everyone is just automatically supposed to receive Communion—everyone else is going up, so I will, too—I wanted to send a clear signal. I wanted it to be clear: something quite special is going on here! He is here, the One before Whom we fall on our knees! Pay attention! This is not just some social ritual in which we can take part if we want to.

(Light of the World, 2010)

My bottom-line position is:

1) There is correlation between communion in the hand and loss of reverence in practice in the US. Lack of proper reverence (from the heart) is in fact characteristic of many parishes in the US.

2) Intrinsically, however, one cannot say that it is less reverent by its very nature, since it was done in the early Church.

3) Reverence is ultimately a matter of the heart.

Thus, if we make the argument based on sociology and the reality “on the ground,” rather than on “liturgical absolutes,” I think it has considerable force. The objection is not based on nothing. It has a lot in favor of it.

The other extreme is to make out that any proponent of communion on the tongue is a pharisaical reactionary kook. That would make me one (reactionaries would be quite shocked at that: as I’ve written two books [one / two] against their errors!), as this is the way I have received for over 22 years.

I have noted myself for several years now that the norm in the early Church was receiving standing in the hand. Historical facts are what they are. If we appeal to the early Church for standing, however, it is also every bit as proper for those opposed to the practice to note that it was used by Protestants and often by liberals with a nefarious agenda. Liberals opposed the status quo, as they always do, and the status quo was receiving on the tongue and usually at an altar rail.

Hence they (liberals / modernists in charge of things) removed the altar rails and the tabernacles to remote corners of the church; “stripping” or “raping” many beautiful churches: they couldn’t care less about traditional liturgical and eucharistic piety, let alone architectural excellence. These are not insignificant happenings at all. We know what theological liberals think, and what their aims are. We see the wreckage in practice and in the massive loss of faith all around us.

Liturgy and reverence have to be interpreted in historical and sociological context, too. Things can come to mean different things at different times. Neither side can take a simplistic, “absolute” position on this. This is why I’m in the “middle”: because both sides can get legalistic or unrealistic about various factors involved.

Moreover, as I understand it, every Catholic (in the ordinary form Mass) has the right to:

1) Kneel for holy communion if he so chooses, and

2) Receive on the tongue.

Jimmy Akin verifies this on p. 206 of his book, Mass Confusion, citing Inaestimabile Donum (11). Unless something has changed since 1999, when the book was written, it still applies. The canon lawyers would know.

Pope Benedict XVI wrote in 2000, before he became pope:

It may well be that kneeling is alien to modern culture – insofar as it is a culture, for this culture has turned away from the faith and no longer knows the One before whom kneeling is the right, indeed the intrinsically necessary gesture. The man who learns to believe learns also to kneel, and a faith or a liturgy no longer familiar with kneeling would be sick at the core. Where it has been lost, kneeling must be rediscovered, so that, in our prayer, we remain in fellowship with the apostles and martyrs, in fellowship with the whole cosmos, indeed in union with Jesus Christ Himself…. The kneeling of Christians is not a form of inculturation into existing customs. It is quite the opposite, an expression of Christian culture, which transforms the existing culture through a new and deeper knowledge and experience of God…. Kneeling does not come from any culture — it comes from the Bible and its knowledge of God… The Christian Liturgy is a cosmic Liturgy precisely because it bends the knee before the crucified and exalted Lord. Here is the center of authentic culture – the culture of truth. The humble gesture by which we fall at the feet of the Lord inserts us into the true path of life of the cosmos.

(Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000)

Kooks will always distort things. It doesn’t mean we don’t write truth. The truth always gets distorted and corrupted. I write and defend what I think is true, regardless of what the personal consequences may be (yet more of the innumerable personal attacks that have come my way for 16 years online).

Thus, I can write about this issue and tell the truth (as I see it). I’m not legalistic about it; I’m realistic. I’m liturgically traditional, but I also defend receiving in the hand. I’m not defending only what I do myself.

But an extreme position of thinking that any concern whatever about reception in the hand, is kookiness, doesn’t fly. Pope Benedict’s quotes alone blow that out of the water.

There is prejudice against liturgical tradition, and also against more recent liturgical development. I am saying “worship and let worship.” I oppose prejudice against the EF and tradition, and also prejudice against the OF. “Equal opportunity detestation.”

Again, reverence and posture is historically and sociologically relative. Things mean different things to different people. Pope Benedict seems to think that kneeling is intrinsically superior.

My own position is that neither way is inherently superior to the other, because it goes to one’s heart and disposition. But I also think that today, in our culture, that kneeling is in practice the more reverent way to receive.

In other words, to sum up: Intrinsic, inherent, or essential difference: No. Cultural / “sociological” difference: very often in our time: Yes.


Meta Description: Thoughts on how one receives Holy Communion, in reaction to a lot of unwarranted “liturgical judgmentalism.”

Meta Keywords: Communion in the hand, communion on the tongue, EMHC, eucharistic ministers, eucharistic ministers of Holy Communion, Holy communion, interior disposition, kneeling for communion, liturgy, piety, Real presence, reverence,solemnity, The Mass, transubstantiation, worship from the heart

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