Approaching God

Fr. Graham Smith Celebrating Holy Mass at Gethsemane.

The manner in which Catholics receive the Blessed Sacrament seems to be a particular battle ground at the present time. It is understandable that devout Catholics may feel intimidated and indeed, affronted, by the suggestion that their regular practice in terms of the reception of the Eucharist is less than perfect. I want to make it clear from the start that this is not my intention here. Certainly I would hesitate to polarise the debate as being between good and bad Catholics in any way, I do not think it is a matter of traditionalists versus liberals, or devout versus, let us say, those with a more laissez-faire attitude toward faith. I have no doubt that many devout Catholics today receive in the hand. Rather, I would tend to portray the argument as one of personal devotion and understanding, which certainly describes my own journey from the hand to the tongue. It's one I would share and open up for honest discussion here, if I can.

Why? The main reason is that I think those of us who have responsibility for the teaching of the faith have to think carefully about this: where are we with Eucharistic practice at the moment? What will the current trajectory lead to? What does the way we go to Communion say about us? About our faith? About what we understand and believe about the Eucharist?

Communion on the tongue is certainly more uncomfortable than Communion in the hand if you're not used to it. It can be awkward and disconcerting. There are more challenges to overcome, without doubt. But I have always thought that part of being a Catholic is awkward, challenging...Counter cultural even. Part of being Catholic is looking at our actions and making conscious changes for the better. This is how my understanding of receiving Holy Communion began to change.

I think the beginning of my change of heart came about as a result of studying my BA Divinity at Maryvale. On the very first visit, we had a few students from years above ours give their impression of the course and what they felt they had gained from it. The fifth year has a module on the Eucharist, and the student from that year waxed lyrical about what he had gained from that study, how much more he understood the dignity and wonder of the Eucharist and the central and important nature of Holy Communion: "The source and summit of Christian life" (LG 11; CCC 1324). So much so that it really struck me and indeed, has stayed with me. In a way, I feel somewhat exasperated that it took this meeting to make me think about this issue. Up until that point I had been merrily receiving in the hand without a bother. The reality is that I had never been given the information which would have allowed me to make an informed decision either way. Now I feel that greater devotion can, surely, only be a positive thing? This is so evident when we line up for Communion: in our attitude evident in the way we approach this sacrament, which is, we claim, the source and summit of Christian life. The way we prepare and conduct ourselves at this moment says so much about what we are doing. If we take it seriously, that is a sign to others of the sacred nature of the Eucharist. For many people, the only real catecheses they will receive is the way YOU conduct yourself. The example YOU give.

From that moment at Maryvale, I began to consider much more deeply what it was that I was doing at Mass, and in particular, with regard to receiving Holy Communion. Spiritually, I became conscious of making sure I was in the proper state of grace before going to receive the Lord. Something which is not ever really mentioned or discussed much these days. On a physical level, I became concerned about my hands being clean. This them started me worrying about what I touched before Communion (e.g. the pew), and as for the Sign of Peace, ARRRGGGHHH!!! This became a source of some distress: how could I know how scrupulous about cleanliness other members of the congregation had been?

I guess this sounds a bit like OCD, but anyone who knows me would know that it couldn't be that. Genuinely, it is simply a logical process born from a growing respect for what I am doing when I approach the altar at Communion time. What is present? When we say "Amen" (So be it) to the priest at Communion we are affirming that we are receiving the body of Christ; the true manna; communion with God the risen Christ, both the Cross and the Resurrection are intrinsic to the Eucharist. That the first Christians understood the Eucharist as an encounter with the risen Lord is clear from Scripture. We see in Acts 20:6-11 that the "Breaking of bread" was already fixed for the morning of the day of Resurrection, even in the apostolic age. (c.f. Ratzinger, J., Jesus of Nazareth Holy Week: From the Entrance to Jerusalem to the Resurrection (London: CTS, 2011), p. 141-3).

Without doubt, part of my own development was a change in the parish where I attended Mass. I started noticing that my new Parish Priest, Father Kevin Hale, keeps his thumb and fore-finger circled once he has consecrated, like this:

Understanding what he was doing and why seemed to me a wonderful act of love. Something that was demonstrative of the special thing he was doing when he consecrated, and the love and reverence he held for that action. Just a little act of love, but an act of love none the less.

So what about legacy? I soon found out that Holy Communion had been received on the tongue and kneeling, for generations. Why the sudden change? When had it happened and what Magisterial teaching had brought about such an abrupt abandonment of such a long held practice?

Now, to say that Communion was always distributed on the tongue, from the birth of the Church, would be controversial, especially today. It could be argued that there is no biblical record, and in fact there is an argument that the most ancient practice of distributing Holy Communion was to give Communion to the faithful in the palm of the hand (see here).

If with start with Sacred Scripture, although far from explicit, it is possible to make some intelligent observations based on what we read in the Gospel. Our Lord gave the Disciples His Body and Blood – we can see this in Matthew 26, Luke 22 and particularly in John 13:26 when He gave Judas in his mouth the morsel of bread He had dipped: that is He fed them (although the verse doesn't explicitly say "in his mouth", it is suggestive; it would be difficult to dip a morsel in wine and put it in someone's hand).

What is also beyond doubt is that reception on the tongue does go back to the earliest times, as we see it attested to by St. Ephrem the Syriac (306-373 A.D.), who draws a parallel between reception on the tongue and Isaiah 6:6-7 (Sermones in Hebdomeda Sancta 4,5). Also the ancient Liturgy of St. James, Pope St. Leo the Great (391-461 A.D.) (Sermon 91,3) and Pope St. Gregory the Great (540-604 A.D. Dialogues 3, c. 3). What can certainly be said is that from the time of the Fathers of the Church, a tendency was born and consolidated whereby distribution of Holy Communion in the hand became more and more restricted in favour of distributing Holy Communion on the tongue. The motivation for this practice is two-fold: a) first, to avoid, as much as possible, the dropping of Eucharistic particles; b) second, to increase among the faithful devotion to the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Also we can note that all throughout Scripture, both in the Old Testament and the New, kneeling is the proper attitude of those in the presence of Divinity. As the examples of Solomon, St. Peter and St. John the Evangelist in the Apocalypse, among many others, amply demonstrate. A celebrated saying of Saint Augustine, cited by Pope Benedict XVI in n. 66 of his Encyclical Sacramentum Caritatis, (Sacrament of Love), teaches: “No one eats that flesh without first adoring it; we should sin were we not to adore it” (Enarrationes in Psalmos 98, 9). Kneeling indicates and promotes the adoration necessary before receiving the Eucharistic Christ.
John Paul II, in his last Encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (The Church comes from the Eucharist), wrote in n. 61:
“By giving the Eucharist the prominence it deserves, and by being careful not to diminish any of its dimensions or demands, we show that we are truly conscious of the greatness of this gift. We are urged to do so by an uninterrupted tradition, which from the first centuries on has found the Christian community ever vigilant in guarding this ‘treasure.’ Inspired by love, the Church is anxious to hand on to future generations of Christians, without loss, her faith and teaching with regard to the mystery of the Eucharist. There can be no danger of excess in our care for this mystery, for ‘in this sacrament is recapitulated the whole mystery of our salvation.’”
Wow! That is worth reading a few times and reflecting on. It really is quite powerful!

In continuity with the teaching of his Predecessor, starting with the Solemnity of Corpus Christi in the year 2008, the Holy Father, Benedict XVI, began to distribute to the faithful the Body of the Lord, by placing it directly on the tongue of the faithful as they remain kneeling. Is this not the attitude that the Holy Father clearly is asking us to emulate? Surely if the Holy Father provides us with such an obvious example, we should do our best to follow suit? This is, after all, typical of Pope Benedict XVI who doesn't dictate, but proposes that which is best for us.

So hang on a minute. The Magisterium of the Church led us to receive Holy Communion on the tongue early on. It remained the practice of the Church up until 1969ish, how did we get here? Surely Communion in the hand was a teaching of Vatican II? Absolutely not, you won't find it anywhere in the Magisterium. In fact, it was a complete innovation introduced by a certain group who were trying to change Catholic liturgy to be more like prevalent Protestant liturgy. They did this by a technicality of Canon Law called an indult, that is an exception from a particular norm of Church law in an individual case.

Bizarrely, the reality is that the universal law that forbids Communion in the hand remains in force. No, you're not mistaken, I really did just say
The universal law that forbids Communion in the hand remains in force!
In 1969, Pope Paul VI gave this indult to the French bishops permitting each bishop to allow the practice in his own diocese (En réponse a la Demande). An indult is a special permission for a particular situation, not a universal norm. Nonetheless eventually the majority of dioceses in the world took advantage of the indult and simply permitted the practice. Unlike Pope John Paul's indult to celebrate the Usus Antiquior, the indult to receive Communion on the hand was enthusiastically embraced in England & Wales, one has to wonder at this process and the reasoning behind it?

I have to say that this discovery left me reeling. This is yet another strange case of the normative (receiving on the tongue) becoming rare, never taught, regularly discouraged, and the exceptional option (receiving in the hand) becoming the universal practice. I've read that the introduction of Communion in the hand came in through the back door - Rome being "forced" to legislate for an illegitimate practice that had been deliberately allowed to develop widely.

It all seems to be down to the fact that the Protestant Reformers introduced Communion in the hand specifically to deny the Catholic doctrines on the priesthood and the Real Presence invested the practice with an anti-Catholic signification from that time onwards. The practice was introduced in an attempt to open the Mass up to Protestants and seems to be largely the work of one man: Annibale Bugnini. His reforms are widely criticised and he is widely quoted in this light, for example:
“We must strip from our Catholic prayers and from the Catholic liturgy everything which can be the shadow of a stumbling block for our separated brethren that is for the Protestants.”  - Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, main author of the New Mass, L'Osservatore Romano, March 19, 1965

Some think that Communion on the tongue or in the hand are considered equally valid by the Church (certainly neither method of reception should form a barrier to reception), however, Fr. Tim Finnigan Parish Priest at Blackfen, tutor in Sacramental Theology at St. John's Seminary, Wonersh, and tutor in Dogmatic Theology at St. Hugh's Charterhouse, Parkminster, reflects on the issue thus:
"I try to reflect the canonical status of the two ways of receiving Communion. Communion on the tongue is allowed universally. Communion in the hand is permitted by indult. The two do not have equal status. So I talk to people about the care necessary when receiving Communion in the hand and then say that of course they can always receive Communion on the tongue."
This book gives a detailed description of one brave bishop's research and experience. A further interesting point of view from Blessed Pope John Paul II:
There is an apostolic letter on the existence of a special valid permission for this [Communion in the hand]. But I tell you that I am not in favour of this practice, nor do I recommend it.
(responding to a reporter from Stimme des Glaubens magazine, during his visit to Fulda, Germany in November 1980.)

The evidence seems overwhelming. Why would Pope John Paul II not advocate this practice? Because of the repercussions we have observed since it was introduced: a lack of reverence for the blessed Sacrament becoming the norm.

Here are some quotes from the book:
"From the outset, priests and faithful under my pastoral care asked me not to introduce this practice in the diocese of San Luis. I called a priests’ meeting for August 8, at which I presented Rome’s decree and the instruction Memoriale Domini. They unanimously agreed that, for the good of the faithful, Communion on the tongue should be maintained . . . ."
"The result of this meeting was a diocesan decree in which I reiterated the request of the pope and strictly abided by the law in force maintaining the prohibition of Communion in the hand."
"Nevertheless, a question remained: Since Memoriale Domini was the only legislation in force, how was it that everyone adopted the practice of Communion in the hand as if it were merely an option proposed, and even recommended, by the Church?"
"Seeking an answer to this question and to defend my decision – which was very controversial with some ecclesiastical sectors that spoke out in the media – I encouraged a deeper investigation of the history of this usage. And the results of this investigation are found in this work."
- from the Introduction to Communion in the Hand.

Most Rev. Juan Rodolfo Laise, bishop emeritus of San Luis, Argentina.
"All that has been elaborated on until now permits us to realize that the history of the reintroduction of communion in the hand is nothing other than the triumph of an act of disobedience. The consideration of the details of this history makes evident to us the gravity of this disobedience: in fact, it is very serious above all because of the very matter which it concerns; very serious because it implies the open resistance to a clear, explicit and solidly founded directive of the pope; most serious by its universal extension; most serious because those who did not obey were not only the faithful or priests, but in many cases bishops and entire episcopal conferences; most serious, because not only did they remain unpunished but they obtained a resounding success; most serious, in short, because it has succeeded in having the state of disobedience remain hidden, making it such that one might believe, on the contrary, that they were adopting a proposal that came from Rome." – from Part IV, Conclusions.
So, in short, don't do it. Don't receive in hand, receive on the tongue. We, the faithful need to make this right. Most priests are scared and most lay people don't know, so start acting and teaching. If you teach First Holy Communion, be aware and make sure you teach on the tongue. If you are a deacon, a catechist, a priest even, promote a proper attitude to the blessed Sacrament. Don't be scared, stick up for what is right! If you are a Eucharistic Minister—quit, the ordinary minister of the Eucharist is the priest, the bishop or the deacon. Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion should not be allowed except in EXTRAORDINARY circumstances. It negates the dimension of the priest in persona Christe feeding His flock. So quit, and start receiving the correct way!

As the Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen said:
"Who is going to save our Church? Not our bishops, not our priests & religious. It is up to you, the people. You have the minds, the eyes, the ears to save the Church. Your mission is to see that your priests act like priests, your bishops act like bishops and your religious act like religious."

If you are interested in learning more about the Eucharist or want more detail, I have written a rather in depth theological post on understanding the Eucharist here.

Some further reading & resources: there is a lot of chat out there on the internet about this! Here are some of the bits I have found interesting and useful. The Youtube clip of Bishop Athanasius Scheneider is particularly good and is a recording he did on EWTN.

"Extraordinary Ministers" are to be employed only in extraordinary circumstances.

Rethinking Communion in the Hand.

Communion Handling: the gravest problem

Did the Church Fathers Practice Communion in the Hand? (Not Exactly)

The Manner of Receiving Holy Communion.

Petition to Restore Communion on the tongue


  1. It's interesting that at Maryvale & at the other Brigittine Convents that the sisters stand & receive Holy Communion in the hand as well as often under both kinds.

    1. It is interesting; in fact, it is one of the things that prompted me to write the above piece Jackie. Why is it do you think? One could not question their devotion or faith, so why? The most common response when discussing this issue is that people don't know. They were taught they could receive either way when they were 8 and nothing has changed since. Many (e.g. my friend Carmel on Facebook, noted that she had been taught communion in the hand was more hygienic). I noticed at our First Holy Communion class at Eastwood last year, Communion on the tongue was not even mentioned. Today it is considered a bit extremist to kneel. I think this isn't talked about, the history of it isn't pointed out enough. I only started learning by asking questions of friends at Maryvale about why they went to Communion they way they did.

      I think Communion in the hand has led slowly, but inevitably, to huge problems. Think about it this way; where does it lead? How can it possibly lead to greater understanding or reverence? Communion on the tongue, kneeling, even if taught without explanation, is so clearly respectful, surely it would lead one to ask what is going on at Communion? In other words, it has a pedagogical dimension which we do not see in common practice today.

      People regularly approach the alter to receive who clearly do not know what they are doing, I would say are often obviously not even Catholic. Occasionally, but regularly, people walk off with the host. Hosts are found on the floor after Mass. Many Protestant denominations do not consider there to be anything special about Holy Communion, the prevailing attitude in society in general is that our belief about what happens at the consecration is subjective: that's what we believe, but it makes not difference to them if they come and receive at a funeral, Baptism or whatever event they find themselves in Church for. Communion on the tongue would stop many of these abuses, and make people who don't care think twice about heading up to the priest and humbling themselves before God.

      There is also the issue of what Communion on the tongue, preferably kneeling, adds to the experience of going to Mass, and of receiving the blessed Sacrament. I always teach the Confirmandi that they are becoming adults in our community and that people will gauge there commitment in Church, the same way as they will at school, at work, at Scouts or wherever: based on the way they conduct themselves and the seriousness of their approach. This does not mean that one cannot approach Communion and receive on the hand in a serious, committed way. The problem is that those who do are the minority. Communion in the hand is part of that lapse into relativism that the Holy Father is always talking about; slowly draining away meaning and making everything unimportant.

      When I approach Communion, I am approaching God. As this is so, that I believe the miracle that is the God who created the stars, gives Himself to me in such an amazing way, how can I not approach with the most love and humility possible? As Cardinal Schneider puts it "Cum timore hic amore", with timidity and love, after all tabin Adonai, fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7).

  2. Mark I would be very careful about this video channel About HetmanWojtek's channel:

  3. Thanks for the tip. I will review and edit as appropriate.


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