Monday, 22 February 2010

How we receive communion

Once again, controversy in the Catholic blogosphere has roused me from the sleep of internet inactivity, and I reluctantly take up my keyboard. The much-debated issue of how one ought to receive the Sacrament, a particularly virulent argument in traditionalist Catholic circles, involves both the highest theological principles, and also the lowest forms of superstition and dogmatic narrow-mindedness.

First things first. I'm no namby-pamby Liberal. Neither am I a card-carrying Traditionalist (with a pointedly capital 'T'). I try to be simply orthodox when it comes to sacramental theology. Since, however, it is so easy to be misunderstood online, especially when dealing with issues which arouse odium theologicum of the most ignorant and bigoted nature. So let me make myself very clear:

The Church has ALWAYS, from the first century onwards, taught that Christ is objectively present in the Eucharistic elements. The host, the body of Christ, is given and received. It should be received with proper reverence.

I should also like to point out that there is nothing wrong with receiving 'on the tongue.' This has been a holy and venerable practice in the Latin Church for centuries, and I'm not for one minute suggesting that we reject it. Equally holy and beautiful is the Eastern Churches' practice of administering the Lamb, soaked in the precious blood, on a spoon.

Yet in recent years, it has become fashionable among some Catholics to criticse the practice of receiving communion 'in the hand'. There seem to be three main objections to this:

1. One might lose crumbs of the host in one's palm.
2. Only a priest's hands have been consecrated to hold the Sacrament.
3. It is a recent innovation.

Let me deal with each of these in turn:

1. Obviously, due care and attention must be given to the Sacrament. We must take care not to break it, lose it, drop it etc. However, it seems to me perfectly possible to avoid all of this. If one receives in the hand, in the middle of the palm, correct practice is to simply raise that palm (the left hand supporting the right hand, or vice versa) to the mouth, and consume the host without faffing around trying to pick up a morsel of bread in one's fingers. It's only then that the host breaks, or is dropped, or leaves crumbs behind.

2. I've heard this one a few times. A priests hands are consecrated that they might touch the Sacrament; ours are not. What nonsense! As some point both priests and laity swallow the Holy Eucharist, but I don't remember anyone anointing my mouth and digestive system, or any priest's for that matter. To suggest that only consecrated hands may touch the Sacrament is superstitious nonsense.

3. Many traditionalists can remember communion in the hand being forbidden in the past. It is therefore, an innovation, right? Wrong. Here's a quote from the Catechetical Lectures of the holy and orthodox St. Cyril of Jerusalem, writing in the fourth century:

When thou goest to receive communion go not with thy wrists extended, nor with thy fingers separated, but placing thy left hand as a throne for thy right, which is to receive so great a King, and in the hollow of the palm receive the body of Christ, saying, Amen.

If you prefer to receive communion on the tongue, so be it. If the Church decides to insist on communion on the tongue, so be it. It is a good and holy thing. Just please, oh please, stop portraying communion 'in the hand' as some kind of 'modernist' liturgical abuse!


Fr said...

well said

Ben Trovato said...

I think that you have not fully understood why many of us are very uneasy with the reception of Holy Communion in the hand.

One set of reasons is historical: sure it was done this way in the early centuries: and then the Church changed its discipline - why do you think that was?

More recently, the history of the reintroduction of reception in the hand is relevant: it was introduced disobediently and legitimised post hoc, which is to say the least, unedifying.

A second set of reasons is contextual: this was part of a whole series of changes introduced in the wake of -but not with the mandate of - the Second Vatican Council, all of which (from forbidding us to kneel at the Incarnatus in the Creed to forbidding us to kneel for the reception of our God) tended in one direction only: to reduce reverence.

A third set of reasons is experiential: as a matter of observable fact, reception in the hand has reduced reverence, and not surprisingly many of us believe that has also led to a reduction in people's clarity of belief in the Real Presence.

Those of us who were in the Catholic Education System at the time these changes were introduced had the additional benefit of the very flakey and spurious reasoning presented to us by the priests (now mainly ex-priests) who were so zealous for the changes.

So forgive my intransigence, but I believe there is a real superiority in the traditional modes of reception (East and West) that have served the Church and produced saints for centuries.

And what I fail to understand is why anyone would have wanted the change (if not to reduce reverence or simply for the sake of change...) Any ideas?

Mark said...

The issue does seem to have become something of a litmus test for "soundness" in traditionalist circles.

It seems to me that what matters is the state of mind and heart with which one receives communion, not whether one receives on the tongue or in the hand.

I do think that receiving communion kneeling (as opposed to standing) encourages people to reflect on the meaning of what they're doing, and fosters a spirit of prayerful devotion.

Having said that, the Orthodox receive standing, and I don't think they could ever be accused of lacking reverence for the mystery of Christ's presence in the Sacrament.

Augustine said...

Mark, I completely agree with you.

Ben, thanks for making those points; I'll bear them in mind in the future.

Fr Michael Brown said...

Augustine, maybe you would find bishop Athanasius Schneider`s book `Dominus Est` a useful read. We read it in our Parish Reading Group and people found his presentation of the case for Holy Communion to be recieved kneeling and on the tongue most convincing.

Augustine said...

Ah, I haven't come across that one yet, Father, I'll have to have a look at the library.

Jackie Parkes MJ said...

Great post..