Communion in the Hand

Communion in the Hand
Last week a priest emailed me this question: “Many conservative young people are telling me that the pope now wants people to receive communion on the tongue only - did I miss something with the new translation?”
I had only just emailed my reply (below), when I read about two Australian priests conducting an online petition calling on Pope Benedict to eliminate receiving the Eucharist in the hand because it “inflicts great spiritual harm on the Catholic faithful”.
This push for receiving communion on the tongue has nothing to do with the implementation of the revised Roman Missal, which involves a change in wording only. The "General Instruction of the Roman Missal" # 161 makes it quite clear that the choice of how to receive communion is the communicant's. No minister may dictate whether communicants receive in the hand or on the tongue.
Receiving communion on the tongue when the majority receive in the hand disrupts the unity that uniformity of posture and practice at Communion symbolises and builds. It is awkward for ministers to give communion on the tongue to people who are standing, which is the recommended posture for communion in Australia, and it is unhygienic because it is difficult for ministers to avoid passing saliva on to other communicants.
Historical accounts make it quite clear that communion was received in the hand in the early Church. In the middle of the fourth century Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem gave this instruction to those who were about to join the church: “When you come forward for communion, do not draw near with your hands wide open or with fingers spread apart; instead, with you left hand make a throne for the right hand, which will receive the King. Receive the body of Christ in the hollow of your hand and give the response: Amen.” It was only later that over-emphasis on Christ’s divinity and on human sinfulness led to a ban on people receiving communion in the hand. In fact, people seldom received communion at all.
We now understand that Christ is present in several special ways at Mass apart from in the consecrated elements, for example in the assembly which gathers. We “touch” Christ in these other manifestations, so it would be inconsistent not to be able to take Christ under the form of bread in our hands. The bread which becomes the body of Christ is described in the liturgical texts as “work of human hands”. There is nothing unworthy about our hands. After all, we use them to do Christ’s work. As St Teresa said, “Christ has no other hands but yours”.
If, as claimed, “a disturbing number” of communicants do not know how to receive Communion reverently, the best response is to provide formation about the meaning of this sacred action and the appropriate way to participate in it.
The proponents of the petition cite rumours of people taking consecrated hosts to use at “Black Masses” or of visitors at big events at the Vatican slipping consecrated hosts into wallets to keep as souvenirs. It hardly seems appropriate, however, to make rules for the universal Church based on unsubstantiated stories of aberrant behaviour by a few individuals.


Elizabeth Harrington