Communion in the Hand

When I was a kid and was preparing to receive my first Holy Communion, I remember being taught to do so the old-fashioned/traditional way: on the tongue (with the further instruction to let the host dissolve and swallow it, rather than chewing it).

Aside: Many folks tell stories about how Sr. Mary Hitler once yelled at them, “Stop chewing the Host; you’re making Jesus bleed!” Regardless of whatever wild stories folks might have in this regard, I think the reason for teaching people to let the host dissolve, then swallow it, was very practical: if we chew it, pieces can get caught in our teeth; then when we cough, sneeze, or talk afterwards the particles could go flying out, etc. That some sisters and catechists might have invented stories about Jesus’ bleeding probably did not help. End of aside.

Ever since that time – though there were many years when I didn’t go to church inbetween – I always preferred to receive Communion this way. It just seemed right. And even now, as a priest, on the occasions when I simply attend Mass, I still prefer to receive on the tongue.

In fact, once I was ordained and started reflecting at much closer range, so to speak, on these things – reflections often connected with practical matters, like how to distribute Communion well and efficiently, how to purify the sacred vessels properly, etc. – I went from having a personal preference concerning communion in the hand to having serious misgivings about it for objective, not subjective, reasons. I also started to be aware of the fact that many other priests shared these misgivings as well.

From the lack of reverence that many people show when receiving in this way, to the dirty hands that they present; from the particles of the Sacred Host that most certainly end up on their hands and on the floor, to the real possibility of theft (and the fact of its happening in many places); it has become something that has greatly bothered me. There is also the particular problem of children receiving this way since, besides the fact that they frequently have dirty hands from playing before (or during!) Mass, they also often lack coordination and judgment; it has happened several times that a child has dropped the host that I placed squarely in their hand, due to their jerky movements or a lack of attention.

I remember preaching about the proper way to receive Holy Communion on one occasion in particular: about the need to form a “throne” with one’s hands, then check for particles immediately after consuming the Host, and so forth. And I noticed exactly zero change in how people approached and walked away from the communion line. It seemed to fall on deaf ears.

As I said, I am certainly not the only one who is bothered by this. Some people suppose that I am scrupulous, given the care I take, for example, in purifying the sacred vessels. Besides those who flippantly chide me about how I “do the dishes” (THEY ARE NOT DISHES!), I have been reprimanded by brother priests and even a bishop.

Yet I ask: if we believe in the Real Presence, then shouldn’t the purifying be done with care, in a way that reverently removes any and all visible remaining particles of the Most Blessed Sacrament? To this some people respond with things like, “Jesus is a big boy; he can take care of himself!” That is true. But in the Blessed Sacrament, he becomes very small and very fragile and he entrusts himself to our care.

Why am I writing all of this?

I am about 2/3 of the way through a recently-published book by Bishop Athanasius Schneider entitled, Corpus Christi: La Santa Comunione e il Rinnovamento della Chiesa (Corpus Christi [Body of Christ]: Holy Communion and the Renewal of the Church). In this excellent and concise book, which is only in Italian currently but surely will come out in translation, the Bishop presents convincing arguments as to why our current practice and form of communion in the hand is both imprudent and unprecedented. Maybe “imprudent” is too light of a word: it is offensive to God and is hindering authentic renewal in the Church. I hope to post some excerpts from the book in the coming days.

But this good Bishop previously published another similar work, which is in English translation: Dominus Est! It is the Lord! Reflections of a Bishop of Central Asia on Holy Communion (click to see on Amazon). I cannot recommend this little book highly enough. In it, he recounts the story of the “Eucharistic women” who, living during times of communist persecution, safeguarded the Eucharist and handed on to countless others a proper belief in and reverence towards the Most Blessed Sacrament. He also argues in this book why the practice of receiving Holy Communion in the hand is to be discouraged and, if possible, abrogated.

If you would like to read some inspiring stories about the sacrifices that holy people made to protect the Eucharist, and grow in your faith, I recommend this brief book very highly.

Another aside: A retired bishop from Argentina, Bishop Juan R. Laisé, has also written a book on the topic of communion in the hand. Given how convincingly he and Bishop Schneider argue in their respective books, it remains to me one of the great mysteries of life why more bishops and priests are not writing and preaching on this topic. End of aside.

The Church does give us the right to receive Holy Communion in the hand. But, as Bishop Schneider says in this book that I am currently reading, our Lord Jesus Christ has rights also: above all, to be treated with the respect and adoration that belong to the Divinity.

If you were to ask me, I would advise you against ever receiving Holy Communion in the hand. In the coming days, I’ll post some translated excerpts to explain this view more fully. And I hope that at least some who read these things will be inspired to re-think their own posture with regard to Holy Communion.

O Sacrament most holy! O Sacrament divine! All praise and all thanksgiving be every moment thine!

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