Popular Misconceptions About the Catholic Mass, Part III: Communion Reception

“The concept that communion in the hand is the only or preferred form of reception for Catholics since Vatican II is mistaken.”

Part I: Music Part II: Ad Orientem / Versus Populum Part III: Communion Reception

Pope Francis gives communion to a child. Photo source: catholicherald.co.uk

With this third and final piece in our series on popular Mass misconceptions, we again approach a complex and somewhat heated topic for some: bodily posture for the reception of holy communion. For Catholic Christians, everything in the life of the Church flows from, revolves around, and returns to the Eucharist – our God with us, our food for the journey, our foretaste of the heavenly banquet – or as Pope Francis has stated, "not a prize for the perfect... but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak." The greatest of the sacraments, holy communion is the focal point of all spiritual pursuits in the Christian life. As such, it is very important how we approach and receive this most precious gift, both inwardly in our minds and hearts, as well as externally with our bodies.


As with the previous topics regarding the use of Latin and chant in the Mass, and the use of ad orientem posture of the presiding priest, we have considered how our prayers and actions reflect the heart of our worship. And like these topics, the mention of communion on the tongue (sometimes kneeling) versus in the hand (usually standing) immediately stirs strong emotions for some about what is allowed or required since Vatican II, what is right, or what is best. In this final article we will attempt to outline the diversity of practices of communion reception with respect to both historical context and pastoral implications in the hopes of encouraging greater understanding and unity among the Catholic faithful.

INTRODUCTION


During the 1970s, changes in practice began to take place within Catholic parishes and Catholic faithful in the United States in the physical manner of receiving communion – whether communicants receive the host in hand or on the tongue (whether standing or kneeling). Differences in practice remain to this day, and like certain other postures in the Mass that might differ from person to person or from place to place, these things can pose a risk of becoming an obstacle to the communion we should strive for – most especially while receiving holy communion! Seeing actions of others that differ from our own can present the temptation to pass judgement on our brothers or sisters in Christ as being too casual or overly pious, or perhaps too showy or too accident-prone. Many of us lack the historical and liturgical expertise to know the ins and outs of how the Church views certain individual practices, and without complete information these reactions can cause us to quickly dismiss an entire group of people based simply on their liturgical preferences.

HISTORY

Due to widespread change in practice, many Catholics today mistakenly assume that a change in posture for receiving holy communion was something that was changed by Vatican II. It should be stated that the concept that communion in the hand is the only or preferred form of reception for Catholics since Vatican II is mistaken. Similarly, in the U.S. and other jurisdictions where reception of communion in the hand is approved, communion on the tongue is not viewed as the more correct or preferred method. Both forms of communion reception are allowed for Catholics in the U.S. with oversight from the bishop or ordinary, who retains ultimate authority over the practice. No preference in jurisdictions where this has been approved has been issued for Novus Ordo / Ordinary Form liturgies.

So when did this change in practice arise in the U.S.? The Congregation for Divine Worship under Pope Paul VI in the 1969 Instruction Memoriale Domini granted permission to certain jurisdictions to allow reception of communion in the hand while standing (confirmed by U.S. bishops in 1977), with a list of qualifications to be met if bishops' conferences did decide to implement this allowance in their respective countries. Some proponents of communion received on the tongue cite that this instruction was a compromise following a minority dissent with the then-current practice (of communion on the tongue while kneeling) which followed a universal survey of bishops. Paul VI discovered the majority of bishops felt the allowance should not be made, at least not universally. Indeed, the notes following the instruction list the actual numbers of votes and plainly state as much:

“From the returns it is clear that the vast majority of bishops believe that the present discipline should not be changed, and that if it were, the change would be offensive to the sentiments and the spiritual culture of these bishops and of many of the faithful.”

Nonetheless, approval was granted with certain stipulations. Practice in different dioceses and parishes range in their faithfulness towards observation of these stipulations. The document is definitely worth the read and some prayerful consideration of the cautions cited by the Congregation when reflecting on our own individual disposition to reception of holy communion, particularly because Roman Catholics are afforded the option of both forms – in the hand or on the tongue. Memoriale Domini is clear in underscoring the importance of the instruction and reverence towards the Blessed Sacrament that are paramount regardless of the manner of reception:

“...it is a matter of great concern to the Church that the Eucharist be celebrated and shared with the greatest dignity and fruitfulness. It preserves intact the already developed tradition which has come down to us, its riches having passed into the usage and the life of the Church.”

CAUTIONS AGAINST ASSUMPTIONS

One should be careful not to assume that in places where the exception is allowed, such as the U.S., that communion on the tongue while kneeling remains preferred simply because it was previously normative and remains so elsewhere. The document cites that even when looking to our past for direction, prior practice has varied as well:

“The pages of history show that the celebration and the receptions of the Eucharist have taken various forms. In our own day the rites for the celebration of the Eucharist have been changed in many and important ways, bringing them more into line with modern man's spiritual and psychological needs. [...] It is certainly true that ancient usage once allowed the faithful to take this divine food in their hands and to place it in their mouths themselves.”

Conversely, one should also be careful not to assume that because communion in the hand while standing is the practical norm in many areas of the U.S. that it is somehow preferred or that it disallows the former practice. Again, Memoriale Domini spells this out very clearly: