Communion in the hand? The tradition speaks


By: Matthew Schultz

In an interview with Mother Teresa of Calcutta on Good Friday of 1989, Father George Rutler asked, “Mother, what do you think is the worst problem today?”  Without any hesitation, Mother Teresa said, “Wherever I go in the whole world, the thing that makes me saddest is watching people receive Communion in the hand.”  For most of us, Mother Teresa’s comment is startling-why does she not name one of the more obvious candidates: famine, disease, abortion?  And, if Mother Teresa is right to identify communion in the hand as “the worst problem today,” why does holy mother Church permit it?  Perhaps our surprise at Mother Teresa’s intense dislike for communion in the hand is becuase of our own ignorance on this issue.

Communion in the hand was never a universal custom or practice in the history of the Church.  Popes St. Sixtus (115-165 A.D.) and St. Euchtyian (275-283 A.D.) both forbade the faithful from receiving communion in the hand; St. Basil (330-379 A.D.) permitted this practice only in times of persecution; St Leo the Great teaches, “one receives in the mouth what one believes by faith.” Eventually, communion in the hand was forbidden universally because, as Pope Paul VI states, “with the passage of time as the truth of the eucharistic mystery, its power, and Christ’s presence in it were more deeply understood the usage adopted was that the minister himself placed the particle of the consecrated bread on the tongue of the communicant” [Memoriale Domini, 8].  If Catholics did not believe in the Real Presence, then to argue over which mode was more reverent would be superfluous and ridiculous.  

In 1965, Cardinal Suenans, Archbishop of Belgium, introduced the practice of receiving communion in the hand to his diocese. Pope Paul VI addressed this flagrant act of disobedience in 1969 with the release of his encyclical Memoriale Domini. Pope Paul VI explains in his encyclical why communion on the tongue is the norm of the Church and enumerates the many dangers attached to receiving communion in the hand. Communion on the tongue is the preferred norm of the Church because it “more effectively ensures that communion is distributed with the required reverence, decorum, and dignity; that there is less danger of disrespect for the Eucharistic elements…[and so] caution is exercised which the Church has always counseled regarding the particles of the consecrated bread”[11].

In addition to Pope Paul VI’s concern for the safety of the Eucharistic elements, by receiving communion directly on the tongue one also recognizes and gives reverence to the consecrated hands of the priests (“because out of reverence towards this sacrament, nothing touches it but what is consecrated”[Aquinas, S.T.,VIII,Q.82, Art.13]).

Pope Paul VI’s abundant praise for communion on the tongue is withheld when he turns to speak of communion on the hand; his tone changes to one of caution and worry: “A change in so important a matter that has its basis in an ancient and honored tradition does not simply affect discipline, but can also bring with it dangers that, it is feared, may arise from the new way of administering communion.

In particular, these dangers are both the possibility of a lessening of reverence toward the august sacrament of the altar, its profanation, and the watering down of the true doctrine of the Eucharist“[12, emphasis mine].  Paul VI is concerned that the changing of this discipline will cause a weakening of faith. So great was his concern over the question that he polled his entire episcopate.  The results were overwhelming: 1,233 bishops opposed such a measure compared to 567 in favor.  Having examined the issue at length and having consulted the counsel of the bishops, the pontiff decided “not to change the long-accepted manner of administering communion to the faithful”[18].  He then urges the faithful “to obey conscientiously the prevailing law, now reconfirmed” [19].  Paul VI closes his encyclical by permitting communion in the hand not as a preferred practice but only in “special circumstances”[20].  The widespread extension of this practice, then, attests to the failure of the clergy and laity to heed the counsels and intentions of the Church on this matter.

Let us return once more to Mother Teresa. Can we now perhaps begin to understand why the most remarkable woman of the 20th century could declare that communion in the hand gave her the greatest sadness?  What is implicit in her sadness is made explicit by Father John Hardon, S.J., who writes, “Behind Communion in the hand-I wish to repeat and make as plain as I can-is a weakening, a conscious, a deliberate weakening of faith in the Real Presence.”

Communion in the hand, even though it is permitted, departs from the tradition as it is expressed in the teachings of the popes, the writings of the saints, and the councils of the Church.

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