The subject of receiving Holy Communion in the hand versus in the mouth remains divisive in the Catholic Church. The majority of our current bishops and priests do not want to address or redress the problem that originated in the mid-1960s.
When the reception of the Holy Eucharist in the hand began to spread, Pope Paul VI focused on the abuse in Memoriale Domini. He said that “in view of the state of the Church as a whole today, this manner of distributing Holy Communion [directly in the mouth] must be observed, not only because it rests upon a tradition of many centuries but especially because it is a sign of the reverence of the faithful toward the Eucharist. The practice in no way detracts from the personal dignity of those who approach this great Sacrament and it is a part of the preparation needed for the most fruitful reception of the Lord’s body.” But his words went unheeded.
In Canada, Holy Communion in the hand was introduced deceitfully in the early 1970s. Msgr. Vincent Foy wrote about how it was falsely put in place in the Canadian Catholic church. By 1977 in the United States, it was approved by “a slim majority of the bishops … and went into effect on the Solemnity of Christ the King.”
Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Karaganda (Kazakhstan) is one of the few prelates who, in truth, continues to speak out against the abusive practice of receiving in the hand. In 2008, Bishop Schneider penned a short book on his thoughts regarding the reception of Holy Communion in the hand while in a standing position. Dominus Est—It is the Lord! Reflections of a Bishop of Central Asia on Holy Communion was first published by the Vatican Press. He wrote the book in response to the widespread problem of “a gradual, growing weakening of the attitude of reverence toward the Sacred Eucharistic Species,” not to mention the abuses of dropping the Eucharistic Host, saving it for later consumption, or profaning the Blessed Sacrament as in a Satanic Mass.
The book begins with an introduction to three women: Bishop Schneider’s mother, Maria Schneider, his great aunt, Pulcheria Koch, and Maria Stang, a parishioner of the Karaganda diocese. As part of the Soviet underground, these “Eucharistic women” risked their lives during the dark times of Communist oppression so that the Holy Eucharist and the few remaining priests could be protected. With faith, and in great danger, the Eucharistic women were “often mothers and grandmothers with a ‘priestly’ soul who safeguarded and even administered the Eucharist with extraordinary love, with care, and with the greatest reverence possible, in the spirit of the Christians of the first centuries, expressed in the adage cum amore ac timore (with love and fear).” The people of the Soviet underground reverenced the Holy Eucharist and during the rare times that the Blessed Sacrament was available to them, they “received Holy Communion on their knees and in tears.”
In the very beginning of the Christian Church, Holy Communion was received in the hand. However, Bishop Schneider explains that as the early Church became increasingly “aware of the greatness of the moment of Holy Communion [she] searched to find a ritual expression that can bear witness in the most perfect manner to her faith, love, and respect.” By the sixth century, with greater understanding and adoration of the Sacrament, Holy Communion placed directly on the tongue became the norm.
Those who continued to distribute Communion in the hand were censured. The sect known as the Casiani was condemned in 839 for refusing to receive Communion on the tongue. The Synod of Rouen in 878 threatened to suspend sacred ministers if they distributed Communion in the hand.
The early Church Fathers were concerned about safeguarding fragments of the Holy Eucharist. This was another reason for the institution of receiving Christ directly on the tongue in both the early Eastern and Western churches. Receiving Holy Communion in the hand posed the very real hazard that tiny particles, including those that were imperceptible to the human eye, could be dropped. St. Jerome expressed his concern about even a tiny fragment of the Holy Eucharist falling to the ground: “If anything should fall to the ground, there is danger.”
According to the Coptic Church, “there is no difference between the smaller and larger particles of the Eucharist, even those smallest ones which cannot be perceived with the naked eye; they deserve the same veneration and possess the same dignity as the whole Bread.”
Bishop Schneider reminds us that the Holy Eucharist is “the gift par excellence that Christ has left for the Church, His Bride.” Thus, the believer’s attitude when receiving this precious gift is one of “the humility of the centurion, the attitude of one who allows himself to be fed, precisely the attitude of a child.” The writings of the early Fathers of the Church continue to teach us that the proper outlook while receiving Holy Communion is cum amore ac timore (with love and fear).
From the sixth century, “prostration and genuflection” before receiving the Blessed Sacrament was common in monasteries. By the tenth and eleventh centuries, the practice had spread.
Kneeling is the biblical gesture of adoration. Adoration is the highest form of prayer; and as St. Augustine warned, “we would sin were we not to adore [the Holy Eucharist].” Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger confirmed that “kneeling is the right, indeed the intrinsically necessary gesture” before the Sacred Body and Precious Blood of Christ. Those who are unable to kneel must also make an alternate act of reverence.
Pope St. John Paul II exhorted the Church to “safeguard and strengthen the sacredness of the Eucharist.” He noted that this was important since our secular society seeks to desacralize the sacred.
Our profound gesture of reverence and adoration, that is to say, kneeling and receiving the Blessed Sacrament on the tongue is, in Bishop Schneider’s words, “an impressive sign professing faith in the Real Presence of God in the midst of the faithful.” An act of adoration, especially in a world that largely refuses to believe, is a profession of faith that invites unbelievers to worship God.
In the conclusion of his short but important work on the reverent reception of the Holy Eucharist, Bishop Schneider reflected:
God willing, the pastors of the Church will be able to renew the house of God which is the Church, placing the Eucharistic Jesus in the center, giving Him the first place, making it so that He receive gestures of honor and adoration also at the moment of Holy Communion. The Church must be reformed, starting from the Eucharist! Ecclesia ab Eucharistia emendanda est! The Church must be reformed by the Eucharist.
The Sacred Host is not some thing, but some One. “He is there,” was the way St. John Mary Vianney synthesized the Eucharistic Mystery. Therefore, we are involved with nothing other than, and no one less great than, the Lord Himself: Dominus est! (It is the Lord!)
Schneider, A. (2008). Dominus Est—It is the Lord! Reflections of a Bishop of Central Asia on Holy Communion. New Jersey: Newman House Press.