It is the Lord!

In the average Catholic parish the common practice of receiving Holy Communion is on the hand, while standing, yet there are some, smaller in number who receive on the tongue, and may even get down on their knees to do so. Why is this? I used to get the impression that such people were simply showing off– trying to make themselves appear holier that everybody else – or that they were a little extreme, but I have since learned that there is another reason. In fact, I myself now receive Our Lord on my knees.

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The truth is that the practice of receiving Holy Communion on the tongue, while kneeling is actually the traditional practice of the Church (at least in the Latin Rite, which does not refer to the Mass being said in Latin, but to Catholics of the Western or Roman Church as opposed to the Byzantine, Marian and other rites of the Catholic Church) stretching back to the first millennium. “When Communion-in-the-hand was being proposed (and practiced illicitly) in the mid-1960’s, the argument was proffered that this was merely a return to the “ancient” usage of the Church, one that would enhance the faith-life of the Church. With the publication of Memoriale Domini in 1967, it was abundantly clear that Pope Paul VI did not accept such a view, nor did the world-wide episcopate, who resoundingly opposed any change in the method of Communion distribution.”[1]

Unfortunately the change was allowed to happen and belief in the Real Presence of Our Lord, in the Eucharist and respect for this great gift have greatly declined. “It is true that if it is possible to receive on the tongue, one can also receive on the hand, both being bodily organs of equal dignity…Yet, whatever the reasons put forth to sustain this practice, we cannot ignore what happens at the practical level when this method is used. This practice contributes to a gradual, growing weakening of the attitude of reverence toward the Sacred Eucharistic Species. The earlier practice, on the other hand, better safeguards the sense of reverence. Instead, an alarming lack of recollection and an overall spirit of carelessness have entered into liturgical celebrations. One now sees communicants frequently returning to their places as though nothing extraordinary has happened.”[2]  Yet this is hardly surprising when one discovers that the Protestants introduced the practice of Communion in the hand while standing for the very purpose of discouraging belief in the Real Presence. While Luther did not deny the Real Presence (and continued the practice of Communion on the tongue while kneeling), John Calvin, Zwingli and others following them did and in some places the practice was banned so that it would be made clear that the bread was not being venerated.

The Catholic Church however teaches that “the mode of Christ’s presence under the Eucharistic species is unique. It raises the Eucharist above all the sacraments as “the perfection of the spiritual life and the end to which all the sacraments tend.” In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist “the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.”[3]

“The Council of Trent summarizes the Catholic faith by declaring: “Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.”[4]

With this faith we must believe that Christ is present in every part of the Eucharistic Host, even the smallest of fragments. With such faith did St. Cyril of Jerusalem say that care must be taken, “to lose no part of It. Such a loss would be the mutilation of your own body. Why, if you had been given gold-dust, would you not take the utmost care to hold it fast, not letting a grain slip through your fingers, lest you be so much the poorer? How much more careful, then, will you guard against losing so much as a crumb of that which is more precious than gold or precious stones?”[5] In a similar way did St. Ephrem declare that, “Jesus filled up the Bread with Himself and the Spirit and called it His living Body. That which I have now given you, says Jesus, do not consider bread, do not trample underfoot even the fragments. The smallest fragment of this Bread can sanctify millions of men and is enough to give life to all who eat It.”[6]
If we understand that we should take care that not a fragment of the Eucharistic Host be lost we should also understand one reason why receiving Holy Communion in the hand is less desirable than on the tongue, for as Bishop Athanasius Schneider points out in his book, Dominus Est! – It is the Lord! “Not infrequently particles separate from the Host, either falling to the ground or remaining of the palm and fingers of the communicants.”[7] Instead, Bishop Schneider urges for a return to the Church’s traditional practice of receiving Holy Communion on the tongue, while kneeling. “Allowing oneself to be fed like a baby by receiving Communion directly into the mouth ritually expresses in a better way the character of receptivity and of being a child before Christ Who feeds us and nourishes us spiritually. An adult, on the other hand, takes food himself with his fingers and places it into his own mouth.” [8]

During the consecration at Mass, when the priest pronounces Christ’s words over the bread and wine and they become the Body and Blood of Christ, the faithful kneel. Bishop Schneider suggests that, “would it not be more liturgically proper if, at the moment of Holy Communion when the faithful approach the Lord in a bodily manner as closely as possible the One Who is the King of Kings, that they would greet Him and receive Him on their knees?”[9] Before he became Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that, “Communion only reaches its true depths when it is supported and surrounded by adoration,”[10] and that “kneeling is the right, indeed the intrinsically necessary gesture”[11] before God. In 2009, the feast of Corpus Christi, Pope Benedict XVI began to distribute Holy Communion exclusively on the tongue. Cardinal Raymond Burke said that, “the Holy Father is giving a very clear lesson by his own insistence that the faithful receive kneeling and on the tongue. He’s teaching us something. This is a decision which he obviously made with much thought and for good reasons.”

In a culture in which there is “a tendency to do away with the distinction between the “sacred” and “profane”…the Church has a special duty to safeguard and strengthen the sacredness of the Eucharist”[12]. In his last encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, St. John Paul II wrote that, “by giving the Eucharist the prominence it deserves, and by being careful not to diminish any of its dimensions or demands, we show that we are truly conscious of the greatness of this gift. We are urged to do so by an uninterrupted tradition, which from the first centuries on has found the Christian community ever vigilant in guarding this “treasure”. Inspired by love, the Church is anxious to hand on to future generations of Christians, without loss, her faith and teaching with regard to the mystery of the Eucharist. There can be no danger of excess in our care for this mystery, for “in this sacrament is recapitulated the whole mystery of our salvation”[13]

Like Bishop Schneider I believe that, “the gesture of receiving the Body of the Lord in the mouth and kneeling could be a visible testimony to the faith of the Church in the Eucharistic Mystery and even something that heals and teaches our Modern culture, for which kneeling and spiritual childhood are completely foreign phenomena.”[14] If you do not do so already, I highly recommend that you begin to receive Holy Communion on the tongue, and if you are physically able, kneeling. Though I would suggest you approach your parish priest and discuss the kneeling part with him if no one else in your parish is already doing so. As Blessed Pope Paul VI said in Memoriale Domini, “this reverence shows that it is not a sharing in ‘ordinary bread and wine’ that is involved, but in the Body and Blood of the Lord…Further, the practice which must be considered traditional ensures, more effectively, that holy communion is distributed with the proper respect, decorum and dignity.”[15] In such a way you will be testifying by your actions, your faith, the Faith of the Church, that the Holy Eucharist is indeed the Lord; Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.

Recommended reading; Dominus Est! – It is the Lord!,Bishop Athanasius Schneider

[1] Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Foreword to Dominus Est! – It is the Lord! by Bishop Athanasius Schneider

[2] Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacramnets, Preface to Dominus Est! – It is the Lord! by Bishop Athanasius Schneider

[3] CCC 1374

[4] CCC 1376

[5] Mystagogical Catecheses, 5, 2.

[6] Sermones in Hebdomada Sancta, 4, 4.

[7] Dominus Est! – It is the Lord! p. 46.

[8] Ibid., p.50.

[9] Ibid.

[10] The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), p. 90.

[11] Ibid., p. 194.

[12] Dominicae Cenae, no.8.

[13] Ecclesia de Eucharistia, no.61.

[14] Dominus Est! – It is the Lord!, p.50.

[15] Memoriale Domini

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