A close friend of mine and my Pastor, Fr. Richard Heilman, brings us our guest post for today on the questionable origins of communion in the hand. This was Father's homily today which he adapted into a post for NLM. He compiled most of this from various articles and sources. Fr. Heilman is a priest of the Diocese of Madison, WI.
This weekend we had our first Masses with the new Communion rail. After one of these Masses I was talking with one of the old guard parishioners (great guy), and he loved the rails. He told me that "years ago" (I love that expression), they had a Parish Council meeting, and Fr. X wanted to remove the side altars (along with many other alterations), in this beautiful church. The old guard parishioner said, "It was a hard fought battle that night, but we wore him down and he did only minor alterations.” I said, "My ... how times have changed ... that priest got criticized for trying to remove sacredness ... now I'm getting criticized for trying to bring it back."
Since we were celebrating our new Communion rails, and the Gospel saw Peter, James and John fall prostrate before the presence of God - I deemed it a perfect time to shed some light on one of those post-Vatican II innovations – Communion in the hand while standing. We began with a little history lesson …
An Indult Born Out of Disobedience
The practice of receiving Holy Communion in the hand first began to spread in Catholic circles during the early 1960s, primarily in Holland. Shortly after Vatican II, due to the escalating abuses in certain non-English speaking countries (Holland, Belgium, France and Germany), Pope Paul VI took a survey of the world's bishops to ascertain their opinions on the subject. On May 28, 1969 the Congregation for Divine Worship issued Memoriale Domini, which concluded: "From the responses received, it is thus clear that by far the greater number of bishops feel that the present discipline [i.e., Holy Communion on the tongue] should not be changed at all, indeed that if it were changed, this would be offensive to the sensibility and spiritual appreciation of these bishops and of most of the faithful." After he had considered the observation and the counsel of the bishops, the Supreme Pontiff judged that the long-received manner of ministering Holy Communion to the faithful should not be changed. The Apostolic See then strongly urged bishops, priests and the laity to zealously observe this law out of concern for the common good of the Church.
Despite the vote, in 1969 Pope Paul VI decided to strike a compromise with his disobedient bishops on the continent. Given “the gravity of the matter,” the pope would not authorize Communion in the hand. He was, however, open to bestowing an indult – an exception to the law – under certain conditions: first, an indult could not be given to a country in which Communion in the hand was not an already established practice; second, the bishops in countries where it was established must approve of the practice “by a secret vote and with a two-thirds majority.” Beyond this, the Holy See set down seven regulations concerning communion in the hand; failure to maintain these regulations could result in the loss of the indult. The first three regulations concerned: 1) respecting the laity who continue the traditional practice (of receiving kneeling and on the tongue), 2) maintaining the laity’s proper respect of the Eucharist, and 3) strengthening the laity’s faith in the real presence.
So how did Communion in the hand come to America?
In 1975 and again in 1976, Archbishop Joseph Bernardin, the president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) attempted in vain to garner two-thirds of the bishops to vote in favor of receiving Communion in the hand. The following year – which coincided with the end of Bernardin’s term as president – brought one final attempt. Bernadin appointed Archbishop Quinn, who became Bernardin’s immediate successor as NCCB president, to be the chief lobbyist for Communion in the hand. During the proceedings a brave bishop requested a survey of the bishops be taken – this survey would ask each bishop whether or not Communion in the hand was widely practiced in his diocese, for without the practice’s current wide-use the first condition of the indult would not be satisfied.
*Of course, everyone knew that Communion in the hand was not a previously established practice in the United States.
Though his request was seconded and supported in writing by five other bishops, Bernardin had the motion dismissed as “out of order.” The bishops then voted ... only to once more fall short of the two-thirds majority. This, however, did not end the matter. Bernardin decided to (unlawfully) begin gathering “absentee votes” from any bishop he could find – including retired bishops who no longer administered any dioceses. Consequently, the number was adjusted to meet the two-thirds majority.
Pope Paul VI’s Regulations – Have they been met?
So, what about Pope Paul VI’s regulations that could result in the loss of the indult?
1) Respecting the laity who continue the traditional practice (of receiving kneeling and on the tongue)
- Reports are now widespread of priests refusing Communion to those who wish to receive kneeling and on the tongue. Even reports of priests berating people for this. A friend of mine said he was traveling and attended Mass where he proceeded to kneel and indicate that he wished to receive on the tongue. The minister of Holy Communion refused and ended up walking away from him. He remained. Finally, the priest came over and said, “Get up son, we don’t do it that way here.” My friend said, “So, you are refusing me Communion?” The priest said, “Yes I am.” He got up, walked out and reported him to the chancery. It is a severe infraction against canon law for any priest to do this.
2) Maintaining the laity’s proper respect of the Eucharist
- While I can relate to many of the following, here is a testimony from a Deacon:
- I've watched a mother receive communion, her toddler in tow, then take it back to the pew and share it with him like a cookie.
- At least four or five times a year, I have to stop someone who just takes the host and wanders away with it and ask them to consume it on the spot.
- Once or twice a month I encounter the droppers. Many are well-intentioned folks who somewhere, somehow drop the host or it slides out of their hands and Jesus tumbles to the floor.
- I've found the Eucharist in a hymnal, under a pew, in the bathroom and in the parking lot.
Not too long ago, I was alerted to someone who did not consume the Host. After Mass I confronted the young man, and he pulled it out of his shirt pocket. It seems he wasn’t Catholic and didn’t believe, and so didn’t know what to do. But, I am very worried these days, with the rise of satanic cults who use the Eucharist in their rites. In fact, someone shared this story of his youth, as he admitted these satanic cults are everywhere now …
When I was in junior high I started hanging out and getting high with some of my older brothers’ friends. They would “play around” with ouija boards and tarot cards. They would get dropped off at “youth group” at church – go in the front door and out the back into the woods for sex, drugs, and booze. They would brand each other with pentagram rings and even sacrifice small animals. I never participated in it – cause I was the “little brother” – but they would talk about the Black Mass all the time. There was an older guy – our dealer – in his late twenties who claimed to be a wizard and showed us his pyx (I didn’t know what it was at the time) that he would use, because the priest at the Catholic Church he went to wouldn’t pay much attention, “well, they have a pyx, they must be legit!” He even said he could find hosts after most Masses on the floor or sometimes between hymnal pages, like bookmarks. I remember that, when he opened it to show us, he told us it was Jesus and that we were gonna “have a party” with him … well, I chickened out and went back to “youth” group – a couple nights later…our friend, after the “Jesus party” with the “wizard,” decapitated his sleeping aunt with a samurai sword because he “heard voices” telling him to … she was a regular Mass-attending woman; the only one left in the family. He’s locked up in a mental institution for life. When I started learning about Catholicism, I always remembered that awful time, and couldn’t – can’t – shake the feeling that my friend opened himself up to demonic possession by participating in the Black Mass that night…there were no drugs in his system when they arrested him that night.”
3) Strengthening the laity’s faith in the Real Presence:
- In 1950, 87% believed in the Real Presence. Today, that number has plummeted to a mere 34%. The abusive and hurried manner in which the practice of Communion in the hand was imposed after Vatican II lead to a widespread lack of reverence for the Eucharist and caused great pain for many in the Church. It disoriented many people, who with real justification — especially in light of the recent and overwhelming loss of faith in the Eucharist as the real presence — feared that the very heart of Catholic belief had been compromised.
Pope Benedict XVI, has noted that kneeling is "an expression of Christian culture, which transforms the existing culture through a new and deeper knowledge and experience of God." He reminds us that "the word proskynein alone occurs fifty-nine times in the New Testament, twenty-four of which are in the Apocalypse, the book of the heavenly liturgy, which is presented to the Church as the standard for her own liturgy."
In his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict speaks of a "story that comes from the sayings of the Desert Fathers, according to which the devil was compelled by God to show himself to a certain Abba Apollo. He looked black and ugly, with frightening thin limbs, but, most strikingly, he had no knees. The inability to kneel is seen as the very essence of the diabolical."
Why Receive on the tongue?
Despite the widespread practice of Communion in the hand, the universal discipline of receiving Holy Communion on the tongue has not changed. A bishop, for example, may forbid the practice of Communion in the hand but not the practice of Communion on the tongue. The Church strongly encourages the latter but not the former. With respect to Communion in the hand, the Church speaks only in a cautionary tone because of the many abuses that often accompany this practice.
St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us, with respect to Communion in the hand … that reverence demands that only what has been consecrated should touch the Blessed Sacrament. He writes:
The dispensing of Christ's body belongs to the priest for three reasons. First, because . . . he consecrates in the person of Christ . . . Secondly, because the priest is the appointed intermediary between God and the people, hence as it belongs to him to offer the people's gifts to God, so it belongs to him to deliver the consecrated gifts to the people. Thirdly, because out of reverence toward this sacrament nothing touches it but what is consecrated, hence the corporal and the chalice are consecrated, and likewise the priest's hands, for touching this sacrament. Hence it is not lawful for anyone else to touch it, except from necessity — for instance, if it were to fall upon the ground, or else in some other case of urgency.In his apostolic letter Dominicae Cenae, Pope John Paul II also states: "How eloquent, therefore, even if not of ancient custom, is the rite of the anointing of the hands in our Latin ordination, as though precisely for these hands a special grace and power of the Holy Spirit is necessary. To touch the sacred species, and to distribute them with their own hands, is a privilege of the ordained, one which indicates an active participation in the ministry of the Eucharist."
Mother Teresa reportedly said, "Wherever I go in the whole world, the thing that makes me the saddest is watching people receive Communion in the hand." Even the great Pope John Paul II reportedly said: "There is an apostolic letter on the existence of a special valid permission for this [Communion in the hand]. But I tell you that I am not in favor of this practice, nor do I recommend it.”
Become less so that you can then become more.
Communion on the tongue helps to foster a proper sense of reverence and piety. To step up to a communion rail, and kneel, and receive on the tongue, is an act of utter and unabashed humility. In that posture to receive the Body of Christ, you become less so that you can then become more. It requires a submission of will and clear knowledge of what you are doing, why you are doing it, and what is about to happen to you.
Frankly, we should not only be humbled, but intimidated enough to ask ourselves if we are really spiritually ready to partake of the sacrament. Kneeling means you can't just go up and receive without knowing how it's properly done. It demands not only a sense of focus and purpose, but also something else, something that has eluded our worship for two generations.
It demands a sense of the sacred. Just like Peter, James and John before our Transfigured Lord, it challenges us to kneel before wonder. It insists that we not only fully understand what is happening, but that we fully appreciate the breathtaking generosity behind it. It asks us to be mindful of what "Eucharist" really means: Thanksgiving.