Thursday, March 19, 2015

Communion In The Hand vs. On The Tongue--Does It Matter?

While I am anything but the World's Biggest Fan of the "Crux" blog run by John L. Allen, Jr. of the Boston Globe, occasionally a friend will send me something from that site, or I'll encounter an interesting piece on New Advent or some other aggregator site, and will give it a read.  Just today I received via email a link to an interesting commentary on Crux, by Mathew N. Schmalz, on the seemingly endless debate about what is the "better" way to receive our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament--on the tongue or in the hand?  It's worth reading and considering, and has a good brief review of the history of communion in the hand in the USA, as well as the author's experiences in other countries.  Mr. Schmalz concludes his reflection as follows:
"Debating Communion in the hand versus Communion on the tongue does raise important issues. But all too often, it has become a way, on both sides, of judging people we do not know. In doing so, we can distract ourselves not only from the miracle what is happening in front of us, but also from the miracle that is happening alongside of us.
And so what is it about Communion in the hand versus Communion on the tongue?
As always, the problem is with our own sinful selves."
Nothing to argue with there, really, although I might add that part of the problem is the choice itself, which the Church could take care of by revoking the indult given to the US Bishops years ago.  More on that below.

My friend also e-mailed this link, to a post from several years ago by one of my favorite Catholic bloggers, Father John Zuhlsdorf (a/k/a "Father Z.")  It raises what I think is a serious issue, that of the fragments or crumbs which tend to fall from the hosts used in most Catholic churches in the US (based on both personal experience and some research), even if all concerned are exercising due care.  Fr. Z demonstrates photographically that crumbs/fragments are likely to be present in one's hand merely by having the consecrated host placed there by the priest or Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion.  I'd venture to say that darn near nobody ever licks or otherwise removes any fragments from the palm of their hand after consuming the Sacrament, so those fragments, each of which contains the whole and entire Presence of Christ, end up getting dropped somewhere between the place of reception and the communicant's pew.  That is with the exception, of course, of those communicants who bolt directly for the parking lot upon receiving.  Their fragments could even end up outside.  (More on my view of early departure from Mass in a subsequent post, perhaps!)

The friend who sent me these articles commented that he stopped receiving in the hand after seeing Fr. Z's photographs. I can understand that.

As for myself, I've floated back and forth on this practice since my entry into the Church (ten years ago next week!)  At my original parish, where I went through RCIA, we were not even told we had a choice; had it not been for my "auxiliary" education in the faith via EWTN, Catholic Answers and independent reading, I would not have known anyone received other than in the hand prior to actually seeing people do it at Mass.  (Remember, we Candidates were not there to watch the communion process until the Easter Vigil itself.)  I have read all sorts of commentary from both perspectives, including issues such as those raised by Fr. Z and by the writer on Crux, as well as hygiene, reverence, tradition vs. indult, the "throne" theory attributed to St. Cyril and endorsed in word, at least, by Pope Benedict XVI, in the book Light of the World, although he normally required receipt on the tongue when he celebrated Mass, and probably others.  I've also seen commentary such as appears in the comments on Fr. Z's post about the type of host used--the thin white kind vs. the larger and slightly darker colored ones like we use at my current parish.  Many say the small, white ones are less prone to leaving particles, but I wouldn't know about that; I do know they dissolve quickly and don't require chewing, which is another issue that seems to get folks excited.  

In any case, my thought process has always been centered on showing the reverence I believe we all should show to the Lord's Presence in the Blessed Sacrament.  Once I learned the teaching of the Church on the Real Presence, I was so captivated by it that showing great reverence just seemed like the only logical thing to do.  That doesn't mean I think I'm smarter than anyone else or have some special gift of discernment; on the contrary, one of the things that attracted me initially to the Church was the much greater sense of reverence I saw at a Catholic Mass as compared to the Protestant (mostly Methodist) services to which I was accustomed.  Some adherents of the TLM greatly disparage today's "Ordinary Form" as having very little reverence in comparison with the TLM, but the OF was all I knew when I started my journey, and it can be celebrated with great reverence, indeed. 

Deep down, I think showing proper reverence doesn't depend on whether one receives in the hand or on the tongue, although I appreciate the argument that says only ordained clergy or properly trained lay ministers should handle the consecrated host. I also am aware that a fair number of folks who might be called "traditionalists" believe that communion in the hand was an intentional effort on the part of "modernists" to strip the Church of belief in the Real Presence.  They maintain (and I have not researched the history here) that immediately after the Protestant separation, Luther and others adopted the practice of communion in the hand precisely as a means of demonstrating rejection of the Catholic doctrine.  But I'm not getting into all of that here.  The Church still teaches Transubstantiation and the Real Presence, so if communion in the hand was an attempt to change that, it has failed, at least so far.

To me, what is most important is a person's general demeanor.  In the Sacred Liturgy, every movement and posture of the priest, deacon(s), lay ministers and faithful is intended to be meaningful, because we are physical persons, and how we move and act is part and parcel of what is in our hearts--it both reflects what is there, and helps to form us into better disciples.  I remember reading a while back about one of our separated brethren saying that if he believed what the Catholic Church teaches about Jesus' presence in the Eucharist, he would crawl on his belly up to the foot of the altar to receive Him.  And, in principle, he's absolutely right.  Now, obviously, having everyone prostrate themselves to receive Holy Communion would make things a bit difficult logistically, but it's the same principle that underlies the practice of the communion rail in the TLM, and there are times when I wish we could go back at least to that manner of distributing Communion, even within the Ordinary Form rite.  

This next part I say somewhat reluctantly, in light of the passage I quoted above from the Crux article, so I'm trying not to be sinfully judgmental here, in the sense of inferring from exterior actions what is in someone's heart:  I especially tend to wish for a return to the communion rail when I see people at Sunday Mass bopping up the aisle as if they were in line for a burger and fries, casually receiving the Eucharist without even a minor bow of the head, and then walking away as if the whole thing were sort of boring, and gee, I'm glad THAT's over with, now what's for brunch?  It's entirely possible that these folks are solid believers who do all they can to live out the faith in their daily lives, but you'd never know it from the way they treat Holy Communion.  There is also a very good chance that the reason they don't show more reverence is that nobody ever taught them otherwise.  And that's really sad.

At the end of it all, it may well be that the loss of some particles of the Blessed Sacrament, and thus the Presence of the Lord, is unavoidable even when everyone is careful, regardless of whether communion is given in the hand or only on the tongue.  However, if I were Czar of the Universe (to quote my professor of contract law way back when),  I would prefer to see it standardized, even if for no other reason than to shut off the frequently uncharitable debate.  And going a bit further in the line of reasoning, it makes sense to me that the fewer people who touch the consecrated host, the more likely it will be that such loss can be avoided.  Again, as noted, I'm not convinced that it's in any way "bad" for us ordinary lay Catholics to touch the Blessed Sacrament with our grubby hands, as long as we treat it as what it is, the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ.  I just think it's a mathematical certainty that when we all receive in the hand, more little pieces which are the substance of the Lord Jesus will be dropped on floors or on the ground and walked on, unknowingly, by lots of other people than would be the case if everyone received on the tongue.

So, as Czar, I would opt for receipt on the tongue only, and require the use of patens. Also, to shut down another sometimes contentious discussion, this one about hygiene at Mass, if the Precious Blood is to be administered to the faithful, it should be by intinction only.  The USCCB could do this, simply by declining to follow the indult (exception) granted back in the oh-so-silly 1970's.  Maybe they could spend some time studying this instead of issuing all sorts of political statements on issues beyond their expertise.  Or the Holy See could revoke the indult, though I suspect that's not an issue very high on the Pope's radar at the moment.  Either way, I bet that after the usual period of wailing and grinding of teeth that erupts whenever a change in liturgical norms occurs, everyone would get used to it and life would go on.

Of course, if communion in the hand were to be abolished in the USA, priests and Ministers and communicants would all need remedial training on how to make receipt on the tongue work smoothly, as too many people don't really know how to, for lack of a better term, present a proper "target" so the priest or extraordinary minister can place the host on the tongue without actually touching the tongue with their fingers.  That's yucky, even if you don't have a communicable disease to spread around (and if you do, you should probably just stay home, anyway.) Also, I suspect that since in my experience about 95% of communicants receive in the hand, the EMHC's themselves are not very adept at placing the host, either.  Time to practice!  Pizza afterwards!

That's my little contribution to this discussion.  Thanks for reading.  Laudator Jesus Christus!

UPDATE--March 24, 2015:

A friend and RCIA colleague at my parish went and did some research on this issue and came up with the following:

Thomas Aquinas in ST 77:4 states:

“Nevertheless, a distinction must be made between each of the aforesaid corruptions; because, when the body and the blood of Christ succeed in this sacrament to the substance of the bread and wine, if there be such change on the part of the accidents as would not have sufficed for the corruption of the bread and wine, then the body and blood of Christ do not cease to be under this sacrament on account of such change, whether the change be on the part of the quality, as for instance, when the color or the savor of the bread or wine is slightly modified; or on the part of the quantity, as when the bread or the wine is divided into such parts as to keep in them the nature of bread or of wine. But if the change be so great that the substance of the bread or wine would have been corrupted, then Christ's body and blood do not remain under this sacrament; and this either on the part of the qualities, as when the color, savor, and other qualities of the bread and wine are so altered as to be incompatible with the nature of bread or of wine; or else on the part of the quantity, as, for instance, if the bread be reduced to fine particles, or the wine divided into such tiny drops that the species of bread or wine no longer remain.

This still needs to be reconciled with the practice of rinsing the ciboria on the altar to capture the particles left in the bottom of the vessel after Communion, as great care is required by the Church to be taken by the priests and deacons to ensure these are not lost.  I think that is fairly easy to do, since it is obvious that when particles reside in the sacred vessels, they are in fact part of the consecrated species.  However, once removed from the altar, if reduced to "fine particles", then Aquinas is saying it no longer remains the body and blood of Christ if it can no longer be recognized as bread.  

Makes sense to me.  

Laudator Jesus Christus!

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