Middle of the Wedge - Myths about Communion in the Hand Debunked

This article, while only a draft, provides some excellent food for thought.  I have reproduced it here just in case the repository where I found it goes off line.



Some Considerations on Holy Communion in the Hand

Following your editor's request for information, here are some patristic and historical considerations on Communion on the hand, as well as an additional aspect. Was it universal? The history of Communion in the hand is often presented in certain quarters as follows: From the Last Supper on, Holy Communion was, as the norm, continually given in the hand. So it was during the age of the martyrs. And it continued to be so during that golden age of the Fathers and of the liturgy after the peace of Constantine in 313 A.D. And it continued to be the common practice until at least the tenth century. Thus for over half of the life of the Church it was the norm. An argument for the above is held to be found in a text of St. Cyril of Jerusalem's fifth Mystagogic Catechesis (21f), which he preached to neophytes in 348 A.D., in which he counsels the faithful to "place your left hand as the throne of your right one, which is to receive the King [in Holy Communion]" (apudL'Osservatore Romano. English edition of June 14, 1973, p. 6). This Father of the Church further counsels great care for any Fragments which might remain on one's hands. According to some critics' version of history, popular in certain quarters, Communion on the tongue became the universal norm in this way: During the Middle Ages certain distortions in the faith and/or in approaches to it gradually developed. These included an excessive fear of God and an over-concern about sin, judgment and punishment, as well as an over-emphasis on Christ's divinity-- so emphasized as to down-play His sacred humanity or virtually deny it; also an over-emphasis on the priest's role in the sacred liturgy, and a loss of the sense of the community which the Church, in fact, is. In particular, because of excessive emphasis on adoring Christ in the Holy Eucharist and an over-strict approach to moral matters, Holy Communion became more and more rare. It was considered enough to gaze upon the Sacred Host during the elevation. (In fact, in certain critics' minds the elevation, exposition and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament find their origins during the 'unfortunate' Middle Ages, a period whose liturgical practices we would do well-- so they think-- to rid ourselves of.) It was in this atmosphere and under these circumstances, they argue, that the practice of Communion in the hand began to be restricted. The practice of the priest placing the consecrated Bread directly into the mouth of the communicant thus developed and, they think, was unwisely imposed. The conclusion is rather clear: We should get rid of this custom. We should forbid or at least discourage the Communion-on-the-tongue practice whereby the faithful are not allowed to "take and eat," and should return to the pristine usage of the Fathers and Apostles, namely, Communion in the hand.  It is a compelling story. It is too bad that it is not true. The sacred Council of Trent declared that the custom whereby only the priest-celebrant gives Communion to himself (with his own hands), and the laity receive It from him, is an Apostolic tradition. (1) A more rigorous study of available evidence from Church history and from writings of the Fathers does not support the assertion that Communion in the hand was a universal practice which was gradually supplanted and eventually replaced by the practice of Communion on the tongue. Rather, facts seem to point to a different conclusion: Pope St. Leo the Great (440-461) is an early witness of the traditional practice. In his comments on the sixth chapter of St. John's Gospel he speaks of Communion in the mouth as the current usage: "One receives in the mouth what one believes by faith." (2) The Pope does not speak as if he were introducing a novelty, but as if this were a well established thing. A century and a half later Pope St. Gregory the Great (died in 604) is another witness. In his dialogues he relates how Pope St. Agapitus performed a miracle during Mass, after having placed the Body of the Lord into someone's mouth. We are not claiming that under no circumstances whatever did the faithful receive by their own hands. But under what conditions did this happen? It does seem that from very early times on, it was usual for the priest to place the Sacred Host into the mouth of the communicant. However, during times of persecution, when priests were not readily available, and when the faithful took the Sacrament to their homes, they gave Communion to themselves by their own hand. Rather than be totally deprived of the Bread of Life, they could receive by their own hand. The same applied to monks who had gone out into the desert, where they would not have the services of a priest and would not want to give up the practice of daily holy Communion.  St. Basil the Great (330-379) indicates that reception of Communion by one's own hand was permitted precisely because of persecution, or, as was the case with monks in the desert, when no deacon or priest was available to give It. (3)  In his article on "Communion" in the Dictionaire d'Archeologiae Chretienne, Leclerq declares that the peace of Constantine in 313 A.D. served toward bringing the practice of Communion in the hand to an end. After persecution had ceased, evidently the practice of Communion in the hand persisted here and there. Church authority apparently judged that it invited abuse and deemed it contrary to the custom of the Apostles. Thus the Synod of Rouen, France, in about 878 directed: "Do not put the Eucharist in the hands of any layman or laywomen, but only in their mouths" ("nulli autem laico aut feminae eucharistiam in manibus ponat, sed tantum in os eius"). (4) A non-ecumenical Council of Constantinople known as "In Trullo" in 692 A.D. prohibited the faithful from giving Communion to themselves (which is of course what happens when the Sacred Particle is placed in the hand of communicants), and decreed a censure against those who would do so in the presence of a bishop, priest or deacon. Promoters of Communion in the hand generally make little mention of the evidence we have brought forward, but do make constant use of the text attributed above to St. Cyril of Jerusalem, who lived in the fourth century at the time of St. Basil. But scholars dispute the authenticity of the St. Cyril text, according to Jungmann-Brunner, op. cit., p. 191, n.25. It is not impossible that the text is really the work of the Patriarch John, who succeeded Cyril in Jerusalem. This John was of suspect orthodoxy, as we know from the correspondence of St. Epiphanius, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine. But is it not a form of clericalism to allow the priest to touch the Sacred Host and to forbid the laity to do the same? But even priests were not allowed to touch the Blessed Sacrament except out of some need to do so. In fact, other than the celebrant of the Mass itself, no one else receiving Communion, not even a priest, could receive It in the hand. And so, in the traditional liturgical practice of the Roman Rite, if a priest were assisting at Mass (and not celebrating) and if he wished to receive Holy Communion, he did not do so by his own hand; he received on the tongue from another priest. The same would be true of a Bishop or even a Pope. When Pope St. Pius X was on his deathbed in August of 1914, and Holy Communion was brought to him as Viaticum, he did not and was not allowed to receive in the hand. He received on the tongue according to the law and practice of the Catholic Church. This confirms a basic point: Out of reverence it seems better that there be no unnecessary touching of the Sacred Host. Obviously someone is needed to distribute the Bread of Life. But it is not needful to make each man, woman and child into his own 'eucharistic minister' and multiply the handling and fumbling and danger of dropping and loss of Fragments. Even those whose hands have been specially consecrated to touch the Most Holy Eucharist, namely the priests, should not do so needlessly.  As for the present situation, in those countries where the indult for Communion in the hand has been granted by the Holy See, an individual bishop may forbid the practice; but no Bishop has authority to forbid the traditional way of receiving Our Lord on the tongue. But surely the Apostles received Communion in the hand at the Last Supper? It is usually presumed that this was so. Even if it were, though, we would point out that the Apostles were themselves priests, or even Bishops. But we must not forget a traditional custom of middle-eastern hospitality which was in practice in Jesus' time and which is still the case; that is, one feeds his guests with one's own hand, placing a symbolic morsel in the mouth of the guest. And we have this text of St. John's Gospel (13:26-30):
"Jesus answered, 'It is he to whom I shall give this Morsel when I havedipped It.' So when He had dipped the Morsel, He gave It to Judas... So,after receiving the Morsel, he [Judas] immediately went out..."
Did Our Lord place this wet Morsel into Judas' hand? That would be rather messy. Did He not perhaps extend to the one whom He addressed later in the garden as "friend" the gesture of hospitality spoken of above? And if so, why not with Holy Communion, "giving Himself by His own Hand"? --  CANADA. Fr. Paul McDonald, Pastor, St. Patrick's Church, 123 King St., Pt. Colborne, Ontario L3K 4G3. EDITOR'S NOTE TO READER: If any of you fear that Fr. McDonald has drawn some of this material from mistaken historical data, and you can cite precise sources which show anything Father says to be inaccurate or misleading, he and we would be grateful if you would write us about it. -- A.M.S. ---------------------- (1) "It has always been the practice in the Church of God in the reception of the Sacrament, that laypersons receive Communion from priests and that the priest-celebrants give Communion to themselves. This practice, coming down lawfully and justly from Apostolic tradition, ought to be retained." ("... In sacramentali autem sumptione semper in Ecclesia Dei mos fuit, ut laici a sacerdotibus communionem acciperent, sacerdotes autem celebrantes se ipsos communicarent; qui mos tamquam ex traditione apostolica descendens iure ac merito retineri debet.") -- Council of Trent, Sess. 13, chapter 8 (DS 1648). While this ranks as unapostolic the practice today of laypersons directly helping themselves to Hosts from the tabernacle or altar or ciborium, and its lesson seems out of harmony with the extensive use of lay ministers whereby they give Communion when the celebrant could just as well give It; yet the description in the text as worded here does not necessarily exclude the possibility of laypersons receiving Our Lord from the priest into their hands, and giving It then to themselves. --A.M.S., Editor. (2) "Hoc enim ore sumitur quod fide creditur" (Serm. 91.3). Of course this, too, proves no more of Fr. McDonald's thesis than the text quoted in footnote 1, except 'sumitur' can suggest receiving directly from the priest into the mouth. Passages from various Fathers of the Church are sometimes cited as authority that in their day Communion in the hand was universal. But the texts we have found assembled in literature promoting this practice, prove to us only that the practice existed, and perhaps prevailed in the area in which the writer lived, but not that it was the only method at that time in the whole Church. Nor do ancient materials quoted tell us whether the Apostles taught laypersons to receive holy Communion in the hand. Hence the Council of Trent and other witnessses here cited, may well have had important further information. Let me remark in passing that a writer in L'Osservatore Romano, English edition of June 14, 1973, pp. 6-7, influenced many when, in a long article he presents historical testimonies and references evidently intended to support his statement that: "The literary and monumental sources of the first nine centuries are unanimous in testifying to the use of receiving the eucharistic Bread in the hand throughout the whole Church." Note that this does not state Communion in the hand was the only method of communion during that period, as some have wrongly thought, nor do testimonies quoted in that writer's article tell us whether it was the most common method everywhere in the Church most of the time throughout the first nine centuries. --A.M.S., Editor. (3) "If one feels he should in times of persecution, in the absence of a priest or deacon, receive Communion by his own hand, there should be no need to point out that this certainly shows no grave immoderation; for long custom allows this in such cases. In fact, all solitaries in the desert, where there is no priest, reserving Communion in their dwellings, receive It from their own hands." (Our translation of St. Basil's words in M. J. Rouët de Journel's Enchiridion Patristicum, n. 916-- Barcelona, 1946). --A.M.S., Editor. (4) Can. 2 (Mansi, X, 1199). Apud Jungmann-Brunner, The Mass of the Roman Rite, vol. 2, pp. 381f, New York, Benziger Bros., 1955. Rev. Paul J. McDonald Parish Priest (Pastor) St. Patrick's Church 123 King Street Pt. Colborne, ON, Canada L3K 4G3 tel (905) 834 6426 fax (905) 834 1215 Email: pjm@vaxxine.com ======================================== + My brothers, all of you, if you are condemned to see the triumph of evil, never applaud it. Never say to evil: you are good; to decadence: you are progress; to the night: you are light; to death: you are life. Sanctify yourselves in the times wherein God has placed you; bewail the evils and the disorders which God tolerates; oppose them with the energy of your works and your efforts, your life uncontaminated by error, free from being led astray, in such a way that having lived here below, united with the Spirit of the Lord, you will be admitted to be made but one with Him forever and ever: Qui adhearet Deo unus spiritus est (I Cor 6:17) Cardinal Pie of Poitiers +


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