The real beauty about this article is that it avoids useless disputes. “Of these things put them in mind, charging them before the Lord. Contend not in words, for it is to no profit, but to the subverting of the hearers. Carefully study to present thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But shun profane and vain babblings: for they grow much towards ungodliness.” (2 Tim 2:14-16, Douay-Rheims) Hence, I am not going to debate historical circumstance or conspiracy theories. You can have many arguments about all those things and really convince no one but those who have already made up their minds. Instead, in this article we dive into obedience and the sure charism of the teaching authority of the Church. Rather the gates of hell have prevailed or Christ’s promise to Peter that the gates of shall not prevail against the Church hold true to this day. (Mt 16:18)
Communion on the hand! Why the exclamation mark. First, because the Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith (Lumen Gentium, #11). Second, because it is a case of concern among many faithful. Is receiving Communion on the hand sinful?
My primary goal in writing is to bring awareness to the validity of Communion on the hand and calm the consciences of my brothers and sisters. I fully expect all readers to then double check my assertions with the Church authorities and what they have to say. I am just a layman. Please double check with your local bishop and he will calm your conscience even further. If I am wrong, please tell me.
To begin the discussion about Communion of the hand I would like to find a point of common agreement. I think that if you are reading this then we both agree that we want Jesus to be best served in all things. That is all this article is about. I fear that during covid-19 people that are accustomed to receiving Communion on the tongue may not receive Communion at all if it means receiving on the hand. I don’t want that to happen.
A novel approach, or at least one less taken, will be to read (or summarize) a passage from St. Faustina’s Diary. In paragraph 160, we can see that St. Faustina is sacrificing for sins and hoping that no sacrileges are committed that day. During Mass when receiving Communion on the tongue (as was the only way to receive when she was alive) another Host falls into her hands from the priest by accident. She felt a great love. Jesus said that he not only desires to rest in her heart but also in her hands.
Of course, the primary purpose of this episode was not to promote Communion on the hand, but it does not mean that we cannot learn something on the subject from it. Clearly, St. Faustina nor Jesus were tremendously frightened about her touching the Host (at least when it happened by accident). The lesson is that Jesus truly wants us to be with him especially in the Eucharist. Also, I think that we can agree, it is not about how we want to receive but about how Jesus wants to be received. -How he wants to be in us.
In discussing this topic, I am aware that I am dealing with the desire of Jesus to be with us and the summit and source of our faith. So not to overstep my reaches, I will not be commenting on if Communion on the hand is better or worse than Communion on the tongue. I will leave that to those to whom authority has been given to discuss that. What I do want to defend is the consciences of my brethren when attacked by others who say that Communion on the hand is a sin or sacrilege.
St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica has several articles devoted to the topic of the Eucharist. (Not a surprise). He clearly teaches that quantity is part of the substance of what makes Jesus truly present. (ST III:77:4) Thus, if you lose sufficient quantity Jesus is not present. So, receiving Communion on the hand does not mean that we need a microscope to ensure that no particles are lost. We have to remember that St. Thomas Aquinas was referring to substance in an Aristotelian fashion. In this mindset, matter is not at the atomic level but at the level of what would still be rationally considered the same substance to the eyes. Hence, if a piece of bread is so small it is more like a spec of dust, then it would no longer be considered a piece of bread. The same level of quantity would apply to St. Thomas’ definition of when quantity in the Sacred Species can be lost and the bread and wine stop being the true body and blood of Christ.
Now the question is brought up, ‘is Communion on the hand sinful because particles of Jesus are lost (even non-microscopic ones) when you receive on the hand?’ My answer is no. Careful reception does not cause particles to be lost so it is not a sin. I personally think that we can become scrupulous as to when we see particles on our hands after receiving Communion and when we don’t.
Yes, we do need to be careful most especially about the Eucharist.
“Therefore, whosoever shall eat this bread, or drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord. But let a man prove himself: and so, let him eat of that bread, and drink of the chalice. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord. Therefore, are there many inform and weak among you, and many sleep. But if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged. But whilst we are judged, we are chastised by the Lord, that we be not condemned with this world.” (1 Cor 11:27-32, Douay-Rheims)
But our special care for the Eucharist should not lead us to scruples or other errors of unbalance. What do I mean by unbalance?
“For leaving the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men, the washing of pots and of cups: and many other things you do like to these. And he said to them: Well do you make void the commandment of God, that you may keep your own tradition. For Moses said: Honor thy father and thy mother; and He that shall curse father or mother, dying let him die. But you say: If a man shall say to his father or mother, Corban, (which is a gift,) whatsoever is from me, shall profit thee. And further you suffer him not to do any thing for his father or mother, Making void the word of God by your own tradition, which you have given forth. And many other such like things you do.” (Mk 7:8-13, Douay-Rheims)
Just as there is the error of introducing some unholy and ‘new’ practice (not that Communion on the hand is new because it was also practiced in the ancient church) there is also the error of holding onto some practice for the wrong reasons and justifying it using religion. There are many great reasons why you may want to receive Communion on the tongue instead of on the hand. You may feel that it fosters greater faith. Yet, during a pandemic, for example, and your bishop asks you to receive on the hand – what do you do? Which is the greater virtue — that of obedience or that of pious traditional devotion?
Even if you argue that a bishop cannot legally in cannon law force people to receive Communion on the hand that is only dodging the question. Does it really matter if a bishop cannot do something in cannon law? According to cannon law bishops can only do about 7 + a few things and those are the 7 sacraments + a few juridical matters. Yet, throughout history when a bishop asked the faithful to do something they obeyed and did so promptly.
I would like to quote from 2 saints known for their extraordinary obedience. Note how St. Kolbe says that a superior commanding sin does not happen in practice.
“Obedience of the intellect and the will is the most difficult vow to put into practice; however, in order to observe it perfectly, it is helpful to: 1) see in the superior, God who commands, and 2) consider that man cannot do anything better than that which the superior has ordered.” (SK-962)
-St. Maximillian Kolbe
“The superiors can make mistakes, but we in obeying can never make a mistake. There is only one exception: if a superior should ever command a thing clearly evident to be a sin, even the smallest sin. This is a thing that does not happen in practice. In such a case the superior would not be the representative of God, and we would not be obliged to obey him. Apart from the superiors we cannot trust our reason, which can make a mistake. Only God, only He, infallible, most holy, most loving, He is our Lord, Father, Creator, End, Reason, Strength, Love… Our Everything!”1
-St. Maximillian Kolbe
“What seems to me white, I will believe black if the hierarchical Church so defines.”
-St. Ignatius of Loyola
As a result, the only real reason to not obey a bishop when he asks us to do something has nothing to due with cannon law and all the more to do with if what they command is a sin.
Back to the topic of sin and Communion on the hand. Why do I say there is no sin? I base my answer largely on the sole fact that the Church has allowed Communion on the hand and it is guided by the Holy Spirit. If Communion on the hand was such a great problem or sin that would mean the Church has explicitly allowed something very wrong and has gone into grave error. It is my understanding of the Church that it is guarded against such grave errors by God’s grace. Several modern Popes and 1000s of bishops have not seen anything gravely wrong with Communion on the hand or they would have cancelled the practice and stopped the many publications with its mention of validity.
One such document is the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. (Liturgical documents like this one even go through the Vatican for approval) The one I reference from is the version with adaptations for United States. In paragraph 160, we see that the norm for receiving Communion in the States is standing, while those who kneel are not to be denied but addressed pastorally as to the reasons for the norm of standing. We also see that the faithful can receive on the tongue or on the hand. This along with many other documents or updates to documents show that the bishops clearly teach that the faithful may receive on the hand. (That does not mean there are valid exceptions to this rule though)
(The idea of kneeling while receiving the Eucharist in the United States of America is also addressed in paragraph 160 and we see that it says those who kneel are to be told pastorally to stand) Let’s skip that discussion for now. Kneeling though often bound up with receiving on the hand, in some traditional circles, is a sperate issue.
In fact, Communion on the hand was also an ancient practice of the church, such that we can add large numbers ancient popes and early bishops to the list of approvers as well. (I will leave this for you to research more deeply) Start with St. Cyril of Jerusalem. “When you approach, take care not to do so with your hand stretched out and your fingers open or apart, but rather place your left hand as a throne beneath your right, as befits one who is about to receive the King. Then receive him, taking care that nothing is lost.”
St. Basil 330-379 “It is good and beneficial to communicate every day, and to partake of the holy body and blood of Christ. For He distinctly says,
He that eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life (Jn. 6:54). And who doubts that to share frequently in life, is the same thing as to have manifold life. I, indeed, communicate four times a week, on the Lord’s Day, on Wednesday, on Friday, and on the Sabbath, and on the other days if there is a commemoration of any Saint. It is needless to point out that for anyone in times of persecution to be compelled to take the communion in his own hand without the presence of a priest or minister is not a serious offense, as long custom sanctions this practice from the facts themselves. All the solitaries in the desert, where there is no priest, take the communion themselves, keeping communion at home. And at Alexandria and in Egypt, each one of the laity, for the most part, keeps the communion, at his own house, and participates in it when he likes. For when once the priest has completed the offering, and given it, the recipient, participating in it each time as entire, is bound to believe that he properly takes and receives it from the giver. And even in the church, when the priest gives the portion, the recipient takes it with complete power over it, and so lifts it to his lips with his own hand. It has the same validity whether one portion or several portions are received from the priest at the same time. (Letter 93)“
Pope Cornelius “And the unhappy man does not taste until he has called down imprecations on himself; and instead of saying Amen, as he takes the bread, he says, I will never
return to Cornelius…“
St. John Damascus “Wherefore with all fear and a pure conscience and certain faith let us draw near and it will assuredly be to us as we believe, doubting nothing. Let us pay homage to it in all purity both of soul and body: for it is twofold. Let us draw near to it with an ardent desire, and with our hands held in the form of the cross let us receive the body of the Crucified One: and let us apply our eyes and lips and brows and partake of the divine coal, in order that the fire of the longing, that is in us, with the additional heat derived from the coal may utterly consume our sins and illumine our hearts, and that we may be inflamed and deified by the participation in the divine fire.“
This means Communion on the hand is part of the Church’s teaching on faith and morals as it relates to discipline. Yes, for some time the church did away with Communion on the hand. Yet, that does not mean the same Papal authority cannot bring it back. There was also great reservation about early reintroduction of Communion on the hand, yet those same Popes did not stop the practice showing that they supported it at least marginally. Additionally, the comments of past Popes allowing Communion on the hand with reserve should be read in conjunction with modern documents which do not state the allowance with so much reserve and restrictions. Some Papal documents are on topics of discipline that can change with time while others are on dogma that cannot change over time.
One example of Papal reserve can be found in Pope St. John Paul II. “In some countries the practice of receiving Communion in the hand has been introduced. This practice has been requested by individual episcopal conferences and has received approval from the Apostolic See. However, cases of a deplorable lack of respect towards the eucharistic species have been reported, cases which are imputable not only to the individuals guilty of such behavior but also to the pastors of the church who have not been vigilant enough regarding the attitude of the faithful towards the Eucharist. It also happens, on occasion, that the free choice of those who prefer to continue the practice of receiving the Eucharist on the tongue is not taken into account in those places where the distribution of Communion in the hand has been authorized. It is therefore difficult in the context of this present letter not to mention the sad phenomena previously referred to. This is in no way meant to refer to those who, receiving the Lord Jesus in the hand, do so with profound reverence and devotion, in those countries where this practice has been authorized.” (Dominicae Cenae, #11)2
Pope St. John Paul recognized that Communion on the hand was followed by instances were people had lower levels of respect for the Eucharist and he also recognized that there are those who receive Communion on the hand reverently. Notice how in this as in many other documents Papal authority recognizes the problems yet continues to allow the practice. What does not follow is that Communion on the hand in and of itself causes a lack of faith. There would not be people receiving reverently, as Pope St. John Paul mentions, if Communion on the hand causes lack of faith in and of itself. Pope. St. John Paul II even revised the Roman Missal in 2002 yet did not remove the practice. These and many other examples show that the Church authorities were very aware of the situation yet never removed the practice on a global level for decades now. Hence, they do not believe it is a grave or even venial sin. (There were some restrictions in individual churches)
If you read further in Dominicae Cenae paragraph 11 you can even see Pope St. John Paul mention about consecrated hands. “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. It is obvious that the Church can grant this faculty to those who are neither priests nor deacons, as is the case with acolytes in the exercise of their ministry, especially if they are destined for future ordination, or with other lay people who are chosen for this to meet a just need, but always after an adequate preparation.” (Dominicae Cenae, #11)3 The Church authority is aware that priests have consecrated hands and are hence those who should distribute Communion. Yet, in their wisdom this did not stop them from allowing Communion on the hand in their understanding of the teaching.
It is not possible that anything taught universally by the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium of the church about faith and morals to be in grave error in terms of church discipline at the level that Communion on the hand has been taught. (individual bishops, yes, they can error but not the group when united with Peter) I reiterate. The Church is guarded by the Holy Spirit from promoting matters gravely sinful and erroneous in its universal teaching. The Church has allowed Communion on the hand for a long time (and published many documents saying so), so Communion on the hand cannot therefore be a sacrilege or the Church has taught error and that means everything is up for grabs.
One might object that Communion on the hand has not reached the level of the Ordinary and Universal teaching level and claim it is just an Ordinary teaching. I would disagree but even if it did not it would be very close and thus, require very serious submission of will to obey. According to manuals on theology we can find that liturgical and disciplinary acts associated with dogma can be considered part of the Church’s teaching at the Ordinary and Universal teaching level. “Among the customs and practices which have been closely joined to dogma we mention especially the public rites used in the solemn celebration of the sacrifice, or in the administration of the sacraments; also the formulas of prayers and various feasts or offices instituted by the Church; or sacred practices which have been associated with doctrine.“4
According to Vatican II in Lumen Gentium teaching must also be held in agreement and to be held definitively in line with Peter’s successor and the bishops together. Communion on the hand largely meets this criteria. It is allowed in official documents, supported by the bishops and the Pope and it has been an ancient and honorable tradition of the past.
“Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they do, however, proclaim infallibly the doctrine of Christ when, even though dispersed throughout the world but maintaining among themselves and with Peter’s successor the bond of Communion, in authoritatively teaching matters to do with faith and morals, they are in agreement that a particular teaching is to be held definitively. This is still more clearly the case when, assembled in an ecumenical council, they are, for the universal church, teachers of and judges in matter of faith and morals, whose definitions must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.” (Lumen Gentium, #25)5
The Holy Spirit assists the living Magisterium of the Church (CCC #688). As the Catechism of the Catholic Church also teaches, “Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in Communion with the successors of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome … when without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a ‘definite manner,’ they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful ‘are to adhere to it with religious assent’ which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.” (CCC #892)6
As the above quotes from Lumen Gentium and the Catechism shows, we owe the bishops teaching with the Ordinary Magisterium of the church about Communion on the hand deep and serious respect (religious assent). Therefore, to say that Communion on the hand leads to a decline in faith means that the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium of the church has taught something very harmful and gravely sinful.
Now not everything the bishops say is perfect. “When it comes to the question of interventions in the prudential order, it could happen that some Magisterial documents might not be free from all deficiencies.” (Donum Veritatis, #24)7
Yet, I don’t think that the documents about Communion on the hand, nor the topic of Communion on the hand are simply prudential but touches deeply into the faith. We need “to assess accurately the authoritativeness of the interventions which becomes clear from the nature of the documents, the insistence with which a teaching is repeated, and the very way in which it is expressed.” (Donum Veritatis, #24)8 Since, Communion on the hand has been allowed with authority in documents like the General Instruction for the Mass and the revised Roman Missals it has been repeated in time throughout history since the time of the Apostles and is dealing with grave subject matter I argue that Communion on the hand is guarded against error as being part of the teaching of the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium of the Church.
I have read many arguments against receiving on the hand due to negative aspects of historical circumstance. (such that it came from various groups or social regions) These arguments if held would also have to be applied to other church historical acts surrounded by negative circumstances. This unfortunately would call into question a lot of things not just Communion on the hand. Either way, even if there were bad historical circumstances the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium has still spoken.
I have also read the various liturgical and faith-based arguments. Yet, I cannot accept these as holding much weight if they proceed to claim that the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium has promoted grave error, sin and lead many to lose faith in the sacred species. That is impossible.
Again, I make no comment about which is better (hand or tongue- I leave that to Pope). I simply state that my family and myself will not allow the mind of others to be swayed away from receiving Jesus simply because they receive on the hand. Take my opinion for what it is – that of a layman. On the day of judgment, I want to be known as one who holds to what I have written.
As a conclusion, I want to remind everyone that devotion to the Eucharist is so important. Just, because I support Communion on the hand does not mean I want its devotion to be less intense. Please receive Communion in a state of grace (Canon #916) and with the one hour fast (Canon #919). I also recommend coming early to pray to prepare, making a bow before reception, if local custom allows to show reverence, and saying a thanksgiving afterwards.
(1) Ricciardi, Rev. Antonio O.F.M. Conv., St. Maximilian Kolbe Apostle of our Difficult Age, Translated by Daughter’s of St. Paul. Daughter’s of Saint Paul, 1982 page 84.
(2) John Paul II, Letter, “Dominicae Cenae to all the Bishops of the Church on the Mystery and Worship of the Eucharist,” https://w2.vatican.va /content/john-paul-ii/en/letters/1980/documents/hf_jp-ii_let_1980022 4_ dominicae-cenae.html.
(4) AD. Tanquerey, A Manual of Dogmatic Theology, transl. by Rev. Msgr. John J. Byrnes, Desclee, New York, 1959, pg 290.
(5) Austin Flannery, O.P., General Editor, “The Basic Sixteen Documents: Vatican II Constitutions Decrees Declarations: A completely Revised Translation in Inclusive Language” Costello Publishing Company: New York.
(6) Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994 Libreria Editrice Vaticanna.
(7) Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Instruction Donum Veritatis: On the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian,” https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/ documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19900524_theologian-vocation_en.html.
Copyright Geo. West. 2021
All rights reserved.
For another great reference see The Western Practice of Communion in the Hand with Michael Lofton – YouTube This video goes into detail how Communion on the hand was the norm of the Church for 1000 and that Communion on the tongue was a novelty.