Frank Talk in the Age of Benedict

As Summorum Pontificum frees up conversation about the state of the liturgy, two Catholic prelates call for the abolition of Communion in the hand.


Pope Benedict XVI stunned many in the Catholic world last year when he lifted restrictions on the Church’s traditional Latin liturgy, saying it deserved honor and respect and had never actually been forbidden.
Since that time, serious, no-holdsbarred conversation about the state of the liturgy has suddenly become possible. Statements that would have relegated someone to the edges of debate even two or three years ago are now freely uttered.

Now the discussion has progressed beyond the virtues of the old missal and into some of the practices associated with the new liturgy. Specifically, two Catholic prelates in recent months have called for the abolition of Communion in the hand as a failed experiment that
has weakened faith in the Real Presence and introduced a spirit of irreverence into Catholic worship.

First, L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, published an article in January by Auxiliary Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Karaganda, Kazakhstan, calling for the restoration of Communion on the tongue.

“The awareness of the greatness of the Eucharistic mystery is demonstrated in a special way by the manner in which the body of the Lord is distributed and received,” Bishop Schneider wrote. “Wouldn’t it correspond better to the deepest reality and truth about the consecrated bread if even today the faithful would kneel on the ground to receive it, opening their mouths like the prophet receiving the word of God and allowing themselves to be nourished like a child?” he asked. Bishop Schneider also argued that reception on the tongue avoided any profanationthat may come from fragments of the Host remaining on the hand.

Several weeks later, Bishop Schneider’s book on the Eucharist, Dominus Est: Reflections of a Bishop from Central Asia on Holy Communion, was published by the Vatican Publishing House. Especially significant is the book’s preface —by Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.

In that preface, Archbishop Ranjith writes: “The Eucharist, bread transubstantiated into the body of Christ and wine into the blood of Christ—God in our midst—must be received with awe and an attitude of humble adoration.” Communion in the hand, he says, was “improperly and quickly introduced in some quarters of the Church shortly after the Council, changing the age-old practice and becoming the regular practice for the whole Church.”

Whatever the reasons for this practice, we cannot ignore what is happening worldwide where it has been implemented. This gesture has contributed to a gradual weakening of the attitude of reverence towards the sacred Eucharistic species, whereas the previous practice had better safeguarded that sense of reverence. There instead arose an alarming lack of recollection and a general spirit of carelessness. We see communicants who often return to their seats as if nothing extraordinary has happened. . . . In many cases, one cannot discern that sense of seriousness and inner silence that must signal the presence of God in the soul.

Beyond this, there are “those who take away the sacred species to keep them as souvenirs, those who sell, or worse yet, who take them away to desecrate in satanic rituals. Even in large concelebrations, also in Rome, several times the sacred species has been found thrown onto the ground.”

For these reasons and others, Archbishop Ranjith believes it is “high time to review and re-evaluate” Communion in the hand, and “if necessary, to abandon the current practice that was not called for by [Vatican II’s] Sacrosanctum Concilium . . . but was accepted only after its illegitimate introduction in some countries. Now, more than ever, we must help the faithful to renew a deep faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic species in order to strengthen the life of the Church and defend it in the midst of dangerous distortions of the faith that this situation continues to cause.”

At least one diocesan bishop in recent years has actually prohibited Communion in the hand in his diocese, concerned about its effects on Eucharistic faith. In 1996, Bishop Juan Rodolfo Laise of San Luis, Argentina announced that Communion in the hand was henceforth forbidden there.

In a small book he wrote on Communion in the hand, Bishop Laise cited Pope Pius XII’s teaching in Mediator Dei (1947) that the desire to introduce novelties into Catholic worship —even when the novelties are supposed to hearken back to ancient practice— when the existing practice was venerable and hallowed by tradition was at odds with a normal and healthy sensus Catholicus. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith subsequently approved Bishop Laise’s decision, informing him that “in deciding to maintain immutable the tradition of distributing Holy Communion in the mouth, [you] have acted in conformity with the law and therefore have not broken with ecclesial communion.”

The 1962 missal, the most recent codification of the traditional Latin Mass (known today as the “extraordinary form” of the Roman rite), takes for granted that the communicant is toreceive Holy Communion on the tongue. For instance, from the moment of the consecration until the purification of the sacred vessels, the priest is to hold thumb and forefinger together in order to prevent the profanation of any particle of the Sacred Species. If the priest is instructed to take such scrupulous care of the Eucharist, it would be incongruous for him then to place Holy Communion into communicants’ hands.

When Pope Paul VI grudgingly allowed Communion in the hand in some countries in 1969, his permission came in the context of a letter urging that the traditional practice of Communion on the tongue be retained. Allowance for Communion in the hand was made as a concession for parts of the world where disobedience on this point had already reached epidemic proportions. The Pontiff thus allowed the bishops to permit the practice if they thought it the best way to cope with the situation. (In fact, the Holy See had polled the world’s bishops in the late 1960s on the practice, and a majority had urged that it not be allowed.)

Memoriale Domini, the Congregation for Divine Worship’s 1969 Instruction on the Manner of Distributing Holy Communion, warns that a “change in a matter of such moment, based on a most ancient and venerable tradition, does not merely affect discipline. It carries certain dangers with it which may arise from the new manner of administering Holy Communion: the danger of a loss of reverence for the august sacrament of the altar, of profanation, of adulterating the true doctrine.” For these and other reasons, the Congregation explained, “the Holy Father has decided not to change the existing way of administering Holy Communion to the faithful.” The Congregation’s warnings continued:

This method of distributing Holy Communion [on the tongue] must be retained, taking the present situation of the Church in the entire world into account, not merely because it has many centuries of tradition behind it, but especially because it expresses the faithful’s reverence for the Eucharist.

Further, the practice which must be considered traditional ensures, more effectively, that Holy Communion is distributed with the proper respect, decorum, and dignity. It removes the danger of profanation of the sacred species, in which “in a unique way, Christ, God and man, is present whole and entire, substantially and continually.” Lastly, it ensures that diligent carefulness about the fragments of consecrated bread which the Church has always recommended.

The Apostolic See therefore emphatically urges bishops, priests and laity to obey carefully the law which is still valid and which has again been confirmed. It urges them to take account of the judgment given by the majority of Catholic bishops, of the rite now in use in the liturgy, of the common good of the Church.

Thus the Holy See was not excitedly resurrecting a discarded custom from the early Church and presenting it as equally acceptable to the centuries-old practice of Communion on the tongue. It was reluctantly granting post facto permission for a forbidden practice that was being disobediently introduced in various parts of the world. Whether this was the most advisable way to deal with disobedience is of course a perfectly debatable question. Archbishop Ranjith has now made his own opinion public and clear.

The winds of change continue to blow through the Vatican. We now have the secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship saying things that only a few years ago would have made even the most well-intentioned layman an object of suspicion. In the Age of Benedict, such candor is not only permitted but encouraged.


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