REPOST: Communion in the Hand or on the Tongue?

by Markus Tymister

For the old Gallican liturgy, which was replaced by the Roman Rite by Charlemagne in the 9th century, there are some interesting witnesses to the manner and place for receiving Communion (cf. G. Nickel, Der Anteil des Volkes an der Meßliturgie im Frankenreiche, Innsbruck 1930, 61-66):

The provincial council of Tours (567) stated its position in its decrees on the use of the altar space:

“Pars illa, quae a cancellis versus altare dividitur, choris tantum psallentium pateat clericorum. Ad orandum vero et communicandum, laicis et feminis, sicut mos est, pateant sancta sanctorum” (“Concilium Turonense”, in Concilia Galliae 511-695, ed. C. de Clercq, [CCSL 148A[ Turnhout 1963, 178).

(That part which is set off at the altar by the grating is open to the choir of singing clerics. But for praying and receiving Communion the holy of holies is open to lay men and women, as is customary.)

Here something significant is said about the place of Communion reception: men and women communicate in the altar space – indeed, at the altar itself.

The report on the miracle at the grave of St. Martin also gives the same information. A girl healed of palsy goes to Communion at the altar:

“[…] dissoluti sunt nervi, qui ligati erant et stetit super pedes suos, cuncto populo spectante, et sic, propitiante Domino, usque ad altare sanctum ad communicandum propriis gressibus nullo sustentante pervenit” (De miracolis S. Martini II, 14, ed. J. P. Migne [PL 71], 947A).

(Her captive nerves were set free and she stood on her own feet in front of all the people, and through the goodness of the Lord she went to the holy altar on her own feet and without help, in order to communicate.)

The reception of Communion took place standing and in the hand. Caesarius of Arles(+542) writes in one of his homilies:

“Omes viri quando ad altare accessuri sunt lavant manus suas et omnes mulieres nitida exhibent lineamenta, ubi corpus Christi accipiunt” (Caesarius of Arles, Sermo 229, 5, ed. J. P. Migne [PL 39], 2168).

(All men wash their hands before going to the altar, and all women hold a pure cloth on which they receive the Body of Christ.)

In the Roman rite the manner of receiving communion was the same, except that the altar space was reserved to the clergy. As the Roman rite was introduced in Frankish lands beginning in the 9th century, it took a long time before this restriction took hold. Reception of Communion right at the altar was too strongly entrenched.

We find further details on the reception of Communion in the Romano-Frankish rite witnessed already in the 8th century at St. Gall:

“Post haec discendit pontifex a sede sua et communicat populum qui manus suas extendere ad ipsum putuerit et revertitur ad sedem suam. Reliquum vero populum communicant episcopi et presbiteri et confirmant semper diaconi.” (Breviarium ecclesiastici ordinis (ORXVII): Les Ordines Romani du hout moyen-age, ed. M. Andrieu, vol. 3 [SSL 24], Louvain 1971)

(Then the bishop steps down from his seat and gives Communion to the people, who extends their hands out to him, and then he returns to his seat. The other people receive Communion from bishops and priests, and the deacons complete it [i.e., give the chalice].”

The bishop who presides at Mass gives Communion to the select ones of the people in the hand. The other faithful receive Communion in the same way from the hand of further bishops and priests. In both cases “confirmant semper diaconi” – deacons extend the chalice. Communion in the form of bread alone was unthinkable at that time.

Only at the turn of the millennium did the transition take place to Communion on the tongue while kneeling. For at least 900 years Christians have received the Eucharist standing and, as a matter of course, under both forms – and for the most part, directly at the altar. The reasons why entrance to the altar space was gradually prohibited to laity are manifold, and have to do above all with Old Testament (and pagan) notions of cultic purity. This is seen already in the call for hand washing for men and the communion cloth for women.

Particularly in worshiping communities that are getting smaller, it would certainly be worth reflecting on the older Communion practice today. Receiving Communion directly at the altar seems “unpractical” at first. But this holds true here: what is “practical” in normal life is oftentimes not appropriate for the liturgy (Jungmann). And the danger of stumbling on the altar steps is no longer so frightening when one considers the essentially “more dangerous” path our community members take to get to church at all. The originally non-Christian notion of cultic impurity through contact with body fluids it largely overcome today, and it should be clear that the altar is not reserved exclusively to clergy. In this our communities still have a ways to go. Whether Communion is received in the hand or on the tongue can be left to the individual, though Communion in the hand is clearly the older form. In any case, participation in the cup of the covenant is important!

Translated by AWR and reprinted with permission from the blog Populo Congregato. Original:  “Handcommunion oder Mundkommunion?” Fr. Markus Tymister is faculty member at the Pontifical Institute of Liturgy at Sant’ Anselmo in Rome. Image: The Altar of the Notre Dame de Avenas church. Avenas, France; XII century.


  1. “Receiving Communion directly at the altar seems ‘unpractical’ at first. But… what is “practical” in normal life is oftentimes not appropriate for the liturgy.”

    This suggestion doesn’t seem to consider current norms for the reception of communion as laid out in the Church instructions (GIRM, CB, etc.), or the reasons why these norms exist in the first place. Presiding and concelebrating priests receive the Eucharist ‘by their own right’ (not through a minister of Holy Communion), directly from the altar or otherwise, because it is the species that they themselves consecrated. That laypeople, deacons, and clergy in choir receive from celebrating priests or his deputies (deacons, instituted acolytes, Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, etc.) is because the celebrant, by his Holy Orders, acts ‘in persona Christi’ in offering up the Holy Sacrifice, as we laypeople cannot.

    I will admit I have seen a similar practice to the one described in the article carried out at least once, though as we all know, just because something happens at mass these days doesn’t mean it’s perfectly licit. The problem with such a practice is they can diminish the necessary role of the priest to a mere “first among equals.” Active participation of the laity at mass is important, but not to the extent that Holy Orders aren’t. Direct reception from the laypeople may have been common a thousand years ago, but the mass has greatly evolved since then, and I doubt those advocating for such a return of this practice would entertain a similar widespread return to even the Tridentine Mass. New ideas to enrich the mass are great, but they first require an understanding of what we have now.

    1. I’m sure he’s aware of the current prescriptions! He’s using history to make suggestions about future possibilities.

      I don’t think he means that people would pick up the bread and wine from the altar – at least I didn’t read it that way. I assumed the historical practice was that the people received the bread and cup from the priest right at (near) the altar.


      1. Thank you for pointing that out Fr. Ruff, that certainly would make more sense! That said, I still might push back on his point of steps not being an issue. Steps are still a major obstacle for seniors and the disabled, and the last thing we want at Communion is a line getting held up due to someone struggling with steps. Even if there are no steps to the sanctuary, receiving at the altar (from a priest 😉 would probably work better at say the St. John’s Abbey, with its spacious and open sanctuary, as opposed to an older church with a communion rail funneling all movement through one point. Just goes to show how architecture greatly influences how mass is prayed.

  2. “The reasons why entrance to the altar space was gradually prohibited to laity are manifold, and have to do above all with Old Testament (and pagan) notions of cultic purity. This is seen already in the call for hand washing for men and the communion cloth for women.”

    Interesting: so it is not above all to do with a deepening reverence for the Body and Blood of the Son of God? I suppose that, too, would be written off as Old Testament and pagan.

    There has never been a time in all Church history where the reception of communion is as casual as it is today. We have not returned to ancient practice; we have substituted our modern informality and lack of faith in the Real Presence, and pretended that we are being more “authentic.”

    1. Not at my church, Peter!
      I do wish you would cease speaking for the entire church. There are millions of faithful who honor the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist each and every Sunday (and some daily).
      I watch the entire assembly from my position as cantor and I tell you that you are out of line in your opinion from your limited vantage point because you cannot know what is in everyone’s heart and soul. And you certainly can’t know what is happening in every Catholic parish in the world.
      When you speak, speak from facts you know, not from things you assume. That boarders on gossip… which we all know is deadly.

    2. PK: “So it is not above all to do with a deepening reverence for the Body and Blood of the Son of God?”

      AWR: In word, No. A profound misunderstanding and distortion of Real Presence set in in the second millennium, and Thomas’s attempts to keep things on track (by rejecting the overly realist and physicalist understanding of his predecessors) did not take root. Then, worse, it got hijacked by anti-Protestantism from the 16th century which found it necessary to overemphasize precisely the distortions in order to distinguish Catholicism from the reformers.

      Much of what passes today for defense of the Real Presence among “traditional” Catholics is a distortion and caricature. Don’t mistake zeal for wisdom.

      The Catholic Church believes that it is salutary to retrieve and recover traditional understandings (of course in dialogue with any and all helpful contemporary philosophies) in order to deepen our understanding of the Real Presence. This is why the Catholic Church believes that the reformed liturgy is a better expression of its faith, and why the Catholic Church decided that the so-called “traditional” liturgy is not an adequate expression of its faith. All of this is implicit and explicit in the teachings of Vatican II. (I acknowledge that you reject much of what the Catholic Church holds and teaches about this, Peter.)

      But then again, what did Ambrose and Augustine and Chrystostom and Theodore and Cyril know? Or the martyr Tarcisus – how does giving your life compare to installing an altar rail? And the lightweight Ignatius of Antioch, comparing the grinding of his bones by wild beasts to the making of bread for the Eucharist – he didn’t have a Tridentine piety of Real Presence so I suppose that doesn’t count either. [irony alert]


      1. Markus Tymister says that “the reasons why entrance to the altar space was gradually prohibited to laity are manifold, and have to do above all with Old Testament (and pagan) notions of cultic purity” This is undoubtedly correct; this change is also related to the shift from communion in the hand to communion on the tongue, as well as to the increasingly infrequent reception of communion. But Peter Kwasniewski asks, “it is not above all to do with a deepening reverence for the Body and Blood of the Son of God?” Isn’t it always better to be more reverent? Not necessarily: more is not always better. For example, what purports to be reverence towards the eucharist can be disproportionate, or misconceived. I would like to illustrate this with reference to two examples: the relationship between catechesis and communion in history, and the arise of a sense of a localised focus for the sacred in the Middle Ages.

        In the early Middle Ages, the higher clergy in what is (mainly) now France continued to be drawn form the old Gallo-Roman aristocracy for a long time after the Franks arrived, and they tended to view the newcomers as barbarian bumpkins whose Christianity was only skin deep. They weren’t entirely wrong, but this perception certainly led the clergy to encourage the sort of fearful reverence for the eucharist that discouraged communion. The eucharist was a sacred object to be adored from afar, not something to be received in love with adoration and thanksgiving. The infrequency of communion that resulted finally came to be perceived as a problem by the beginning of the 13th century, which is why Lateran IV instituted the obligation of Easter confession and communion.

        The second example is the development of what I think of as a need for a localised focus for the sacred in Latin Christendom in the centuries after the barbarian invasions. An example is the Palm Sunday procession. In Jerusalem when Egeria visited between 382 and 384, the people accompanied the bishop as the people of Jerusalem had accompanied Christ, with palm and olive branches from the Mount of Olives into the city. Nothing more was felt to be necessary; the bishop naturally took the place of Christ. But in the Palm Sunday rituals we find in documents like the so-called Romano-Germanic Pontifical, we find a sacred object, for example, the Gospel Book, “playing the role” of Christ, and being the object of rite of veneration, as the assembly kneels before it and sings “Ave rex noster”. A little later, Lanfranc went further and had the eucharist, or perhaps I should say the Blessed Sacrament, carried in the procession in a feretory as the object of adoration. This custom, which spread throughout Normandy and England, can only be understood in the context the hyperrealist and physicalist character of Lanfranc’s eucharistic theology, according to which Mass is a sacrifice because Christ suffers anew when the priest breaks the host and when those who receive communion “crush” (attero) Christ’s body with their teeth.

        St. Thomas rendered an immense service to the Church when he showed how the question of the eucharistic presence isn’t physical but a metaphysical, and, at least on an intellectual level, got theology out of the dead-end street it had been going down since Paschasius Radbertus. But piety and devotion have still to take on board all of the implications of transubstantiation. One of them is that “more reverence” is not necessarily a good thing; it depends on what sort of reverence it is. The Jansenists in general, and Antoine Arnaud in particular, were keen to foster what they saw as reverence for the eucharist. This usually meant discouraging people from receiving communion because they were too unworthy. Monseigneur de Caylus, a convinced Jansenist, was bishop of Auxerre from 1704 until 1750, and promoted Jansenist-inspired policies throughout his long episcopate. A parish priest once wrote to him after Easter to say how pleased he was that none of his parishioners had made their Easter communion that year. Thus, he was certain that no sacrilege had been committed. The former territory of the diocese of Auxerre (diocesan boundaries in France were completely re-drawn after the Revolution) is now one of the most deeply de-Christianised areas in France.

    3. We should take care to distinguish past and present reasons for practices and not assume that the reason a practice developed is the reason for it today, or vice versa.

      It may or may not have been true historically, as Fr Tymister has it (one needs more evidence to be convinced of such a strong and damning claim!) , that the exclusion of the laity from the sanctuary was motivated by ideas of cultic purity. It is almost certainly not the case today. (Ask the layfolk!)

      Likewise, today, receiving while kneeling or on the tongue, or reviving use of the rail, is typically motivated by an deepening of individual or community faith in the Eucharist, but the historical development does not fit this pattern.

      Yet another pattern we should avoid is to treat older practices outside of living or cultural memory as traditional or assume that they are better and purer, or even recoverable. To imitate the 9th C. Gallican practice–and we don’t from this article even know what it looks like–would not be to recover its meaning. We do not bring the culture along with us, nor the meanings that accrete when a practice is truly traditional, learned for several generations by young people from old people who themselves have known no other way. (And it could be that development over time, despite the mixed motives for it, was improvement!) We don’t know what would be affirmed by such archaeologism–but we do know what that is good in our own practices we would be rejecting by preferring an affectation to our current inculturated, traditional, and in some senses natural expression of piety.

      It is really too bad–although it did protect us when many of the new ideas had bad motives–that we are still stuck with the Tridentine regime wherein all truly local innovation or variation of the liturgy is illicit and presumed abusive. If some stable group of the faithful found something like this old mode of receiving salutary, and the motive were faith in the Eucharist and not something disordered like archaeologism, belief that the Eucharist is primarily a shared meal (it’s a small hop from receiving at the altar to treating the altar like a “communion table”), or love of novelty for its own sake, why should it not be tried?

      1. “Likewise, today, receiving while kneeling or on the tongue, or reviving use of the rail, is typically motivated by an deepening of individual or community faith in the Eucharist.” — huh? what is the understanding of Eucharist that is being deepened??

        “not something disordered like archaeologism…” – surely you know that there is a salutary archaeologism behind the Vatican II reforms? With Vatican II and its implementation, it’s clear that we’ve moved beyond the more skeptical stance toward archaeologism expressed by Pius XII.

        “(it’s a small hop from receiving at the altar to treating the altar like a “communion table”)” Huh? The altar is a communion table, right? It’s called a mensa, which is Latin for “table.”


      2. Fr. Ruff: As Berthold Kress remarks below, in many and perhaps most places receipt in the hand has been taught to the exclusion of alternatives, yet more than a few young Catholics in his experience have switched to receiving on the tongue. Likewise we were not taught to kneel in the 1980s but in some places people kneel on the sanctuary step where there is no rail, and in others prie-dieux are brought out to make it easier for those who want to kneel. Maybe somebody like Patrick Freese (below) can best share the reasons for the change in practice as he seems to have seen it up close in places where it has been intense and enthusiastic. Or maybe you can ask local youth who have made the switch, as witnesses to their own motivations.

        The reasons we lay people hear from each other are many. Among those commonly heard, to paraphrase: “I started kneeling when I realized that this was really the Body of Christ not just a symbol”, and “I kneel because the humility of kneeling gives me a better disposition.” This is not the kind of stuff one publishes in Antiphon; it is not scholarly but it is sincere. And for years this expression of faith has been discouraged: a perpetual “not yet” to receiving at the rail or reinstalling the rail, and in places a denial of communion kneeling or on the tongue. If our own culture and tradition is discouraged but a practice from tenth-century France too remote to be traditional (we don’t even know where “at the altar” Communion is being distributed) is seriously considered it may be for some the last straw, pushing them to Prof. Kwasniewski’s position that has the Ordinary Form being beyond recovery.

        The “Communion Table” is a term used by Calvinists, Baptists, and low-church Methodists for a piece of furniture from which their “Sacrament of the Lord’s Table” or something similar is distributed. They chose that word instead of “altar” in order to emphasize that their commemoration is not in any way a sacrifice. It is unlike “mensa” and “ad mensam” in the Missale.

      3. Ben, I won’t reply to all this because I’m not sure where I’d begin.

        I will simply make this observation: the motivations of all of us are exceedingly complex and difficult to know. The motivations of some young people toward the piety you describe are so tied up with, among other things, their reactions to contemporary culture, which of course is very challenging and at time fearful. There is clearly a search for identity and for strong authority figures and sources, especially if these figures and sources are somehow “transgressive” to their elders. I don’t claim to understand all the psychological factors behind all this. (There are some similar dynamics in contemporary politics, it seems.)

        One more comment: I would encourage you to learn and study more about the history of the liturgical reforms, contemporary sacramental and liturgical theology, and especially ecumenical theology and the achievements of the ecumenical dialogues. This would serve you well in thinking through the topics you have a laudable passion for.


  3. I recall reading that at some point before Vatican II is was considered best – if possible – to build both the altar and communion railing in the same style and out of the same material so as to emphasize the connection between the two. I wonder if that idea was meant to be a nod to the old practice of receiving directly from the altar. One of the most appealing aspects of receiving at the rail is that we actually do *gather* side-by-side around the altar (even if it is a few feet away) and have a moment to remain there before receiving communion. I recall the first few times I received this way how odd it was to actually get to look around the sanctuary, see the altar up close, and to even see other people receive communion up close. It was very powerful.

    I would actually consider going right up to the altar to receive communion standing and in the hand as an improvement to the largely impersonal form of receiving so common now, where you have to hurry up out of the way and no connection to the altar or with fellow communicants is made.

  4. What a fascinating and encouraging article – what a pity a nay-sayer crawled out of the woodwork!
    In the church I attend, Mass is usually celebrated at a free-standing altar. Some years ago, the congregation voted to use the apse altar once a month. That involves 2 steps up from the body of the church – handrails each side – and two steps immediately before the communion rail. This is a challenge and hazard for the physically wobbly. I speak with experience. Some of us remain seated in our pew and are served there. Others, including a 90 y.o. lady with a tripod walker, and another woman totally blind from birth prefer a gentleman’s arm to support them all the way to the rail.

    In a local URC church the congregation remains seated and are served in position by a team of church elders. The orderliness of lack of movement adds very greatly to the depth of recollection overall. I appreciate this in my own church once a month. To be sure one can make a case for the fidgets and movement of the communion line being symbolic of the journey through life. Both hold lessons for us.

      1. Perhaps it is not a sign of respect; but no less disrespectful are comments that glibly write off all but a tiny group of today’s Christians as “informal”, “lacking faith in the real presence of Christ”, etc.

  5. As a parish priest I am impressed with the way my people receive Holy Communion. There is clear reverence, and provided the priest does not rush, they have time to bow the head, extend the hands properly, and say ‘Amen.’ I don’t see much casualness here, thank God.

    Priests who rush the Communion don’t help reverent reception, I have seen countless examples of priests reciting the formula and not giving the communicant time to do anything, even say ‘Amen.’

    If there is irreverence, it is surely there. And we priests are in greater danger of a casual approach, because the whole thing is familiar to us in ways it is not to most of our people. I agree that catechesis, first HC preparation and so on has been wanting for many years, but most people I have to do with show a real sense of The Real Presence when coning to Holy Communion.

    God bless them.


    1. Father, my experience as a parish priest is much the same as yours.

      I am often touched with the profound humility I see in the eyes of the faithful approaching to receive the Lord in Communion.

      I try never to forget what a privilege it is for me to be their Pastor

  6. I’m intrigued by that little phrase from Tours, “laicis et feminis.” I might alter your translation but slightly and suggest “laymen and women” instead of “lay men and women.” Without the “et feminis,” I’d have assumed “laicis” referred to laity irrespective of gender, so I wonder what it’s doing there. Is the idea that the laity is really an order of men, so “and women” has to be separately stated? Or, is Tours emphasizing the inclusion of women over and against a (prevailing?) practice that excluded women from the sanctuary? In the latter case, we might translate “laity (including women)…”

    1. Adam, thanks for this comment. I wondered about exactly this point and wasn’t sure which way to go. The German of Fr. Tymister has “Laien und Frauen” – laity [lay people] and women. I’d sure like to know what is most faithful to the original here.

      1. My guess is that laicis et feminis here means “men who are not priests, as well as all women.” There would be no need to add et feminis otherwise.

        The appearance of laicus in Tertullian, in an exhortation against remarriage, and in Jerome, in a dialogue about the readmission of heretics to the Church, explicitly discuss the priesthood of the laity, but with so many direct comparisons to ordained priests that it would be easy to forget that this priesthood does include women.

        I like Adam’s suggestion of “laity, including women”.

  7. For the most part, I would actually say that reception of communion already takes place at the altar in the grand scheme of things. Here are a few reasons why I say this;
    1. Many churches distribute communion in front of the altar so that the communion line viewed from above forms an axis to the altar.

    2. In conversations with people or overhearing parents talk to their children, “altar” is synonymous with sanctuary/area around the altar. Example: “Father is on the altar”
    (Side note: is it possible that the quotes from the first millennium utilize this notion as well and not just the literal sense of altar.)

    3. Wasn’t this one of the reasons why a new altar was introduced in older churches after Vatican II (“Bring the altar closer to the people”)

    4. I was instructed as a second grader to take a step or two after having the host placed in my hand, stop, and consume it. I added the practice of looking at the altar while I placed the host in my mouth as a reminder of where it came from and all of the symbolism related to the altar. Besides a few unique situations, the altar is more than close enough for me to feel spiritually intimate to it. (I think this practice allows for the same spiritual benefit that Jack Wayne mentioned with the communion rail)

    5. In my parish, EMHC receive communion as close as Tymister would like since they stand in a circle about 3 feet from the altar to receive communion. When I compare the two experiences of receiving communion as an EMHC or ‘normal’ communicant, I do not find the ten feet from the altar as having that much of a difference spiritually.

    6. There is already a liturgical movement of going closer to the altar by the people that, in my opinion, is far more significant.

    Instead of moving communion stations, I think it would be better if a homily include a spiritual explanation of the altar, such as at Christmas by saying that this altar is the manger where we find our Emmanuel.

  8. It seems to me that in most parishes in Western Europe in preparing children for the first Holy Communion, Communion in the hand is taught by default (I do not think I was even told that there were alternatives, when I was in this age). However, I noticed in the last years that a number of young Catholics have switched to Communion on the tongue (in a rather middle-of-the-road university chaplaincy I noticed that it was more than half of the students at a weekday Mass).

    I wonder if there any has ever tried to find out how widespread this phenomenon is, if it is more common amongst those are more active in parishes, and what the individual faithful give as reasons for moving away from what they had been taught.

    1. I can speak from personal experience that this not an isolated phenomenon. More often then not, I find Catholic millennials such as myself reacting to the identity crisis that our Church has experienced in the last half century or so (for the record, I don’t fault Vatican II for this). Most baptized Catholic millennials grew up with a “casual modern” liturgical aesthetic and very stripped down and deconstructivist worship spaces. Though this worship philosophy was intended to better emphasize the liturgy and “clear the smoke screen,” I’ve found this has left many young people feeling very lost and uninspired. Most sadly see the Church as little more than a Sunday social club, and treat it like they would any other secular organization.

      But the one’s that stay seem to be unlikely inspired by the Church’s tradition and history, perhaps because they see an apparent disharmony with that and what they see in the parishes of their youth. I won’t deny that nostalgia for a time in the Church that (rightly or wrongly) seemed more stable and self-confident plays a role in this, as other articles here on PT have discussed.

      I admittedly don’t have polling or statistics to back this up and all this is mostly anecdotal, but I’ve heard many middle of the road Catholic millennials echo this sentiment. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the average age at TLM parishes and “high church” OF masses appears to be much younger than at most other parishes. Newly built churches on college campuses (such as those at the University of Wisconsin and University of Nebraska-Lincoln) are further evidence that this “traditional” Catholic identity resonates with a significant number of young Catholics. In the end, I think millennials are tired of seeing a Church that seems, at least to them, to be insecure about its heritage and mission.

      1. I would suggests that the new campus churches you have noted may have more to do with the extremely conservative episcopscies if both the dioceses you have named. Both are the most extremely conservative ones on the US. I doubt the bishops of these diocese would have allowed anything but the tuo of churches I have read about.

      2. Your comments on 20th century churches are interesting, especially since the building trend you mention happened to be the companion to many bishops and pastors mandating the building of a school before building a church. If young people are really adrift because of this, it’s an interesting and unintended consequence of focusing on Catholic education often at the cost of good liturgy. My current parish has worshiped for over half a century in a building designed to be a gymnasium for a school that was later deemed unneeded after a bishop insisted it be the first structure built for its new parish.

        I don’t really recognize the post-conciliar trend in serious liturgical architecture in what you describe, but then again, as a parish liturgist, I tend to have been hired by places and pastors that take liturgy seriously. My own observation is that whenever the Church is serious about the mission of Jesus Christ, young people and even older ones are inspired. And when the mission is about maintenance of old buildings, old clubs, old ways of doing things, that everybody pretty much bails in the end.

        I applaud Latin Mass communities for their intentionality to the faith. But if they had to do a parish in a Vatican II way (no low Masses whatsoever) and conduct fifty funerals, fifty weddings, and over 400 Masses a year with the resources I’ve had to deal with, I’m sure they’d be getting a bit frayed at the edges. Be thankful “high church” communities have a very limited reach.

  9. Jack Wayne, put it nicely, and I concur from the custom at my parish where we go from the nave, through the choir up to the rail in front of the altar, to receive Holy Communion, both the Host and from the chalice. It’s profoundly evident to me that as we kneel shoulder to shoulder at the rail, we are doing something corporately, together. I personally don’t experience that same sense receiving in a line, looking at another’s back as that person receives.
    Also, it’s unclear from all the quotes what is meant by “altar.” In the altar (sanctuary)? Or at the altar itself? Even to this day, most all of the Eastern Churches call the area behind the icon screen (or veil) the “altar,” what in the West is called the sanctuary. The altar itself is usually called the Holy Table.

  10. I have tried both methods – communion recieved standing, in the hand and under both kinds, and communion received kneeling, on the tongue and under one kind. I have also been to Mass in a church where communion is given under both kinds but by intinction only.
    On a purely subjective level, I have found over the years that my preference is to receive communion kneeling and on the tongue. Somehow, it emphasizes the notion of being fed rather than feeding ourselves. The parallel that springs to mind is a baby sitting in its chair while its mother or father places food into its mouth. The helplessness and dependence symbolized by kneeling and receiving on the tongue seem to me appropriate when receiving holy communion.
    As for communion under both kinds, this seems a good idea for the very simple reason that Jesus intended both forms to be used. For hygiene reasons, however, I prefer intinction, which necessarily implies reception on the tongue.
    It’s useful to know the history of how both practices arose, but there is no reason to believe that an older practice is automatically a better one.

  11. Surely it has been clearly established both in this article and eucharistic catechesis for the past fifty years that the ancient practice of receiving the Eucharist was by standing and receiving in the hand, and this obtained for roughly a millenium.. Yet, I have never seen any discussion of why this practice was suppressed, and surely that should be taken into account in discussions of this sort.

    I do not know, but I suspect that it had everything to do with reverence for the Eucharist and of putting a stop to incidents that others here have mentioned recently, such as hosts being discarded in the pews etc. etc. Yet surely there are authoritative documents that go into this change, which would likely have been have been abrupt and noteworthy when it happened. What was it? A papal decree, a conciliar decision, the preaching of saints . . .what? This cannot have gone unremarked and unresearched in liturgical scholarship over the past half century and more. Am I wrong? Can anyone point me to articles and authors that deal with this alteration in sacramental practice?

  12. Ignoring for the moment what current praxis should be, I am curious why communion in the hand was reintroduced in the first place?

    1. I suspect it was because people were feeling slightly embarrassed about receiving on the tongue–and all the Protestants were receiving in the hand. Ecumenism was the watchword of the immediate post-Vatican II period.

  13. Reading through tis whole thread after Cardinal Sarah’s misguided set of statements about Eucharistic piety and practice, I find that my best take-away which I will be using a lot is Fr. Ruff’s simple statement: “Zeal is not the same as wisdom.” Thank you for that pithy remark.

  14. I’m a Ph.D. medievalist. I admit that the medieval liturgy has never been my specialty, but I do know a little about how Communion was received during the late Middle Ages as depicted in art. The custom was for the communicant to kneel and receive on the tongue. That was because the communicant kept his or her hands under a “houseling cloth,” a large piece of white linen, often richly embroidered, whose purpose was to catch any fragments of the Host that might fall. Interestingly, the priest administering Communion was followed by a clerk who gave the communicant a draft of unconsecrated wine to help him or her swallow the Host. Eamon Duffy, in his book “Stripping of the Altars” includes a carving of a laywoman receiving Communion that appears on the “Seven Sacraments” baptismal font in the Church of St. Mary in Gayton Thorpe, Norfolk. Behind the woman a man seems to be standing in line to receive. I don’t know much about Eucharistic practices during the early Middle Ages, but I’m at a loss to understand why a custom that is more than 600 years old should be less privileged than one that is, say, 1,100 years old–or one that is just 50 years old. Communion in the hand seems to have certainly been the practice in the early Western Church–and then it fell into disuse, just as the houseling cloth and the unconsecrated wine fell into disuse after the Counter-Reformation. The contemporary practice of lay Catholics in the West receiving under both species is an innovation of the 20th century. Not that that’s a bad thing, but it remains the case that it’s an innovation, just as the disuse of the houseling cloth in favor of the paten under the chin was an innovation. Customs and practices change. The fact that many young Catholics prefer to receive Communion on the tongue while kneeling may indicate another widespread change in Eucharistic practice just around the corner–who knows? But to relegate such preferences to “fearfulness,” identity-seeking, or some sort of purity superstition is just plain condescending.

      1. Actually, now that I look at the electronic image, the gent behind the lady receiving Communion seems to be kneeling as well (the perspective is slightly off), indicating a Communion rail.

  15. As a young person, I switched from the reception in the hand that I was taught to reception on the tongue, and came to prefer kneeling at the rail. I am not going to attempt a scholarly defense of any of this, because I know well enough that customs have shifted throughout history. But I will outline my own reasons; perhaps insight into a single case of that phenomenon can help.

    Rediscovery of the preconciliar praxis was actually huge. I became interested in the EF Mass, partly because I came of age during the first years of Benedict’s papacy. I had no grudge against the liturgy of my upbringing, nor do I to this day; in fact, I think I appreciate the EF more for having grown up with the OF. But the EF was in the air, I was already deeply interested in the Latin Classics, which I would go on to study in college, as well as in Gregorian chant, and was able to visit the EF celebrated under indult in the diocesan cathedral during my freshman year of high school.

    My father (not a traditionalist then and still not) and I reflected on this experience, and he recounted the introduction of communion in the hand in particular when he was an altar boy growing up. He remembered when he was not even permitted to touch with his hands the ciborium, let alone the Host itself. I was impressed by his account of the gratitude & respect that the practice had instilled in him, and how, as he told it, the change in praxis had negatively affected that. So he was instrumental in confirming my personal choice.

    As I’ve grown up, it’s grown on me. I love the calm recollection of not shuffling forward one by one, but kneeling at the rail and waiting. The idea of being ministered to is to me much stronger; I am fed, I don’t feed myself. As others have observed, the corporate aspect is strong, having brothers and sisters on either side as I receive. And, for better or worse, I came across at some point the idea of the rail as an extension of the altar. The link of the assembly, Sacrifice, & Communion is beautiful with that in mind.

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