Neil Xavier O’Donoghue
In light of the current debate on the reception of Communion in the hand, it is helpful to step back and assess the facts from a prudent distance. As with many aspects of current liturgical practice there are no absolute answers.
After the Second Vatican Council, the practice of receiving Communion in the hand was adopted and has become virtually universal throughout the Catholic Church (even if some people still receive Communion on the tongue).
The actual documents of the Council do not mention the possibility of returning to the original manner of receiving Communion in the hand or receiving Communion standing. However, this does not imply that this is an illegitimate return to ancient practice. Very simply, St. John XXIII (and Blessed Paul VI after him) understood that the Council would provide a theoretical basis for liturgical renewal and the details would be worked out after the Council had finished. Thus the liturgical renewal was clearly inspired by the Council and the renewed liturgy is in clear continuity with Vatican II, in much the same way as the Tridentine liturgy was not prepared at the Council of Trent itself, but was renewed afterwards.
The very idea of people regularly receiving Communion (and even receiving Communion as part of the liturgy to the Eucharist itself) were relatively new ideas at the time of the Council. The liturgical renewal of St. Pius X which promoted the frequent reception of Communion were still quite young. For centuries Catholics simply did not receive Communion on a regular basis. Already in the time of the Fathers of the Church, many Catholics had simply stopped receiving Communion at all due to a feeling of unworthiness.
Already Chrysostom, among the Greeks, complained:
“In vain do we stand before the altar; there is no one to partake.”
In Gaul, too, the Synod of Agde (506) found it necessary to insist on Communion three times a year, on Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, as a minimum. And this demand was repeated time and time again till the very height of the Middle Ages, sometimes with the addition of Maundy Thursday. In the Carolingian reform the attempt was made to re-introduce Communion every Sunday, especially on the Sundays of Lent, but the result was at best temporary. From the eighth century onward, the actuality seems generally not to have gone beyond what the Lateran Council of 1215 established as a new minimum: Communion at Easter.
From a historical point of view, Communion in the hand is the manner that Communion was given to the everybody (laity and ordained) in the early centuries of the Church.
After the Council the practice of receiving Communion in the hand became common in certain parishes in Holland, Belgium, France and Germany. Pope Paul VI commissioned a study on the matter and in 1969 suggested that Bishops’ conferences could petition the Holy See for an indult allowing Communion in the hand in their region. During the 1970’s the Bishops’ Conferences of the following English-speaking countries applied for and received the indult: South Africa, Canada, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Zambia, New Zealand, Australia, England and Wales, Papua and New Guinea, Ireland, Pakistan, the United States, Scotland, and Malaysia and Singapore. Similar numbers of other bishops’ conferences obtained indults in their own regions so that today it is virtually universal throughout the Church.
Cardinal Sarah’s recent intervention is problematic under a number of aspects, many of which have been explored in the original Pray Tell post and in the discussion in the comments section of that post. Here is not the place to repeat this discussion.
I find it problematic when one particular option is canonized and presented as the only way to do something. Current Catholic liturgy gives many choices precisely so that the liturgy can be celebrated in the manner that best reaches the members of the assembly. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal puts it in this way:
The pastoral effectiveness of a celebration will be greatly increased if the texts of the readings, the prayers, and the liturgical songs correspond as closely as possible to the needs, spiritual preparation, and culture of those taking part. This is achieved by appropriate use of the wide options described below.
The priest, therefore, in planning the celebration of Mass, should have in mind the common spiritual good of the people of God, rather than his own inclinations. He should, moreover, remember that the selection of different parts is to be made in agreement with those who have some role in the celebration, including the faithful, in regard to the parts that more directly pertain to each. [GIRM 352]
I would like to add two points of factual clarification about Cardinal Sarah’s intervention. The cardinal cites the example of St. John Paul II and Mother Theresa of Calcutta:
In this regard I would like to propose the example of two great saints of our time: St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Calcutta. Karol Wojtyła’s entire life was marked by a profound respect for the Holy Eucharist. (…) Despite being exhausted and without strength (…) he always knelt before the Blessed Sacrament. He was unable to kneel and stand up alone. He needed others to bend his knees and to get up. Until his last days, he wanted to offer us a great witness of reverence for the Blessed Sacrament. Why are we so proud and insensitive to the signs that God himself offers us for our spiritual growth and our intimate relationship with Him? Why do not we kneel down to receive Holy Communion after the example of the saints? Is it really so humiliating to bow down and remain kneeling before the Lord Jesus Christ? And yet, “He, though being in the form of God, […] humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2: 6-8).
St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, an exceptional religious who no one would dare regard as a traditionalist, fundamentalist or extremist, whose faith, holiness and total gift of self to God and the poor are known to all, had a respect and absolute worship of the divine Body of Jesus Christ. Certainly, she daily touched the “flesh” of Christ in the deteriorated and suffering bodies of the poorest of the poor. And yet, filled with wonder and respectful veneration, Mother Teresa refrained from touching the transubstantiated Body of Christ. Instead, she adored him and contemplated him silently, she remained at length on her knees and prostrated herself before Jesus in the Eucharist. Moreover, she received Holy Communion in her mouth, like a little child who has humbly allowed herself to be fed by her God.
I think it strange that if John Paul II had a problem with the manner of receiving Communion and if he really believed it to be a grave abuse of the Eucharist, he didn’t crack down on the practice. Indeed, when he reissued the third typical edition of the Roman Missal in 2002, he did nothing to remove this “abuse.”
In fact earlier in his papacy, in 1980, John Paul II dealt with the matter when he wrote Dominicae Cenae: Letter to all the Bishops of the Church on the Mystery and Worship of the Eucharist. In number 11 he reflects on the subject of touching the Blessed Sacrament in the context of priestly spirituality, lay Eucharistic ministers and Communion in the hand. Unsurprisingly he emphasizes the importance of guarding against any abuses concerned with the reception of Communion in the hand (along with other possible abuses), but he also recognizes it as a valid option and that many of those who “receive the Lord Jesus in the hand, do so with profound reverence and devotion.”
From this I take it that John Paul II did not regard the reception of Communion in the hand as being allied to Satan.
Regarding Mother Theresa, the original website that published Cardinal Sarah’s introduction has a photograph of Mother Theresa receiving Communion on her tongue. However, there is also photographic evidence that shows Mother Theresa received Communion in the hand. She was photographed receiving Communion on her hand while attending Mass in the chapel of the orphanage she was ministering in in Calcutta in the late 1990’s. The photograph can be found in the beautifully illustrated portrait of Mother Theresa by photojournalist Linda Schaefer.
Hopefully these points can lead to a more mature reflection on the practice of receiving Communion in the hand and an acceptance that different manners of being Catholic and different liturgical spiritualities can and must coexist within the Church. It is obvious that any danger of disrespect towards the Blessed Sacrament must be avoided. However, the current practice of most who receive Communion in the hand ought not to be portrayed as Satanic but as being in continuity with the beautiful description of St. Cyril of Jerusalem who recommended to the newly baptized Christians in fourth century Jerusalem that they approach the altar “making a throne with your left hand for the right, as intending to receive the King, and having made a hollow in your hand, receive the body of Christ.”
Neil Xavier O’Donoghue is a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey. He currently ministers in the Archdiocese of Armagh, Ireland, where he serves as vice rector at Redemptoris Mater Seminary. He has studied at Seton Hall University, the University of Notre Dame, and St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He holds a Doctorate in Theology from St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth.
 Joseph A. Jungmann, The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development (Missarum Sollemnia). Francis A. Brunner, trans. (New York: Benziger, 1951), 2:361-362. For a general historical treatment of the subject see Joseph Nicholas Stadler, Frequent Holy Communion: A Historical Synopsis and a Commentary, Canon Law Studies 263 (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1947).
 For a general historical account of the manner of receiving Communion in the Roman Rite see Jungmann, The Mass of the Roman Rite, 2:374-391.
 For a detailed account of the adoption of the practice see Annibale Bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy 1948 – 1975. Matthew J. O’Connell, trans. (Collegeville, MI: Liturgical Press, 1990), 640-661.
 Linda Schaefer, Come and See: A Photojournalist’s Journey into the World of Mother Teresa (Stanford, FL: DC Press, 2003), 135. The photograph is reproduced with Linda Schaefer’s permission.
 St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Mystagogical Catechesis 5.21 in Maxwell E. Johnson, trans. and ed., Lectures on the Christian Sacraments: The Procatechesis and the Five Mystagogical Catecheses Ascribed to St. Cyril of Jerusalem (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2017), 135.