Pope Francis: Communion is Meant to Change Us; Receive it on the Tongue or in the Hand

Pope Francis spoke on the reception of Communion at his ongoing Wednesday catechetical series on the parts of the Mass today. And while various headlines are already trumpeting that the pope approves Communion in the hand, this was but a small point in today’s rich and profound reflection on Holy Communion.

Throughout this catechetical series on the Mass Francis’s approach has been calm and irenic, and firmly grounded in the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. His focus is not on this or that question of the so-called “liturgy wars,” but on the spiritual depth of the reformed liturgy. His main concern seems to be to unite the Catholic Church around the liturgy by drawing out its riches for everyone to behold. By putting the focus on how participation in the liturgy transforms us, the pope is subtly moving our gaze away from secondary issues.

But to the point that grabs headlines: the pope simply said that the faithful receive Communion “standing with devotion or kneeling, as established by the Episcopal Conference,” and that they receive “in the mouth or, where permitted, in the hand, as preferred.” (The U.S. bishops have determined that standing is the posture for receiving Communion, though those who kneel are not to be refused Communion.) The only hint of making a statement might be in the pope’s phrase “standing with devotion,” which gently reinforces that the position of standing is not suspect for being less pious, but is also to be considered a devotional posture.

Be that as it may, the pope took exactly one sentence to deal with the manner of reception. No new emphasis, no change in practice or liturgical law, no critique of current custom, no accusations, no preference for either manner of reception. The implicit message seems to be something like this: “The Church has settled its practice – so everyone respect one another, stop worrying about side issues, and focus on what matters.”

It is clear that what matters to Pope Francis – and this was the overarching point of the liturgical reform – is the transformation of individuals and communities through their attentive and communal participation in the sacramental mysteries. Christ gives himself to us “both in the Word and in the Sacrament of the altar, to conform us to him,” the pope said. [The Vatican website mistakenly has “confirm” as of this writing.] This means “to allow oneself to be changed as we receive,” he said. Sounding the theme again, Francis said, “Just as the bread and wine are converted into the Body and Blood of Christ, those who receive them with faith are transformed into a living Eucharist.” And yet again he stated “You become the Body of Christ. This is beautiful, very beautiful. … We become what we receive!”

The pope reiterated the Church’s teaching that “the sign of the Eucharistic banquet is expressed with greater fullness if Holy Communion is made in the two forms, even though Catholic doctrine teaches that one whole Christ is received in one form.” (Reception in both forms, which is the more traditional practice, was again made possible by the liturgical reform.) And while the pope reaffirmed the current discipline that the priest or deacon is the “ordinary minister of the distribution,” in practice it almost always requires “extraordinary” lay eucharistic ministers if the Church’s wish for distribution under both forms is to be fulfilled.

This statement from the pope is also significant: “The Church strongly desires that the faithful also receive the Body of the Lord with consecrated hosts in the same Mass.” The practice of distributing Communion at Mass from the tabernacle with hosts consecrated at another Mass remains all too common – though popes and councils and synods have repeatedly spoken out against this practice down the centuries.

Pope Francis’s manner of affirming the Real Presence is also telling. He simply affirms it (as I would hope every Catholic does!) and then moves on to the larger spiritual issue of transformation of individuals and communities for the sake of the Church’s mission in the world. In this, he is a good Thomist. Thomas Aquinas, the father of the medieval doctrine of transubstantiation, taught that the Real Presence of Christ in the eucharistic species is a means, not an end in itself, and it is meant for the larger end of the mystical union of the church.

By simply affirming the Real Presence without dwelling on it, Pope Francis seems to be guiding Catholics away from an unhelpful distortion of emphasis that set in in the late Middle Ages and became enshrined in Catholic liturgy and piety since the Council of Trent. In this (mis)understanding, Mass becomes above all a means to get on the altar a consecrated Host, which is venerated and adored rather like a physical relic, at the expense of other aspects of the Blessed Eucharist. Unfortunately, all this was tied to very infrequent lay reception of Communion, loss of Communion under both forms, and loss of a sense that the entire community participates in (and understands!) the liturgy.

In placing the emphasis where he does, Francis is also following the logic of the reformed liturgy, which quite consistently pruned away from the Tridentine liturgy later medieval developments and returned to a form more like the practice of the Church’s first five or six centuries. The Church has made it rather clear, in the way the liturgy was reformed after Vatican II, that the Church does not hold the late medieval developments to have been entirely for the good.

And while a blog post such as this attempts to draw out the full significance of what the pope is implicitly and explicitly saying, it bears emphasizing that the pope simply puts forth his positive vision. He does not critique other understandings or signal judgment of those who think differently. He simply leads by expounding the meaning of the Church’s liturgy.

Pope Francis has given us much to ponder: Christ among us, our being nourished by Christ, our transformation, our call to be Eucharistic people. May we heed and follow!

The full text of the pope’s general audience is found here.






  1. Thanks for posting. Twitter has only linked to La Croix’s version of this story in French. This is the very typical style for this pope, despite rumors and gossip to the contrary. He is matter-of-fact, clear and reminds us all of the essentials of the teachings in easy to understand ways. His teaching style comes out of his Jesuit background. Notice that he often lists 3 things then addresses them, a very Jesuit thing!! His first love is of course being a pastor but in my opinion his next love is to teach, to share knowledge. I am glad that he did address this issue, however, and I am glad you brought that fact to our attention.

  2. View from the Pew
    Regarding: This article and Francis’ text.
    – These are excellent and very refreshing.
    – One hopes that these articles and their intent become part of all seminary classes on the liturgy. As well, they ought to be a part of the catechesis on the Liturgy in all parishes.
    – It is good to be reminded that we, by baptism, are the body of christ, the sacrifice that is the thanksgiving bread and wine now the body and blood of Christ which transforms us as church and continually transformed we with / by christ assist in the salvation of the world.

  3. “The only hint of making a statement might be in the pope’s phrase ‘standing with devotion,’ which gently reinforces that the position of standing is not suspect for being less pious, but is also to be considered a devotional posture.”

    A tendentious interpretation. Much more likely: he’s acknowledging that the standing posture is not per se a devotional posture, so that “with devotion” is a directive for the attitude to be adopted while standing.

    I would add that a similar directive would probably be thought unnecessary if he were discussing reception while kneeling.

    1. “I would add that a similar directive would probably be thought unnecessary if he were discussing reception while kneeling.”

      When kneeling at a rail was the universal posture, it was not necessarily indicative of interior devotion. Whatever is default is not necessarily indicative of interior devotion.

    2. The recent English translation of the Roman Missal invites the people to stand with the celebrant for the Presidential Prayers. It could invite them to kneel but it doesn’t do that. There must be a good reason. The Church is a great respecter of tradition. That is why the Church instructs us to do what God’s People were invited to do during Old Testament times. See the following as just a few examples:-

      1)In Exodus 3, Moses stood before the burning bush through which God spoke to him.

      2)Solomon gives us instruction on approaching God in worship: keep your mouth shut (OK, “words few”) and stand in awe.

      3)Habbakkuk’s prayer also gives us reason to stand in awe:
      “Lord, I have heard of your fame;
      I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord.”(Habbakuk 3:2).

      Perhaps the Pope knows something that some of us cant’t fully grasp!

  4. Good for His Holiness.
    We should say ‘To stand in your presence’ (adstare coram te – cf. Daniel 7) in EP2.
    I see people receive both standing (when mostly, now, they bow beforehand – if the Celebrant gives them time, that is!) and kneeling. I see ‘devotion’ in both.


  5. The Pope has it right, in both tone and content.

    To my knowledge, the Church has never taught that standing is a less ‘reverent’ posture than kneeling, or the hand a less honourable part of the body than the tongue.

  6. The pope did not state a preference for one form of Communion or the other. Rather, what he said was PEACE to both sides; that both forms are valid. If only the advocates for Communion in the hand would take this to heart. While Cardinal Sarah may have a been a bit intemperate, the larger problem has always been the forcing of Communion in the hand on those who would prefer to maintain the traditional form on the tongue. How many good Catholics have been refused Communion or publicly berated because they wanted to receive on the tongue? How would many here at Pray Tell react if a new young priest were to reintroduce Communion on the tongue with the provision that anyone would have the option to receive in the hand if they wished?

    With regard to the importance of the Real Presence, we should avoid and either/or mentality that would pit Eucharistic adoration against the mystical union of the Church; it is both/and. Indeed, Eucharistic adoration leads to the mystical union of the Church and the spiritual transformation of individuals and communities. The act of adoration is itself a form of mystical union with God. And it would be a major distortion of the thought of Saint Thomas, the author of O Salutaris Hostia/Tantum Ergo, to suggest that he did not give great importance to adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

    The idea that goal of Vatican II was the rejection of the last 1500 years of liturgical development, a call to return to a pristine liturgy of the first five or six hundred years, is the major fault of progressive post-Vatican II thought. Nothing of the sort can be found in Vatican II. Such a thought with the liturgy does not differ from that of the Protestants concerning theology, that latter developments are invalid. The Holy Spirit continued to guide the Church throughout her history and did not fall asleep in the 6th or 7th century. Vatican II must be read within this tradition, not opposed to it.

    1. Fr. Forte,
      There’s a lot of hurt about mistreatment of those receiving on the tongue. I’m very sorry but also have to say: I’ve never seen anyone refused or mistreated for this in my monastery, or anywhere else. I favor respect for both manners of reception, and I take it we agree on that point.
      I’m not sure how a priest would “reintroduce” communion on the tongue. It’s already introduced, permitted, & practiced, so there is nothing to reintroduce. It’s a settled issue canonically – both are permitted. If you mean that a priest should start proclaiming that on the tongue is preferred and there is pressure to do that, that I’d object. That sounds like a divisive and judgmental agenda.
      On Vatican II, your message is heard loud and clear, you’ve stated it many times already for our readers. There’s not much more to say, except that I do not share your view and do not find it persuasive. The Pauline reforms, which I accept as being in accord with the Second Vatican Council, have some pretty strong implicit messages about the magisterium’s view of liturgical history. There are clear value judgments about what eras to draw upon, and what eras to counteract for their less than helpful developments. As to what Vatican II said, there are lots of passages in the Council, and I do not find persuasive your use of selected passages to set up your hermeneutic. I believe that there are deep structures to the texts, deep convictions that represent shifts (I would say paradigm shifts). At the same time, the reforms of V2 and Paul VI are traditional in the deepest sense, for tradition is something evolving and changing.
      But I’m repeating myself. I’ve said all this many times already, as you’ve made your arguments many times already.
      It’s all been said. Really, you don’t need to say it all again, as if your arguments will become persuasive through repetition. Enough already.

      1. Thank you, Father Anthony. I know of cases where people have been refused Communion in the hand. But I’m not into tallying up points.
        A blessed Easter Triduum to ALL.

    2. “A bit intemperate?” Cardinal Sarah seems to have described communion, standing, received in the hand as Satanic, or the result of Satanic influence. If this is “a bit intemperate”, I shudder to think of what a “somewhat angry” comment from the Cardinal might look like.

      I have never seen anyone, in any parish (and this includes parishes in the UK, the US, all over continental Europe and in Asia and Africa) denied communion on the tongue, or not permitted to kneel, or reprimanded from the pulpit for seeking communion in this manner.

      On the Internet, and in printed debate about this issue, about the worst I have seen said about communion on the tongue is that it is “nostalgic” or “divisive”. I have seen advocacy for communion in the hand, on the other hand, described as ignorant / the result of bad scholarship; modernist; a reflection of sexual degeneracy; prideful; pandering to Protestantism; sacrilegious; and yes, Satanic.

      Fr Forte, I’m not saying that these are your views, though, as a member of FSSP, I doubt that you would allow communion in the hand in the old rite Masses that you celebrate. But the calls for tolerance and pluralism seem to me as going only in one direction.

      1. You should be careful about rash judgment. In the 24 years that I ministered in Novus Ordo parishes I never refused Communion to anyone because they were standing or received in the hand. This includes the 10 years that I served in a parish that preserved the altar rail and >90% of the parishioners received kneeling and on the tongue. This would again be my practice if I were ever reassigned to a Novus Ordo parish.

        Whatever complaints you may have about commentary on the internet does not compare to the practice that is encountered in parishes. Communion in the hand did not become the norm because it was presented merely as an option for the laity to choose. It was presented as a mandate to which everyone must conform. This despite the fact that Communion on the tongue is a valid option that is “a settled issue canonically.” And that charge of being “divisive” has been a favorite club to beat down opposition. If you were to spend time in a traditional community you would find that what I have said are not rare occasions. The very existence of the FSSP and the reintroduction of the old Mass is the result of intolerance toward traditional options in the new Mass that are “settled issues canonically,” e.g. saying Mass ad orientem.

        My whole position presented here at Pray Tell has been one of live and let live. But this has to start with an acknowledgement that a traditional form of the new Mass is completely acceptable and in accord with Vatican II, as much as the more non-traditional Masses are.

      2. I don’t know of any parish where communion in the hand is mandated. But I know of plenty where it is the only manner mentioned to first communicants. I am sure that if a parent piped up and said “Can my child receive on the tongue?” the almost universal answer would be “sure.” But at least in the preparation of first communicants I don’t think it gets presented as an option in many places. This may account for the impression that some have that it is being officially discouraged: in a sense that is true inasmuch as, on a parish level, it is officially ignored.

        I suppose as a thought experiment those who prefer communion in the hand might ask themselves how it would feel to be in a parish where no one who wanted to receive communion in the hand was refused, but the sole manner of receiving communion taught to first communicants was communion on the tongue. I, at least, would feel as if it was being discouraged in the sense of not-being-encouraged.

        On the whole, I think we should all 1) interpret the actions of others with maximal charity and 2) grow thicker skins.

  7. I have never refused anyone wishing to receive on their tongue, nor to anyone who knelt to receive. I’ve never even heard of parishes where those practices are not permitted. I cant ever recall saying anything that could have been interpreted as favoring one form over the other. First communicant family preference is honored, but receiving in the hand is clearly the most common practice and thereby the default practice. We teach individuals the importance of receiving with reverence and devotion and we teach them that the principal purpose of communion is both unitive and transformative. In other words we don’t follow the practice of traditionalists who appear to make reverent reception of communion an end in itself, much as they do with the Mass itself. Was Jesus celebrating the Mass in the upper room or at Emmaus, or was he revealing in a clearer manner how those who take and eat, take and drink can be filled with everlasting life as promised in John 6?

  8. Part of the challenge in keeping this discussion from becoming a series of harangues and counter-harangues is that each of us is, necessarily, dealing with limited data. And so to Fritz’s point, I have experienced communities where the new rite is used exclusively but communion on the tongue, either standing or kneeling, is not uncommon — for example, a parish serving the Polish community in London. I doubt that first communicants there are not-being-encouraged to receive on the tongue.

    Fr Forte has his own set of experiences. And there are certainly variations across countries. In parts of the UK, at least, multiple solemn Latin Masses are celebrated each Sunday, in the new rite, but with high ceremony; in some cases with the priest facing the apse. A good number of parishioners receive on the tongue. These celebrations seem very rare in the US, even in large cities.

    In addition to following Fritz’s admonitions that we interpret the actions of others with maximal charity and grow thicker skins, I’ll try to make sure that I don’t view my own, necessarily limited, experience as indicative of the condition of the Church as a whole.

  9. I’m surprised, that many commentators here have not heard of people being discouraged from receiving on the tounge. One of the series featured on this site, Liturgy Lines, once had a piece in which the author claimed that communion on the tounge was ackward, unhygienic, and disrupted the unity of the assembly if most people received on the hand. You can find it here:


    1. Alex,

      It is awkward, unhygienic, and it can disrupt the unity of the assembly if some people have a holier-than-thou attitude. (And sometimes, this comes complete with conspiracy theories about the supposed disobedience that brought it about, citation of historically inaccurate books about the history of reception in the first millennium such as the one Cardinal Sarah cited, and the like.) But as much as I say this, I don’t turn people away from Communion for it, and I don’t think anyone at Pray Tell has condoned turning people away from Communion. I give it on the tongue to the few who want that. But I do find it kind of disgusting, to be honest, to have to try to get the Host in without touching their tongue or the inside of their mouth or getting their saliva on me, and thus I find it rather irreverent and, for me, less holy. But it some people want that, I meet them where they’re at.

      I can see why, in the entire history of the Church, there has been very little administration on the tongue. When lots of people received, it was in the hand. By the time tongue-reception came in, almost nobody when to Communion, ever. It was a very, very short period of maybe a few years or decades before 1960 when people in greater number received more frequently and on the tongue. That is a historical anomaly.


      1. I guess your approach is love the communicant hate the communicant’s disgusting piety then.

        I don’t think I’ve ever felt a priest accidently touching my tounge when I’ve received in that manner. Though at the same time I do find communion from the common chalice unhygienic as typically practiced, I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call it disgusting though.

      2. The late and great Clifford Howell, SJ, liturgical pioneer, used to say “Some people lick your fingers. Some people try to bite them off. There’s no safe way of doing it.” Any priest will tell you the same.

      3. I just asked a priest and he wasn’t very happy with this statement, telling me that “if the priest knows what he’s doing then he won’t touch the tongue or lips of the communicant.”

        All I know is that given the amount of backwash you get in the chalice after 40 people drink from it, any saliva from communion on the tongue shouldn’t be a problem.

        But I think that this is beside the point. Father Anthony’s point raises an important issue: psychologically can you disassociate what a person does from that person herself? I mean if you think that they habitually do things that are disgusting and reckless, won’t you start to think that they themselves are somehow disgusting after a while?
        Most people don’t take kindly to the “I love you but I hate what you do” attitude especially when people take actions such as these to be deeply expressive of who they are. It means that you will never fully accept them and so I think fundamentally it undermines the whole message of the post.

      4. Dear Alex,
        I apologize if my words were too sharp. We’re talking about the Eucharist – let’s try to de-escalate this!
        I don’t experience any backwash with the chalice. But I grant that common cup is a huge challenge for people.
        I’m very leery of the move toward on-the-tongue, obviously. I think it’s divisive and unhelpful, and at least at this point in Church history is tied to lots of problematic theological positions. But it’s accepted by the Church and by me. I strive to be charitable in administering to people who want it on the tongue – really. Let’s leave it at that.

  10. A few years ago, the US bishops discussed posture during the Communion procession. They produced “The Reception of Holy Communion at Mass”, a handout that offers guidelines – standing, with a bow as the act of reverence – but puts it in the context of our union in Christ.

    “These norms may require some adjustment on the part of those who have been used to other practices, however the significance of unity in posture and gesture as a symbol of our unity as members of the one body of Christ should be the governing factor in our own actions.”


    I suggest charity toward those who encourage sameness, unity in posture, as well as toward those who insist on their individual choices. The US bishops allow people to each choose tongue or hand to receive, but unity within the Body of Christ is still a prime concern.

    1. “These norms may require some adjustment on the part of those who have been used to other practices, however the significance of unity in posture and gesture as a symbol of our unity as members of the one body of Christ should be the governing factor in our own actions.”

      Since when does uniformity in practice equate to unity? Maybe in the military. So according this: conform, think and do like everyone else or you’re not really part of “us.” More guilt. It all sounds condescending and cultish.

  11. I have personally seen a kneeling woman refused Communion. The priest repeatedly shouted, ‘You don’t have that option here,’ at her until she moved aside.

    1. Equally not right are those priests at Vatican liturgies who insist that Communion must be received on the tongue.

      1. Well, except that reception on the tongue remains the legal norm, reception in the hand requiring indult/episcopal conference approval by jurisdiction, and Benedict XVI having muddied the waters at Vatican liturgies in that regard and I am not sure how much Pope Francis has legislated to the contrary. And aside from that there remains the universal precaution permitted to ministers of communion to avoid danger of profanation (which isn’t necessarily always a bad faith pretext). That said, there are many bad ways to go about that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *