Holy Communion: Contemplation, Private Prayer, Active Participation?

This past spring semester, my students had a composition assignment. They were to compose a musical setting for a specific liturgical component, and explain how that setting enlivens the ritual context. Acknowledging my own musical limitations, I asked students to observe specific criteria for their compositions, accompanied by ample class discussion. Our dialogue on the technical nuts and bolts of music and liturgy snowballed into more informal discussions on our respective experiences of rites, especially Holy Communion.

I joined my students by composing a setting for the koinonikon, or Communion song. I prefaced my presentation with questions I had accumulated over a period of many years, both as a parish choir director and as a deacon. In my childhood, the choir usually sang one or more compositions to cover the first part of Communion. Communion begins with the clergy (literally according to order), and it takes a few minutes for the clergy to receive Communion and then prepare the rest of it for the people. Our process in the Byzantine Rite can require more time when we cut the lamb into small pieces and place them into one or more cups, as the people receive the body and blood of Christ together, from a spoon. As a child in a parish that had not been shaped by liturgical renewal, the choir would sing a concert piece (konzert) during the priest’s Communion and preparation, and then the people’s Communion usually required only five minutes, since very few people received.

On ordinary Sundays, the appointed koinonikon is “Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the highest!” (Ps. 148) for the first part; then, “receive the body of Christ! Taste the fountain of immortality!” is sung repeatedly as the people receive. The second refrain can be sung dozens of times in parishes of liturgical renewal, where there are many communicants. In some parishes, the priest exhorts the people to stand throughout Communion.

I wondered if it might be more sensible to sing the koinonikon  throughout the people’s portion of Communion as well, something that can be accomplished by composing the responsorial psalm verse so that it can be sung by all. I set out to accomplish just that with my simple, unison composition that draws from the chant tradition without copying it.

One of my students challenged my assertion that this was a time for the people to be engaged. She suggested that the people should kneel or sit quietly in grateful contemplation of the gift they have received, and that this is a prime time for the parish musicians to lead them into contemplation through music. My sense is that she was sharing her parish’s practice, and I agreed that listening can be a form of active participation. Our discussion led me to wonder what people actually do during Communion. Here is a short list of what I have seen and experienced during Communion:

  • Opening the prayerbook and reciting quietly, to one’s self, the appointed prayers of thanksgiving after Communion;
  • Venturing to an icon in the Church, venerating it and praying before it (not uncommon in Byzantine churches without pews that promote spontaneous movement);
  • Reading the bulletin or handout;
  • Sitting quietly;
  • Chatting with one’s neighbors;
  • Attending to one’s children;
  • Going home.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it reminds me that there is always much more going on at Liturgy besides the appointed rite or ritual. And I am convinced that no amount of ritual revision or liturgical catechesis can substantially change this reality. I am still pondering these questions: is this kind of liturgical plurality healthy? Do liturgists have a tendency to place too much emphasis on getting the people to participate actively? What happens in your parishes?





  1. I love this post. I’ve personally done at least a few of those things after communion on the bullet list.

    In Roman Catholicism, communion is a sacrament of our union with the Lord, and the communion chant/song expresses that unity. My personal point of view (and this may provide some partial answer to the questions at the bottom of the post) is that so long as we expect music to perform this ritual work for us, we will see the multiplicity of actions that you describe. Some people sing; some don’t. Some sing the refrain but don’t sing the verses, perhaps because it requires more work. Some sing until they have to walk up to receive communion, but don’t sing while they’re walking. Some sing before they receive but not after they receive. Some don’t sing if they don’t like the song. A lot don’t sing when the musical leadership doesn’t reach some minimal bar of competence.

    No doubt quite a bit of this is culturally specific to the US; and it’s likely that cultural forces are working against rather than for a greater expressed unity via song. People “feel” less connected to groups and mediating institutions of all sorts. We are very individualistic nowadays, and take part in group activities only on our own terms.

    From my music-ministry point of view, if half the people are singing, it is a victory. I still think it is worth working toward the ideal of all voices singing as one, before, during and after receiving communion. People still need to be directed (but not coerced) to do their part in the ritual.

    At the same time, we should be forgiving toward those who don’t. Parents really do need to tend to their children. Some folks may be leaving for legitimate and pressing reasons. Some people may be too depressed to join in, or their eyesight or hearing may not be sufficient to be able to take part.

  2. For now I would also note another important layer of activity going on, probably less obvious in a Byzantine church without pews or chairs except at the periphery (so simply removing them doesn’t make the issue go away, despite the unrealistic expectations of some), but still there: the attention in the mind given to whether, when and how to process to and from the place where the sacrament is given. (And there can be significant variations experienced at an individually level that won’t be obvious to people who are not attentive to the possibility. In my experience of the few communities where everyone is tries to remain standing throughout the rite can require even more attention of this sort for practical reasons I won’t dilate on here other than to say it reduces the range of available visual information that can help simplify decisions.)

    This is relevant to the question of singing because at no other point in the regular liturgy do we expect the faithful at large to be singing together while devoting their attention to such logistics. More to the point, liturgy folk tend to discuss the situation as if this dimension of it doesn’t coexist with the “goals” and norms. Which is interesting.

  3. In my parishes, people are invited to sing. I program well-known repertoire and psalms. Redemptionis Sacramentum gives some few minutes for people to join in the Communion song. For at least the last 15 years, people sing a fair bit. Like any other time of the Mass, people can opt to do something different. Not a problem for me.

  4. It’s rare when presiding that I get time to pray as I choose (/the Spirit moves) while people are receiving communion, but when concelebrating I do really appreciate the chance to get to sing a communion song when that works out. This probably makes me realize that I didn’t appreciate that enough when it was a much more frequent possibility. But, when there is nothing for me to sing and I get a chance to just sit and pray during the distribution of communion, I’ve always found the sight of people receiving communion a wonderful icon to pray with.

  5. The song during Communion is an important part of the service, though rarely treated that way. As people “become what they receive” the song unites their breathing so that the Breath of God, the Holy Spirit, comes united from thr Body of Christ. That is why I try to sing at communion whenever I can, to join in a palpable representation of The Spirit in our midst.

    Of course, the Holy Spirit is hard to tame and will always ask us ro take care of children, respond to our neighbor, seek community with painted saints, process orderly through the chaos, etc. The outward focus is what it is all about isn’t it? The song still surrounds everyone, enters into those who hear, and echoes though us when we leave. I hope it is a moment of blessing not just for me, but for the fussing child, the chatting adults, the contemplative and active people who have come to share in the Lord.

    1. Mr. McKay – thank you; excellent reflection. But, this also creates a concern for me. Too often, my experience of eucharist is a too strong focus on the individual or the individual and his/her Lord relationship making communion into a less than communal activity – rather, it reminds me of toddlers’ parallel play – together but each doing their own thing. Or, what you too often get is a sole focus on the dogmatic belief that this is an exercise in *belief* about transubstantiation only – no experience or even understanding that *we* become what we receive – it is rather, I receive.
      Have always been taught and experienced that communion is a *journey* within the communal celebration of the eucharist – thus, we, the people of God, PROCESS, MOVE TOGETHER and that this is a *COMMITMENT* not about us individually but about OUR MISSION*.
      At least, let it be a both/and versus an exercise in individualistic spirituality.

  6. On the rare occasions we have pontifical liturgies with several concelebrating clergy, the task of distributing is given to a handful of priests. In these situations, I have seen priests and bishops chatting for quite some time in the sanctuary. And more than once, I have seen these clergy take “selfies” with the bishop (during Communion) that are posted on social media later.

    I also wonder if this is a ‘soft-spot’ in the liturgy, conducive to liturgical variation, as Fr. Taft has written about on a few occasions.

    A sixteenth-century council in Moscow condemned the practice of “mnogoglasie,” when several chants are sung simultaneously (similar to but not equivalent with a choir singing ‘over’ the intonations of the deacon). Interesting that there has never been a condemnation of ‘multitasking’ during liturgy, especially with the preponderance of texts aimed towards legislating all liturgical acts.

    I deeply appreciate your description of the people coming forward for Communion as an icon of the kingdom of God. I see these photos posted on social media every day and wonder if my own eyes are now saturated by the imagery.

  7. In my experience, the act of contemplation can occur in the midst of liturgical action, hence singing and praying are not a barrier to contemplation unless we make them so by turning them into something they are not. When we “lose ourselves” in prayer, or are “lifted up” in song, or “transported” by joy, we may very definitely experience the presence of God, and this is holy. What is lacking is sometimes the permission to do mystagogy upon the experience of the Eucharist. Instead, we try to escape the experience of the Eucharist in one way or another.

    For example, I worry about the tendency to “thing-ify” Eucharist (another escape!), so that Eucharist is an object I receive or venerate, and not the living Body of the Lord, with whom we are mystically united and whose life we actually share in a Eucharistic community.

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