Seminars on Liturgical Formation 2013–2014
Holy Communion—the hidden majesty of Divine Love
15th December 2013, Hong Kong.
The Most Reverend Athanasius Schneider
The authentic renewal and reform of the life of the Church has to start by the renewal of the liturgy, that means by deepening the devotion and the fear of God in the liturgical rites. Such a renewal of the holy liturgy is the most important expression of the “aggiornamento” which Blessed Pope John XXIII so much desired. Saint Josemaría Escrivá explained the word “aggiornamento” very correctly in this way: “
[A]ggiornamento means above all fidelity. . . .
The delicate, operational and constant fidelity […] is the best defense against the oldness of the spirit, the aridity of the heart and the mental inflexibility. . . .
It would be at least superficial to think the aggiornamento consists primarily in changing” (Conversaciones con Mons. Escrivá de Balaguer, ed. José Luis Illanes, Madrid 2012, pp. 152–153). Therefore the Second Vatican Council dedicated his first document to the sacred liturgy. Among the principles of the reform of the liturgy one can point out the following three:
- That the rites may express clearer their orientation to God, to Heaven, to contemplation (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 2 and 8).
- That the sanctity of the texts and rites may be clearer expressed (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 21).
- That there should not be innovations, unless they are organically connected with the existing forms and unless they bring authentic spiritual utility (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 23).
The manner in which the faithful receive Holy Communion shows if Holy Communion is for them not only the most sacred reality, but the most beloved and the most sacred Person. The reception of the Body of Christ in the little host requires therefore deep faith and purity of heart, and in the same time unequivocal gestures of adoration. This was the constant characteristic of Catholics from all ages, beginning with the first Christians, the Christians in the time of the Church Fathers until the times of our grandparents and parents. Even in the first centuries when in some places the sacred host was deposited by the priest on the palm of the right hand or on a white cloth which covered the right hand of the women, the faithful during Holy Mass didn’t touch the consecrated bread with their fingers. The Holy Spirit guided the Church instructing her more deeply about the manner to treat the sacred humanity of Christ during Holy Communion. The Roman Church in the 6th century distributed the sacred host directly in the mouth, as it is witnessed in a work of Pope Gregory the Great (cf. Dial., 3). In the Middle Ages the faithful began to receive the Body of Christ kneeling, in an exteriorly more clear expression of adoration (cf. St. Columban, Regula coenobialis, 9).
In our times, and there passed already 40 years, there is a deep wound in the Mystical Body of Christ. This deep wound is the modern practice of Communion in hand, a practice which essentially differs from an analogous rite in the first centuries, as above described. This modern practice is the deepest wound in the Mystical Body of Christ because of the following four deplorable manifestations:
- An astonishing minimalism in gestures of adoration and reverence. Generally there is in the modern practice of Communion in hand almost an absence of every sign of adoration.
- A gesture as one treats common food, that means: to pick up with one’s own fingers the Sacred Host from the palm of the left hand and put It by oneself in the mouth. A habitual practice of such a gesture causes in a not little number of the faithful, and especially of children and adolescents, the perception that under the Sacred Host there isn’t present the Divine Person of Christ, but rather a religious symbol, for they can treat the Sacred Host exteriorly in a way as they treat common food: touching with his own fingers and putting the food with the fingers in one’s own mouth.
- A numerous loss of the fragments of the Sacred Host: the little fragments often fall down in the space between the minister and the communicant because of no use of Communion plate. Often the fragments of the Sacred Host stick to the palm and to the both fingers of the person who receives Communion and then fall down. All these numerous fragments are often lying on the floor and crushed under the feet of the people, even so they don’t notice the fragments.
- An increasing stealing of the Sacred Hosts, because the manner to receive It directly with one’s own hand effectively facilitate very much the stealing.
There is nothing in the Church and in this earth, which is so sacred, so Divine, so living and so personal as the Holy Communion, because It is the Eucharistic Lord Himself. And such four deplorable things do happen with Him. The modern practice of Communion in the hand never existed in this concrete exterior form. It is incomprehensible that many people in the Church don’t acknowledge this wound, consider this matter as secondary, and even wonder why one speaks about this theme. And what is even more incomprehensible: many in the Church even defend and spread this practice of Communion.
It was the constant belief and practice of the Church that Christ, really present under the species of the bread, has to receive an exclusively Divine adoration, which is realized interiorly as well as exteriorly. Such an act of adoration is called in the Holy Scripture with the Greek word “proskynesis” (προσκύνησις). Our Lord Jesus Christ rejected the temptations of the devil and proclaimed the first duty of all creatures: “Thou shalt adore God alone” (Mt 4:10). The evangelist used here the word “proskynesis”. In the Bible the act of adoration of God was performed exteriorly in the following manner: kneeling down and bowing the head to the earth or prostration. Such an act of adoration performed Jesus Himself, His holy Mother the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph when they annually visited the Temple in Jerusalem. In this manner of “proskynesis” the Body of Christ, the Incarnate God, was venerated: firstly by the three wise men (Mt 2:11); the numerous people, who were healed be Jesus, performed also this exterior act of adoration (cf. Mt 8:2, 9:18, 15:25); the women who saw the risen Lord in the Easter morning fell down in the presence of His glorious Body and adored him (Mt 28:9); the Apostles as they saw the Body of Christ ascending into Heaven fell down and adored Him (Mt 28:17; Lk 24:52); the Angels and all the redeemed and glorified Saints in the Heavenly Jerusalem are falling down and adoring the glorified humanity of Christ, symbolized in the “Lamb” (Rev 4:10).
In order to express the truth that the Holy Communion in not a common food, but really the Holy of Holiest, the sacredness in persona, at least from the 8th century in the Occidental as well as in the Oriental churches the priest was putting the sacred host directly in the mouth of the faithful. This gesture symbolizes that it is Christ in the person of the priest who is nourishing the faithful. Furthermore this gesture symbolizes the attitude of humility and the spirit of spiritual infancy, which Jesus Himself requires from all who want to receive the kingdom of God (Mt 18:3). During the Holy Communion the sacred host is the real heavenly kingdom, because there is Christ Himself, in whose Body all the Divinity dwells (cf. Col 2:9). Therefore the most appropriate exterior gesture to receive the kingdom of God like a child, is to make oneself little, to kneel down and to allow to be fed like a little child, opening the mouth. Without doubt the rite of receiving the Divine Body of Christ during Holy Communion kneeling and on the tongue was elaborated during several centuries in the Church by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of sanctity and piety. The abolishing of explicit gestures of adoration during Holy Communion, that is the abolishing of kneeling and the abolishing of the biblical motivated gesture of receiving the Body of Christ like a child in the tongue, will surely not bring a stronger flourishing of the Eucharistic faith and devotion. The following words of the Ecumenical Council of Trent remain always valid and continue to be very up-to-date in our days:
There is, therefore, no room for doubt that all the faithful of Christ may, in accordance with a custom always received in the Catholic Church, give to this most holy sacrament in veneration the worship of latria, which is due to the true God. Neither is it to be less adored for the reason that it was instituted by Christ the Lord in order to be received. For we believe that in it the same God is present of whom the eternal Father, when introducing Him into the world, says: And let all the angels of God adore him (Heb 1:6).
Theological and liturgical reasons for receiving
Holy Communion by tongue and kneeling
The sacred host is the most sacred and great on this earth, because here it is about the Lord Himself. Consequently there should be provided also exteriorly a manner to receive Holy Communion in such a way that will guarantee a greatest possible security against the loss even of the most little fragments of the sacred host and against the stealing of the hosts. Furthermore the rite of Communion should express possibly in a most evident manner the sacred and sublime aspect, that means should clearer be distinguished from the gesture of taking a profane food. These exigencies expresses undeniably the rite to receive Communion kneeling and to allow to be “fed” by the priest, that means to allow that the sacred host be put on the tongue. On the contrary, the modern manner to receive the sacred host on the palm of the hand and after to put the host by oneself in the mouth is more likely similar to the manner to take profane food (this essentially differs from an analogous rite in the Ancient Church). Such scenes one can observe often in receptions “buffet” or in the distribution of sweet in kindergartens.
The interior aspect alone is not sufficient in the Divine worship, for God became man, became visible. An exclusively or predominantly interior worship of the sacred host during Communion with the exclusion of the exterior aspect is not incarnational. Such a Eucharistic worship is “platonic”, is protestant and ultimately gnostic. Man is essentially also visible and corporal. Consequently the worship of the Eucharistic Body of Christ should be necessarily also exterior and corporal. Such worship is adequate to the dignity of man, even if the most important of such worship remains the interior aspect. Both aspects are inseparable one from the other.
The whole human body and each of his part is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Therefore it is wrong to contrast the hand with the tongue. One should not say: “The hand is more worthy than the tongue” or the contrary.
Who sins is not the tongue or the hand, but the person. The sin begins in the thoughts and is imputed to the will. Therefore it is wrong to say: “One dies sin more with the tongue than with the hand”. The tongue remains innocent, because the person is who sins with his faculties of the intellect and of the will.
The symbolism of the mouth expresses in a more convincing manner the spiritual and religious content: the kiss as an image of the interior and spiritualized act of love (cf. the Book of Song of Songs; Ps 84:11: “Righteousness and peace kiss each other”), but above all the liturgical kiss or the “holy fraternal kiss” (cf. 1 Cor 16:20 etc.). The word “adoration” is derived from the Latin words “os ad os” (from mouth to mouth). The word proceeds from the mouth: this is an image for the procession of the ETERNAL WORD from GOD. Jesus breathed from His mouth the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn 20:27).
The words “take and eat” (in Greek “labete” [λάβετε]), Mt 26:26, should be translated correctly “receive (accept) and eat”. These words were addressed immediately to the Apostles, the priests of the New Covenant and not to the totality of the faithful. Otherwise the words “Do this in memory of Me” (Lk 22:19) should consequently be addressed to the totality of the faithful, who by this would partake on the ministerial priesthood. Furthermore, the word the Greek word “lambanein” (λαμβάνειν) does not mean the touching with one’s hand, but the act of receiving. This word “lambanein” one find e.g. in the following expressions: “receive the Spirit of truth” (Jn 14:17), “Receive the Holy Spirit” (Jn 20:22) etc. In the reception of Holy Communion the question isn’t about “taking or touching with one’s hand”, but the question is about a profoundly spiritual event: “to be allowed to receive” the Eucharistic sacrament with the heart, with the souls, but also obviously with the bodily and this conveniently by tongue and kneeling.
The risen Lord didn’t allow that His glorious Body be touched by everybody indiscriminately (“Do not hold on to Me”, “Do not touch Me”, Jn 20:17). However He permitted that the Apostle Thomas, therefore a priest of the New Covenant, should touch His glorious Body, and one could say His Eucharistic Body (cf. Jn 20:27).
In the case of the practice of Communion by tongue, a practice which lasts more than a millennium (witnessed already from the times of Pope Gregory the Great), and in the case of the Catholic Oriental churches and of all the Orthodox churches and the ancient-oriental churches, where the Holy Communion is put in the mouth and often even with a spoon, there are not known cases of deceases because of infection. From the hygienic point of view the hand has more bacteria than the tongue.
When nowadays one receive a very important or a venerable person, there are prepared all details in a scrupulous manner and nobody would say: “One can greet such a person also with unwashed hands or without clear signs of respect” (e.g. a King or a President). Isn’t Our Lord, present under the species of the little host, more important than a President or a King? Should there in the case of the reception of the Lord under the species of the host not be taken more detailed and more scrupulous measures than in the case when one receives of a King or a President and treats their persons?
In the case of the Communion in the hand the faithful himself puts the sacred Host on his tongue, ultimately also in this case we have Communion on the tongue. The difference is in the following: in the case of Communion by tongue it is the priest, representing Christ in this sacred moment, who puts the sacred Host on the tongue of the faithful. In the case of Communion in hand however, it is the faithful himself, who puts the sacred Host on his own tongue.
The gesture of “putting the host by oneself on the tongue” expresses surely less the aspect of receiving in comparison with the gesture of “allowing the host be put by another person”. This last gesture expresses in a very impressive way the attitude of being child before the greatness of God, Who is present in the sacred host. This gesture expresses also the truth: “unless you become like little children…” (Mt 18:3), and one could say: “unless you become infants”, for the Holy Scripture says: “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may taste that the Lord is good” (1 Pet 2:2–3). Ultimately the “spiritual milk” is Christ Himself, and especially Christ in the Eucharistic food. The babies receive food only by mouth, the adult, however, puts himself with his hands the food in one’s mouth. The following words could be applied to the Holy Communion: “as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is as a weaned child”. (Ps 131:2). Indeed, Jesus hasn’t said: “Unless you become adults…”, but the contrary.
When there is the case of the Most Holy, of the Lord Himself, then there has to be valid this principle: “What you can, you must dare to do” (“Quantum potes, tantum aude”, sequence Lauda Sion of Saint Thomas Aquinas). Therefore, here has to be valid the maximum, and not the minimum of interior and at the same of exterior reverence. The littleness of the sacred host doesn’t justify treating it in the moment of Holy Communion with minimalistic gestures of adoration and sacredness.
Pastoral reasons for the general return to
Communion by tongue and kneeling
The current rite of Communion in hand was never practiced in the Catholic Church, because the so called Communion in hand in the Ancient Church differed substantially from the current use, which was introduced by the Calvinists and not even by the Lutherans, who however till our days kept the traditional rite by tongue and kneeling.
The rite of the first centuries was in the following manner: the consecrated bread was put on the palm of the right hand, then the faithful bowed profoundly (similar as today is the gesture “metanoia” [μετἀνοια] in the Byzantine rite) and took the Communion directly with the mouth without touching the consecrated bread with the fingers. It was in some way a Communion by mouth, because the faithful didn’t put the Communion himself with his fingers in his mouth. Furthermore, with the tongue the faithful could collect from the palm of his hand the fragments which eventually were loosed from the consecrated bread so that none of the fragments might be lost. The women received the consecrated bread upon a white cloth, called “dominicale”.
In the current rite, wrongly declared as a rite of the ancient Church, the faithful receives the host not upon the right but upon the left hand and then he takes the host with the fingers and puts himself the Communion in his mouth. This manner was invented by the Calvinists already in the 17th century. From the point of view of the gesture such a rite rather is like a form of self-Communion and like the manner to take common food.
Pope Paul VI, giving the possibility of an indult of Communion in hand (cf. Instruction “Memoriale Domini” from May 29th, 1969), requested however that the traditional rite be retained in the whole Church: “This (i.e. the traditional) manner of distributing holy Communion must be retained, regarding the current state of the Church as whole”. All the more: in the same document the Holy See exhorted vehemently the bishops, priests and faithful to observe diligently the currently valid law and confirms again the law to receive holy Communion in the traditional manner (cf. ibd.). Already during the Second Vatican Council the Servant of God Pope Paul VI stated in his encyclical “Mysterium Fidei” from 1965, that there should not be changed the rite of the Holy Communion with reference to a custom from the Ancient Church: “Nor should we forget that in ancient times the faithful—whether being harassed by violent persecutions or living in solitude out of love for monastic life—nourished themselves even daily on the Eucharist, by receiving Holy Communion from their own hands when there was no priest or deacon present. We are not saying this with any thought of effecting a change in the manner of keeping the Eucharist and of receiving Holy Communion that has been laid down by subsequent ecclesiastical laws still in force; Our intention is that we may rejoice over the faith of the Church which is always one and the same” (nn. 62–63). Some years before the Servant of God Pope Pius XII in the same sense warned against changing current reverent Eucharistic rites and customs “No more can any Catholic in his right senses repudiate existing legislation of the Church to revert to prescriptions based on the earliest sources of canon law. Just as obviously unwise and mistaken is the zeal of one who in matters liturgical would go back to the rites and usage of antiquity, discarding the new patterns introduced by disposition of divine Providence to meet the changes of circumstances and situation. This way of acting bids fair to revive the exaggerated and senseless antiquarianism” (Encyclical “Mediator Dei”, nn. 63–64).
The reasons of Paul VI in favor of the traditional rite of Communion are also today valid and even more than ever:
- The truth about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic mystery was deeper penetrated by the Church (cf. ibid.).
- The urgency of a greater exterior reverence (cf. ibid.).
- The feeling of humility towards this Sacrament on behalf of who receives It (cf. ibid.).
- It is about a tradition of many centuries (cf. ibid.).
- It guarantees in a more efficacious manner the solemnity and dignity of the moment of the distribution of Communion (cf. ibid.).
- It prevents in a more efficacious manner from the danger of profanation of the sacred species (cf. ibid.).
- By the traditional manner is retained in a more diligent way the care of the Church that no fragment of the consecrated bread might be lost (cf. ibid.).
The misgivings of Pope Paul VI were realized in an indisputable manner, based on the experience of Communion in the hand in the past 40 years:
- The diminishing of the reverence towards the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar (cf. ibid.).
- The profanations of the same Sacrament (cf. ibid.).
- The alteration of the right doctrine and the Eucharistic faith (cf. ibid.).
The conditions under which Pope Paul VI granted the possibility of such an indult have not been observed or fulfilled in a general manner today such a required observation of the conditions became even worse. Paul VI required that any danger has to be avoided (cf. ibid.):
- the danger of the defect of reverence,
- the insinuation of wrong opinions about the Holy Eucharist,
- other improper things.
Furthermore, Pope Paul VI expected that the new manner of the rite of Communion would bring an increase of the faith and of the piety of the faithful (cf. ibid.). This expectation, however, is contradicted nowadays by the facts because of the Communion in hand.
In view of the real dangers and considering the negative opinion of the majority of the Catholic episcopate, which was consulted on this subject in 1968, the Instruction “Memoriale Domini” says that Pope Paul VI doesn’t think that the traditional rite of administering Communion to the faithful should be changed (cf. ibid.).
The current rite of Communion in hand, which never belonged to the liturgical patrimony of the Catholic Church (because it was invented by the Calvinists and differs substantially from the rite in the first centuries of the Church), caused and continues to cause a damage with real worrying dimensions, that is: damaging the right Eucharistic faith, the reverence and the care with the Eucharistic fragments on the limit of the bearable.
The Eucharist is the culmination and the source of the entire life of the Church (Vatican II), the Church lives from the Eucharist (Encyclical and testament of Blessed John Paul II) and the Eucharist is consequently the very heart of the Church. The real crisis of the Church of today reveals itself in the manner in which this source and this heart are concretely treated. However, because of Communion in the hand and standing, the Most Holy is treated with a real minimalism of exterior reverence and sacredness and moreover the consecrated bread, the most precious treasure of the Church, is exposed with an astonishing carelessness to an enormous loss of the Eucharistic fragments and to an ever more increasing stealing for sacrilegious aims. These are facts no one with good faith can deny.
The very crisis of the Church of today is actually a Eucharistic crisis and more concretely the crisis caused in a decisive manner by Communion in hand, a crisis prognosticated by Paul VI and demonstrated nowadays by the facts. An authentic reform of the Church and a real new evangelization remain less efficacious, if the principal disease is not cured, that is the Eucharistic crisis in general and more concretely the crisis caused by the rite of Communion in hand. A disease is cured more efficaciously not with the cure of the symptoms, but with the cure of the concrete cause. One speaks certainly in a more general and theoretical manner about the necessity of a greater reverence and care of the consecrated bread. However, until there will remain the concrete cause of irreverence and of the generalized carelessness, i.e. Communion in hand, the speeches and necessary programs of a reform and of a new evangelization will not bring a great effect in the sphere of the faith and the Eucharistic piety, which is the heart of the life of the Church.
The most little one, the most fragile one, the most defenseless one nowadays in the Church is the Eucharistic Lord under the Eucharistic species in the moment of the distribution of Holy Communion. Would it be not a most logical demand of the faith and of the love towards the Eucharistic Lord and a most necessary pastoral measure to provide that there might be a possibly most sacred and most safe manner of distributing Communion in order to defend the Eucharistic Lord Who is the most fragile and in the same time the most sacred? Such a more sacred and more safe manner is the rite of Communion by tongue and kneeling, which has borne abundant fruits during more than a thousand years, as has been recalled by Pope Paul VI and also his successors, especially Pope Benedict XVI.
One can adduce pastoral reasons in favor of continuing with the practice of Communion in the hand, as for example the right of the faithful to choose. Such a right, however, violates—considering the general proportions of the practice—the right that the Eucharistic Jesus has, i.e. the right to the greatest possible sacredness and reverence. In this regard it is about the right of the most fragile in the Church. All the reasons in favor of the continuation of the practice of Communion in the hand lose their weight confronting the gravity of the situation of the minimalism of reverence and sacredness, the obvious danger of carelessness and loss of the fragments and of the increasing stealing of the consecrated hosts. The continuation of the use of the indult of Communion in the hand cannot be said to be a pastoral need, because it damages the faith and the piety of the faithful and it damages the rights of the Eucharistic Lord Himself.
Great Saints who reformed the Church and true apostolic souls in the history of the Church have said: the spiritual progress of an epoch of the Church is measured by the manner of reverence and devotion towards the Sacrament of the Altar. Saint Thomas Aquinas has expressed this truth very concisely: “Sic nos Tu visita, sicut Te colimus” (Saint Thomas Aquinas, hymn “Sacris solemniis”): Lord, visit us to the extent as we venerate you! This is valid also for our days: the Lord will visit His Church nowadays with special graces of an authentic renewal, so desired by Blessed John XXIII and the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, to the extent He is loved and also venerated in a visible manner especially in the moment of the distribution of Holy Communion.