The Coronavirus has altered the way we celebrate Mass. Many parishes have released videos of the changes made to the liturgy so that the faithful could familiarize themselves with the new protocol before they return.
A sampling includes making reservations to attend Mass due to the reduced capacity in observance of social distancing, tape on every other pew to mark where seating is allowed and mandatory facemasks to be worn by all parishioners. St. Gregory Parish in Miami, Fl has even procured a high-tech “disinfecting tunnel” to help mitigate the spread.
The distribution of Communion has also been revised. To increase the distance between communicants, side-by-side lines have given way to one-way single lines and tape along the aisle marks the required six-feet distance. And as can be expected, the chalice has been withdrawn from the laity—the celebrant, however, MUST commune under both species.
But what has been retained in many parishes is the option of receiving the Eucharist on the tongue. I am not aware of any parish that has forbidden the practice and exclusively distributes communion in the hand.
It’s up to the individual to decide whether to receive the host in the hand or on the tongue as both are options in the United States.
The manner of receiving Communion has varied and both the Scriptures and liturgical history provide evidence that today’s choices are worthy ones capable of offering God devotion and adoration.
Receiving in the Hand
If we look to the first Mass—the Last Supper—to see how Communion was given, we find that Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it and said to his disciples:
“Take it; this is my body.”—Mark 14:22
We can safely assume that they took it with their hands. When the fledgling Church broke bread in their homes, it’s believed they followed these same practices and received in their hands.
“They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.”—Acts 2:42
Many early descriptions of the Eucharist outside the Bible describe receiving Communion in the hand:
“Tell me, would you choose to come to the Sacrifice with unwashed hands? No, I suppose, not. But you would rather choose not to come at all, than come with soiled hands. And then, thus scrupulous as you are in this little matter, do you come with soiled soul, and thus dare to touch it? And yet the hands hold it but for a time, whereas into the soul it is dissolved entirely.”—St. John Chrysostom, Homily 3 on Ephesians (347-407 ad)
“For the sacraments are holy through Him to whom they belong; but when taken in hand worthily, they bring reward, when unworthily, judgment. And although the men are not one who take in hand the sacrament of God worthily or unworthily, yet that which is taken in hand, whether worthily or unworthily, is the same; so that it does not become better or worse in itself, but only turns to the life or death of those who handle it in either case. ”—St. Augustine, Answer to Petilian the Donatist, Book 2, #88(354-430 AD)
“‘What need of the Eucharist? for you are not yet appointed to die, since you talk so merrily with us, as if you were in good health.” “Nevertheless,” said he, “bring me the Eucharist.” Having received It into his hand, he asked, whether they were all in charity with him, and had no complaint against him, nor any quarrel or grudge.—Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History of England, Book 4 ch 24 (672-735 AD)
“Wherefore, if any one wishes to be a participator of the immaculate Body in the time of the Synaxis, and to offer himself for the communion, let him draw near, arranging his hands in the form of a cross, and so let him receive the communion of grace.”—Council of Constantinople Trullo Canon 101 (692 AD)
Receiving on the Tongue
Even though the early Church received Communion in the hand, beginning in the early Middle Ages, receiving the Eucharist on the tongue grew in popularity in the Latin Rite.
It’s unclear exactly when the practice emerged. In his Dialogues, St. Gregory the Great chronicles the 6th century Pope Agapitus healing of a lame man, then administering Communion to him on the tongue:
“he came from the altar, took the lame man by the hand, and straightways, in the presence and sight of all the people, he restored him to the use of his legs: and after he had put our Lord’s body into his mouth, that tongue, which long time before had not spoken, was loosed. “—St. Gregory the Great, Dialogues, Book 3, Ch 3
Since the passage explicitly mentions receiving Communion on the tongue, it’s likely that the popular practice was different.
By about 878, the Council of Rouen decreed:
“Let not the Eucharist be put in the hand of any lay man or woman, but only in the mouth.”
But, being a provincial Council, the mandates of Rouen did not establish universal norms—that power is reserved for the Church of Rome.
The Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship in the document Memoriale Domini offers this brief history of Communion on the tongue:
“Later, with a deepening understanding of the truth of the eucharistic mystery, of its power and of the presence of Christ in it, there came a greater feeling of reverence towards this sacrament and a deeper humility was felt to be demanded when receiving it. Thus the custom was established of the minister placing a particle of consecrated bread on the tongue of the communicant.”—Instruction on the Manner of Distributing Holy Communion, Memoriale Domini.
This practice arose due to an increased devotion to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Placing the Eucharist directly on the communicants tongue lessened the need for the recipients’ hands to be clean, protected the Eucharist from being taken home for superstitious reasons or profane use and reduced the possibility of crumbs falling to the floor.
The fear of dropping fragments of the consecrated bread thereby desecrating the Eucharist seems to have been the main reason for the custom of receiving communion on the tongue.
Some argue that it was because the tongue was considered more noble and pure than the hands. However, the Epistle of James warns of the tongues deceitfulness:
“For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”— James 3:7-8
And the interpretation that only the anointed hands of a priest could touch the Eucharist appeared later. Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote in the 13th century that touching the blessed Sacrament is proper only to the ordained priest:
“. . . out of reverence towards this Sacrament, nothing touches it, but what is consecrated; hence the corporal and the chalice are consecrated, and likewise the priest’s hands, for touching this Sacrament. Hence, it is not lawful for anyone else to touch it except from necessity, for instance, if it were to fall upon the ground, or else in some other case of urgency” (Summa Theologiae, III, 82, 3).
By the 16th century, the universal norm of receiving Communion in the hand was replaced in the Western Church with receiving Communion from the priest on the tongue.
This was the customary way the faithful received Communion at Mass for about the next 500 years. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that some episcopal conferences requested permission from the Holy See to once again place the consecrated host directly in the hands of the faithful.
Permission for administering Communion in the hand was granted by the Holy See to the United States on June 17, 1977 and has since become almost the universal norm in the Ordinary Form.
Today, both manners of receiving Communion are worthy and licit. Whether to receive Communion in the hand or on the tongue are liturgical disciplines not dogmas. The Church instructs that it is up to the communicant to decide the preferred manner. Neither is more or less noble and what is of most importance is that the communicant be in a state of grace and wishes to be united to Christ through Holy Communion.
What about you? Do you prefer to receive Communion on the tongue or in the hand? How about standing or kneeling? If you attend the Ordinary Form and receive kneeling, how do people react? Due to Covid-19, some parishes have a special line only for those wishing to receive on the tongue. Does your parish do that? Share and let’s learn together!