Why do we? - Receive Communion in the hand, standing?

by Paul Stenhouse, M.S.C., Ph.D


A regular column explaining the history and meaning of Catholic customs, ritual and traditions. The 40 articles that have appeared so far are soon to be published in booklet form, available from Annals Australia.
Please note: This was written in March 1986.

Before Vatican II, it had been the custom for almost 1,500 years in the Catholic Church for those receiving Holy Communion to do so kneeling. The Host was received on the tongue, and the priest said: Corpus Domini Nostri Iesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam, Amen. "May the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ preserve your soul unto life everlasting. Amen".

These words and the tradition of receiving the Sacrament kneeling date from the time of Pope St Gregory the Great (590-604 A.D.) and the custom of receiving the Host on the tongue can be traced even further back – at least to the time of Pope Agapitus who died in 536 A.D. A Council held in Rouen in the 7th century forbids it to be given in any other way. Practice seems to have varied from country to country up until this definitive ruling in 880 A.D.

During the first four centuries, however, as Communion time drew near, the cantor at the Mass would call out Sancta Sanctis, "Holy Things to the holy," and the faithful would approach the altar, bowed but standing.

At that time the universal custom in the Church was to receive the Sacred Species in the hand.

Thus St Ambrose (339-397 A.D.) Bishop of Milan, asked the Emperor Theodosius how he dared to receive Holy Communion with his hand dripping with the blood of the innocent, after the massacre of Thessalonica. St Augustine (354-430 A.D.) whom St Ambrose himself baptised, writes of a Bishop who used to receive Communion in the hand from a priest who in his turn received Communion in his hand from the Bishop. St Basil (330-379 A.D.) writes of a priest who places portion of the Eucharist in the hands of a communicant who then puts it in his mouth with his own hand. St John Chrysostom (345-407 A.D.) speaks of the importance of the faithful approaching Holy Communion with clean hands, because of the sacredness of what they are going to touch. St John Damascene (675-750 A.D.) required his Catholics to put their hands in the form of a cross, receiving the Sacrament in the palm of the right hand, supported by the left.

The words used in distributing Holy Communion in the Catholic Church today, "The Body of Christ," and the response of the communicant, "Amen," were in common usage up to the end of the 6th century.

St Jerome (347-420 A.D.), in a famous comment to a correspondent (Ep. 62) wonders how someone could come to Mass, receive Holy Communion and say "Amen," and yet harbour unkind thoughts.

Daily celebration of Mass had become the almost universal custom after the persecutions ceased at the time of Constantine. St John Chrysostom even complains of the fewness of faithful at the daily celebration. St Augustine writes that in Africa in his day our Lord was sacrificed each day for the people. Mass was celebrated daily in the Churches of Rome and Spain in St Jerome's day (fourth century) although Socrates, the historian (380-440 A.D.) who carried on the work of Eusebius of Caesarea mentions that according to an ancient tradition in Rome and Alexandria, Mass was never said on the Sabbath (Saturday) as was the custom elsewhere. How long Mass was said in Rome on the Lord's Day (Sunday), and on all the other days of the week except Saturday, is not clear. St Augustine certainly mentions a variety of customs in the Catholic Church of his day (Ep. 118): "In some places no day passes without Mass being offered; in some places Mass is said only on the Sabbath and the Lord's Day; in others, only on the Lord's Day.'"

With daily celebration of Mass the rule throughout the whole Church, it was natural that daily reception of Communion became more and more encouraged. The Council of Eliberis (305 A.D.) decreed that if a person dwelling in a town should be absent from Mass on Three Sundays, he should be forbidden Holy Communion.

According to Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his time (688 A.D.) it was normal in the East to receive Communion daily. Bede the Venerable (672-735 A.D.) writing to Egbert of York, exhorts him to insist on the wholesome practice of daily Communion according to the Custom of the Church in Italy, France, Germany, Africa, Greece and the whole East. Because of poor catechesis, Bede comments, this is far from being the case amongst English laymen. "Even the most religious of them seldom receive Holy Communion apart from Christmas, Epiphany and Easter; although large numbers of innocent boys and girls, young men and women, old men and old women, receive Communion every Lord's Day, and even on the Feasts of the Apostles and Martyrs as is the custom in the Apostolic and Roman Church."

For pastoral reasons the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council decreed that we should return to the earlier custom of receiving Holy Communion in the hand, and use the older form of words. If our faith is truly to be nourished as the Church intends, we must ensure that we receive Holy Communion devoutly, with scrupulously clean hands held out in the form of a cross, with the hollow of the right hand like a throne upon which the Sacred Host will be placed. The faithful are left free to receive Communion on the tongue if they so wish. It is not permitted to receive Communion between one's fingers, and all are exhorted to hold their hands up at a reasonable height and to support the right with the left, to ensure that the Host does not fall to the ground.

In ancient times, as the faithful approached to receive Communion, they would recite Psalms together. This may not be possible today, but a prayer that could be said quietly by communicant as they approach the altar would be the one from the Roman Missal: "I will take the bread of heaven and call upon the name of the Lord: May the Body of Christ guard my body and soul unto life everlasting Amen."


From "Annals Australasia," formerly "Annals Australia" - March 1986


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