Put your hands down! (and stick out your tongue)

Do we really believe in the Real Presence? Is the consecrated Host actually the Body of Christ and no longer bread? If so, shouldn’t we be as reverent as humanly possible, minimizing any chance of dropping Him or losing a crumb or two? For that matter, are our hands even worthy of touching Him? I’m going to advance a rather reactionary thesis: that we should all be receiving the Eucharist directly on our tongues, not on the hand, nor in any other way yet to be devised. It’s simply more reverent and less prone to sacrilege, it’s the most historical method of reception, and best of all, it’s still the norm in the Church, regardless of what your favorite theologian might claim.

Before I get into history, I want to examine the issue of reverence. Starting with the questions I posed above, it is obvious to me that we should go to great lengths to maintain reverence in the Eucharist. After all, it is Christ’s Body, given for us, and as an unbloody re-presentation of the Sacrifice He made for us, it should fill us with awe. Why should this have anything to do with how we receive Him? Let’s think about the two processes in dispute: receiving in the hand, or on the tongue. St. Cyril of Jerusalem instructed catechumens to receive in the hand (we’ll get back to whether or not this citation is a worthwhile support for the practice) as follows: “place your left hand as the throne of your right one, which is to receive the King” (1). That sounds nice and reverent, but wouldn’t you rather minimize the chance of losing a crumb of Him? There is a quantitatively greater chance of sacrilege in this way when the Host is placed by the priest into your hand, and then you place the Host in your mouth, than if the priest places Him directly into your mouth. Even though that chance is still minuscule, we’re talking about Our Lord, not just a piece of bread. And, crumbs aren’t the biggest danger: what if you drop Him en route to your lips? There is no way of getting around that receiving on the tongue reduces the chance of irreverence to the Host quite a bit. Crumbs and Hosts on the floor aside, the priest’s hands have been anointed–have yours?

But, you say, the early Church, from the Last Supper onward, received in the Hand! I’ve heard that story over and over, and even got it from our RCIA director as I was helping him teach the other day, but let’s take a look at the hard evidence. The quote above from St. Cyril is all there is (2), as far as I can tell. Granted, St. Basil the Great also indicated that it was permitted to do so, but only in the context of persecution. But, Pope St. Leo the Great, in a commentary on the Gospel of John, suggests that we should receive on the tongue, not even one hundred years later (3). And, the constant witness of the Church after his time has been the same, up until the 20th century. It appears to be the case, if there need be any case made at all, that our increasing understanding of the Eucharist led to increasing concern for distributing and receiving it in the most reverent way possible. From the 5th century at the latest, onward, the Church has declared that way to be directly from the priest’s hand into the mouth.

So, a logical look at reverence and even a cursory look at history teaches us that receiving the Eucharist on the tongue should be the way to go. What about current practice, then? Why is it that reception in the hand is allowed? What does the Church teach today? The normative practice in the Roman Catholic Church is still to receive on the tongue. Permission from Rome must be sought in order for individual bishops to allow it in the hand. The instruction Memoriale Domini from 1969 sets up the process, extended in 1973’s Immensae Caritatis, by which conferences and bishops may request such an indult. However, both documents are quite explicit that every care should be taken to catechize the Faithful to prevent a loss of respect and reverence for the Eucharist in the changing of this practice, and, they are equally adamant that we still have the right to receive on the tongue regardless of what the common practice in a given diocese becomes.

Sadly, the warnings given by the Vatican in issuing permission to receive in the Hand have gone largely unheeded. Armies of extraordinary ministers hand out Hosts to lines of people who, from comparing their numbers to those in line at Confession, are either remarkably saintly or poorly catechized. Emphasizing the sacredness of the moment of reception by placing the Host on the tongue would be a small (or maybe even a large) step toward correcting this problem. It’s more reverent, more historical, and even normative. Why not?

1. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Fifth Mystagogic Catechesis.
2. For a fuller discussion, see Communion on the Tongue: Historical Facts. This is also the primary source of my quotes from the early Church Fathers.
3. “One receives in the mouth what one believes by faith.”


5 Responses to “Put your hands down! (and stick out your tongue)”

  1. 1 Peter May 16, 2006 at 8:29 am

    Thanks for the reminders Ed. Would that all Catholics read this and reflect on it – and then make the necessary change if they haven’t already done so.

  2. 2 Edmund C. May 16, 2006 at 8:35 am

    Peter, thanks for the kind words. (Long time no see, by the way…)

  3. 3 Peter May 16, 2006 at 9:25 am

    (long time no see – yeah, that stupid thing called ‘work’ continues to get in the way of me doing the things I want ;-).

    BTW – you mind me copying this to a few friends (you have my email address – if you don’t mind, drop me a note and I’ll tell you to whom I want to copy it)?

  4. 4 Bekah May 16, 2006 at 8:24 pm

    I only receive on the tongue, too. I believe every child should be taught to receive on the tongue, as the norm for the Church. If they later decide to receive by hand, that’s up to them. My daughter just had her First Communion and her whole class was taught to receive on the tongue. She’s been sticking her tongue out at me for a couple weeks now, making sure she’s doing it right. LOL

  1. 1 Cacœthes Scribendi Trackback on May 16, 2006 at 5:51 pm

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