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Historical Considerations on Communion on the Hand, Rev. Fr. Paul J. McDonald, Parish Priest

Here are some patristic and historical considerations on our theme, as well as an additional aspect.

Was it Universal?

The history of communion in the hand is usually told as follows: From the Last Supper on, and during the time of the apostles, Holy Communion was, of course, given in the hand. So it was during the age of the martyrs. And it continued to be so during that golden age of the Fathers and of the liturgy, after the peace of Constantine. Communion in the hand was given to the faithful just as we now do (in the more open and up to date sectors of the Church). And it continued to be the common practice until at least the tenth century. Thus for over half of the life of the Church, it was the norm. A wonderful proof of the above is held to be found in a text of St. Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386) in which he counsels the Faithful to “make a throne of your hands in which to receive the King [in Holy Communion]”. This Father of the Church further counsels great care for any fragments which might remain in one’s hands, since just as one wouldn’t let gold dust fall to the ground so one should take even greater care when it is a question of the Body of the Lord. According to the popular rendition, the change in the manner of receiving the consecrated bread came about in this way: During the the Middle Ages, there were certain distortions in the faith, and/or in the approach to the faith, which took place and which gradually developed. These include an excessive fear of God and related preoccupation with sin, judgment and punishment; an over emphasis on the divinity of Christ which was virtually a denial of or at least downplaying of His sacred humanity; an overemphasis on the role of the priest in the sacred liturgy; and a loss of the sense of the community which the Church, in fact, is. In particular, because of excessive emphasis on adoration of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, and a too strict approach to moral matters, Holy Communion became more and more rare. It was considered sufficient to gaze upon the Sacred Host during the elevation. (In fact, this decadent practice of the “elevation” [so the mainstream treatment of this period continues] and the equally unhealthy Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, find their origins during these unfortunate Middle Ages, a period whose liturgical practices we would do well to rid ourselves of). It was in this atmosphere and under these circumstances that the practice of communion in the hand began to be restricted. The practice of the priest placing the consecrated bread directly into the mouth of the communicant developed and sad to say was imposed. The conclusion is rather clear: we should get rid of this custom whose roots are to be found in the dark ages. We should forbid or at least discourage this practice of not allowing the Faithful to “take and eat”, and return to the pristine usage of the Fathers and of the Apostles: communion in the hand. It is a compelling story. It is too bad that it is not true.

The Sacred Council of Trent declared that the custom of only the priest who is celebrating the Mass giving Communion to himself (with his own hands), and the laity receiving It from him, is an Apostolic Tradition.[1] A more rigorous study of the available evidence from Church History and from the writings of the Fathers, does not support the assertion that communion in the hand was a universal practice which was gradually supplanted and eventually replaced by the practice of communion on the tongue. Rather, the facts seem to point to a different conclusion. Pope St. Leo the Great (440-461), already in the fifth century, is an early witness of the traditional practice. In his comments on the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, he speaks of communion in the mouth as the current usage: “One receives in the mouth what one believes by faith” [2]. The Pope does not speak as if he were introducing a novelty, but as if this were a well established fact. A century and a half later, but still three centuries before the practice ( according to the popular account reviewed above) was supposedly introduced, Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-604) is another witness. In his dialogues (Roman 3, c. 3) he relates how Pope St. Agapito performed a miracle during the Mass, after having placed the Body of the Lord into someone’s mouth. We are also told by John the Deacon of this Pope’s manner of giving Holy Communion. These witnesses are from the fifth and the sixth centuries. How can one reasonablely say that communion in the hand continued as the official practice until the tenth century? How can one claim that giving communion on the tongue is a medieval invention? We are not claiming that under no circumstances whatever did the Faithful receive by their own hands. But, under what conditions did this happen? It does seem that from very early on it was usual for the priest to place the Sacred Host into the mouth of the communicant. However, during times of persecution, when priests were not readily available, and when the Faithful took the Sacrament to their homes, they gave Communion to themselves, by their own hand. In other words, rather than be totally deprived of the Bread of Life, they could receive by their own hand, when not to do so would mean being deprived of that necessary spiritual nourishment. The same applied to monks who had gone out into the desert, where they would not have the services of a priest, and, would not want to give up the practice of daily communion.

To summarize, the practice was that one could touch the Host when not to do so would mean being deprived of the Sacrament. But when a priest was available, one did not receive in one’s hand. So St. Basil(330-379)says clearly that to receive Communion by one’s own hand is only permitted in times of persecution or, as was the case with monks in the desert, when no deacon or priest was available to give It. “It is not necessary to show that it does not constitute a grave fault for a person to communicate with his own hand in a time of persecution when there is no priest or deacon” (Letter 93, our emphasis). The text implies that to receive in the hand under other circumstances, outside of persecution, would be a grave fault [3]. The Saint based his opinion on the custom of the solitary monks, who reserved the Blessed Sacrament in their dwellings, and, in the absence of the priest or deacon, gave themselves Communion. In his article on “Communion” in the Dictionaire d’Archeologie Chretienne, Leclerq declares that the peace of Constantine was bringing the practice of communion in the hand to an end. This reaffirms for us the reasoning of St. Basil that it was persecution that created the alternative of either receiving by hand or not receiving at all. After persecution had ceased, evidently the practice of communion in the hand persisted here and there. It was considered by Church authority to be an abuse to be rid of, since it was deemed to be contrary to the custom of the Apostles. Thus the Council of Rouen, which met in 650, says, “Do not put the Eucharist in the hands of any layman or laywomen but only in their mouths.” The Council of Constantinople which was known as in trullo (not one of the ecumenical councils held there) prohibited the faithful from giving Communion to themselves (which is of course what happens when the Sacred Particle is placed in the hand of the communicant). It decreed an excommunication of one week’s duration for those who would do so in the presence of a bishop, priest or deacon.

What about St. Cyril? Of course, the promoters of “communion in the hand” generally make little mention of the evidence we have brought forward. They do, however, make constant use of the text attributed to St. Cyril of Jerusalem, who lived in the fourth century at the same time as St. Basil. Dr. Henri LeClerq summarized things as follows: “Saint Cyril of Jerusalem recommended to the faithful that on presenting themselves to receive Communion, they should have the right hand extended, with their fingers together, supported by the left hand, and with the palm a little bit concave; and at the moment in which the Body of Christ was deposited in the hand, the communicant would say: Amen.” There is more to this text than just the above, however. It also on to proposes the following:

“Sanctify your eyes with contact with the Holy Body... “When your lips are still wet, touch your hand to your lips, and then pass you hand over your eyes, your forehead and your other senses, to sanctify them.” This rather odd (or even superstitious? Irreverent?)recommendation has caused scholars to question the authenticity of this text. Some think that perhaps there has been an interpolation, or that it is really the saint’s successor who wrote it. It is not impossible that the text is really the work of the Patriarch John, who succeeded Cyril in Jerusalem. But this John was of suspect orthodoxy. This we know from the correspondence of St. Epiphanius, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine. So, in favour of communion in the hand we have a text of dubious origin and questionable content. And on the other hand, we have reliable witnesses, including two great popes, that placing the Sacred Host in the mouth of the communicant was already common and unremarkable in at last the fifth= century. Clericalism? Is it not a form of clericalism to allow the priest to touch the Sacred Host and to disallow the laity to do the same? But priests were not allowed to touch the Blessed Sacrament except out of necessity. In fact, other than the celebrant of the Mass itself, no one else receiving Communion, not even a priest, could do so in the hand. And so, in the traditional liturgical practice of the Roman Rite, if a priest were assisting at Mass (and not celebrating) and if he wished to receive Holy Communion, he did not do so by his own hand: he received on the tongue form another priest. The same would be true of a Bishop. The same is true of the Pope himself. When Pope St. Pius X, for example, was on his death bed in August of 1914, and Holy Communion was brought to him as Viaticum, he did not and was not allowed to receive in the hand: he received on the tongue according to the law and practice of the Catholic Church. This confirms a basic point: out of reverence, there should be no unnecessary touching of the Sacred Host. Obviously someone is needed to distribute the Bread of Life. But it is not necessary to make each man, woman and child into his own “eucharistic minister” and multiply the handling and fumbling and danger of dropping and loss of Fragments. Even those whose hands have been specially consecrated to touch the Most Holy Eucharist, namely the priests, should not do so needlessly.



[1] sess. 13, c. 8: “Now as to the reception of the sacrament, it was always the custom in the Church of God, that laymen should receive the communion from priests; but that priests when celebrating should communicate themselves; which custom, as coming down from an apostolical tradition, ought with justice and reason to be retained.” In sacramentale autem sumptione semper in Ecclesia Dei mos fuit, ut laici a Sacerdotibus communionem acciperent; Sacerdotes autem celebrantes seipsos communicarent: qui mos, tamquam ex traditione Apostolica descendens, jure, ac merito retinere debet. [2] “Hoc enim ore sumiter quod fide creditur.” Serm. 91.3 [3] Just as if I were to say, “It is not a grave fault to miss mass on a Sunday, if one has to take care of sick person.” This implies (what we already know) that when there is no such excusing cause, it would be a grave fault.