Don Federico Bortoli is presently the pastor of the parish of Sant’Andrea Apostolo in Acquaviva in the Diocese of San Marino Montefeltro. He is also diocesan chancellor, judicial vicar, and ecclesiastical counselor for the Unione Cristiana Imprenditori Dirigenti (Christian Union of Entrepreneurs and Executives). He is the defender of the bond at the Flaminio Ecclesiastical Tribunal of Bologna. His book, published last February 22, La distribuzione della Comunione sulla mano (The Distribution of Communion In the Hand), is his doctoral dissertation in Canon Law. We interviewed him on this important topic.
The key document relative to the distribution of Holy Communion in the hand is the Instruction of the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship Memoriale Domini (29 May 1969) (henceforth M.D.), issued at the direction of Paul VI. Essentially, can you tell us how this document originated and what directives it contained?
The document originated because, in the years immediately following Vatican II, the practice of receiving Communion in the hand became widespread in many countries. This was obviously a liturgical abuse, which put its roots down in those countries where there were already doctrinal problems regarding the Holy Eucharist: Belgium, Holland, France, and Germany. The Holy See, not succeeding in stopping this abuse, decided to consult all the bishops on this question. This decision of Paul VI already allows us to understand the importance of the argument. I say this, because some would maintain that this whole question is only of marginal importance and unimportant.
And what resulted from this consultation?
The majority of bishops expressed their opposition to the introduction of this practice. M.D. acknowledged the outcome of the consultation and confirmed that the universal norm for receiving Communion is precisely that of receiving it directly on the tongue, giving profound reasons for it. At the same time, it consented that the bishops’ conferences of those places in which the abuse was already occurring would be able to request an indult for Communion in the hand, if the bishops were able to achieve a vote of a two-thirds majority in favor of requesting it.
M.D. thus confirmed that the two ways of receiving the Eucharist are not on the same level?
Absolutely. In my book, I examine the entire text of the Instruction, which when read clearly is understood to say that the traditional and universal discipline of the Church is that of Communion on the tongue, because “it is based on a centuries-old tradition, but especially because it expresses and signifies the reverent respect of the faithful towards the Holy Eucharist.” And furthermore, “it avoids the danger of profaning the Eucharistic species.” The document does not equate the two forms. Communion on the tongue is recommended and considered the most consonant way to receive the Eucharist, while Communion on the hand is permitted, provided that certain precautions are observed, such as checking to see if any fragments of the Host remain on the palm of the hand.
The other aspect of the Instruction that you emphasize in your book is the fact that the indult was not meant to be granted to whoever asked for it, but only to those bishops’ conferences in places where there were already verified abuses.
Exactly. The request was able to be made only in those situations in which there was already in existence the abuse of receiving Communion on the hand. Where this was not happening, the indult could not be requested. But what actually happened? At the beginning, they followed this criterion; then, almost every diocese requested and obtained the indult, also where there was no necessity for it. Cardinal Knox, who was prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, also acceded to the demands of the other bishops’ conferences. It is a fact that the interpretation of M.D. by Cardinal Knox was not correct.
In your book, you note that in January 1977, Paul VI, through (secretary of state) Cardinal Villot, asked Cardinal Knox to give him an assessment of the situation relative to the granting of the indult, to the way it had been put into practice, and also to verify whether, following the granting of the indult, there had been verified abuses and profanations or if there had been a lessening of the devotion of the faithful toward the Holy Eucharist. But Cardinal Knox seemed to greatly minimize the actual problems.
The popes, first Paul VI and then John Paul II, had grasped the problem, also thanks to the reports of Cardinal Bafile (prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints from 1975 to 1980). Notwithstanding this, Cardinal Knox continued on his course. Paul VI did asked Cardinal Knox not to evaluate the suggestions of Cardinal Bafile, but to think about how to apply them concretely. These suggestions were essentially the suspension of the concession of the new indult – the necessity of remembering that the practice of Commuion in the hand is discouraged by the Church and that, where the indult was not granted, Communion in the hand constituted an abuse.
What actually happened, above all beginning with the article published in L’Osservatore Romano by Fr. Annibale Bugnini in 1973, which you mention, is that the new practice was considered to be better, more faithful to the ancient way of receiving the Eucharist.
The idea of M.D. was to make the abuse legal where it had not been successfully eliminated, but a catechesis was still required according to the text of the Instruction, a catechesis that would highlight the merits of the practice of receiving Communion on the tongue and the risks being run with the new practice, in primis the dispersion of the fragments of the Host. The catechesis was not supposed to promote Communion in the hand, but in some way to discourage it, without prohibiting it outright. Still today, Communion in the hand is spoken of as the best way, faithful to the early Church and faithful to the liturgical reform. A fundamental point of the book is to show that Sacrosanctum Concilium does not mention it at all. Nor does any of the successive documents speak of it, nor the new Roman Missal, but only Memoriale Domini, which establishes it in terms of an indult. Bugnini’s article certainly gave a direction, but this direction was extraneous to the texts of the Council.
After M.D., there were not other explicit documents. What then is the present disposition of the Church relative to the distribution of Communion?
One noteworthy example is the document, which I include in the appendix, of Bishop Bialasik, bishop of Oruro, which clearly affirms that Communion on the tongue is the universal law of the Church, as M.D. establishes. Thus, Communion on the tongue is the universal law, while Communion in the hand is an indult, an exception. The other fundamental reference, outside M.D., is Redemptionis Sacramentum 92, which speaks of the right of the faithful to receive Communion on the tongue and also kneeling.
Also in catechesis, above all that of children, there is a need to teach the proper way to receive the Eucharist, that is, on the tongue.
Exactly. It ought to clearly be said that the best way to receive the Eucharist is on the tongue, and if someone wants to receive Communion on the hand, to do so with the greatest attention possible. As a pastor, I clearly cannot prohibit it, but I can discourage it, explain the problems with it, and educate. But it must also be said that the same Redemptionis Sacramentum 91 establishes that “if there is danger of profanation, Holy Communion should not be distributed to the faithful in the hand.”
Another aspect you bring to light is the fact that the obtaining of the indult by a bishops’ conference does not thereby obligate any individual bishops to apply it.
This is another fundamental aspect. The obtaining of the indult on the part of a bishops’ conference does not thereby require its automatic application in each diocese. It is simply the presupposition, based on which a bishop can decide to apply the indult or not. In Italy, what actually happened was the opposite: it was thought that the indult given to the Italian Bishops’ Conference authorized the reception of Communion in the hand in all the dioceses of Italy. But it was not so. Each bishop can decide whether to apply it and in what way. The Bishop of Oruro, for example, issued a decree in January 2016 prohibiting the reception of Communion in the hand in the territory of his diocese. This could be done by each bishop. Also, if we apply logic, without a decree of each bishop declaring the desire to receive the indult obtained by the bishops’ conference, Communion in the hand is not licit. Also Bishop Laise, in Argentina, did not accept the indult. He was accused by other bishops of not being in communion with them; he, however, appealed the matter to the Holy See, which said he was within his rights as bishop.
Your book is so valuable because it includes previously unpublished material.
Without a doubt, the main and most important contribution of the book is that of making known the unpublished documentation of Fondo Ghiglione, where they describe the dynamics by which Communion in the hand was introduced. It includes letters sent among the various dicasteries of the Roman Curia and reports sent to the Holy See. Above all the largest part of these communications regards those written by Cardinal Domenico Bafile, who was first the nuncio to Germany – thus, he was in one of those places where the abuse was most precocious and took into account all of the problems connected with it – and then prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints. In the book I examine his letters sent to Paul VI and John Paul II, which display his great concern over the spread of Communion in the hand and the problems connected with it. They also suggest concrete steps to put into action to address the problem.
The great concern of the cardinal is with the dispersion of the fragments of the host, which is almost inevitable with Communion in the hand, and then the fact of the way in which it encourages irreverence toward the Eucharist, as well as the weakening of faith in the Real Presence.
Both Paul VI and John Paul II gave ample credit to the reports of Cardinal Bafile. This is proven by the fact that Pope John Paul II published the letter Dominicae Cenae on February 24, 1980, where he explicitly spoke of “deplorable shortcomings of respect shown towards the Eucharistic species” linked to the practice of Communion in the hand. One month later, John Paul II made the serious and important decision to suspend the concession of new indults, seriously considering the hypothesis of not granting more in the future, even though later, beginning on April 3, 1985, the granting of indults recommenced.
Perhaps the possibility of granting indults was then an open door, even though Paul VI clearly expressed the teaching of the Church on the way to receive the Eucharist and even though he had indicated the limitations which were to be followed in the granting of such indults (which were then not respected).
In effect, the possibility of the indult was perhaps a weakness. There is one part of the book in which I speak of the role of ecclesiastical authority, where I seek to demonstrate – in hindsight – that the concession of the indult has in some way allowed us to arrive at the situation now evident to everyone. If there had simply been a reception of the position of the majority of bishops that was against the possibility of receiving Communion in the hand, perhaps things would have been different.
It is necessary to keep in mind the priority of protecting the Eucharist in the best way possible from the possibility of fragments and from other possible profanations, which are clearly facilitated by the newly permitted way of receiving Communion. John Paul II, in his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, taught that “there can be no danger of excess in our care for this mystery” (n. 61). This affirmation is decisive.
Originally published at La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana. Translated by Giuseppe Pellegrino.