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Hand or Tongue: The Eucharistic Reception Debate

When we delve into the Word of God, it’s often those smaller details that hand us surprises. Consider the reaction of most biblical persons in an encounter with divine creatures such as angels, let alone the Creator Himself. Recognizing that they’ve encountered the supernatural, they almost invariably and immediately fall on the ground in prostration [1]. This provides us with some insights. First, it was the custom in ancient cultures to bow or prostrate oneself before someone of higher authority as a sign of respect and submission [2]. In addition, it reveals the innate knowledge in our souls that we are made for our Creator and long to unite ourselves to Him but are infinitely unworthy of Him. Our souls acknowledge our unworthiness, and the manifestation of this acknowledgment is our face to the ground, in adoration.

Putting on the Blinders?

What is our reaction when we encounter God? Do we even encounter the triune God in the way the biblical persons did?

Every faithful Catholic would acknowledge that we encounter Him fully in the Eucharist at least weekly. It would seem, in this case, that we have sufficient experiential evidence to determine the disposition of Catholics today when they meet Jesus face to face. In the majority of North American parishes, you see the greater part of attendees standing in front of the priest or extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, extending their hands to receive Jesus. This is a stark contrast from what we see from those in the Bible.

Now a question arises. Are those Bible persons just bending to their old social norms, or are they expressing dulia reserved to the creatures that have the beatific vision and, most importantly, latria due to God? It would seem they were expressing due reverence, due worship. Why are Catholics today not giving the same level of worship to our Savior made flesh in the Eucharist?

Change to the Hand

Why did the Church institute the practice of communion in the hand? How has it taken over the entire Church is such a short amount of time?

This change was brought about by negligence from the Dutch bishops shortly after Vatican II. Communion standing and in the hand was until then a Protestant idea implanted during the Revolution. After Vatican II, the practice began being used in Catholic parishes across Holland and was not stopped by the Conference of Bishops. This abuse spread to Germany, France, and Belgium. Since it was becoming widespread, Pope Paul VI commissioned the bishops of the world to answer questions concerning this practice. With the bishops’ feedback, the pope promulgated the Instruction Memoriale Domini (May 29, 1969). This instruction included the following:

  • The Bishops of the world were overwhelmingly against the innovation.
  • The traditional manner of distributing Holy Communion must be retained.
  • The innovation could lead to irreverence, profanation, and the adulteration of correct doctrine.

He even urged the bishops of the world, in conclusion in the document, to keep the ancient practice for the good of the whole Church.

It is therefore astounding that Pope Paul VI subsequently permitted, for “pastoral” reasons, an indult for this practice. Countries that already had this practice and a two-thirds majority could ask for this indult. It was immediately granted to Holland, France, Germany, and Belgium and, by the end of the 1970s, was essentially spread throughout the globe as the normative way of receiving communion in the Catholic Church.

The main argument made to defend this change of practice is “ressourcement” — the notion that the Church was now returning to the practice of the early Christians. Let’s examine this argument.

Reception of the Eucharist in Church History

The early Church

How did the first Christians receive the Eucharist? This is a hard question. The early Church (before 313) was outlawed and persecuted for a long time. Not until Constantine issued the Edict of Milan did the early Church enjoy some relative stability. Even then, Christians were still widely persecuted. For this reason, there aren’t a lot of surviving or existing documents on the liturgical practices of the first Christians. The Didache (96 A.D.) does not mention the mode of reception — only that they did receive on the Lord’s Day. However, there are interesting hints we can discover when we look at the Old Testament. These hints could provide helpful insights on how the first Christians might have received.

To begin, the three major prophets of the Old Testament were all fed the Word of God in their mouths at the beginning of their ministry [3]. Also, Jews knew not to approach what was holy. The story of Oza jumps to mind [4]. Only the Levites, who were consecrated by God, could touch the Ark of the Covenant [5]. Knowing all this, it would seem legitimate to ask if the apostles, Jesus’s consecrated (bishops), would have let unconsecrated members of the Church touch the body, blood, soul, and divinity of our Lord in the Eucharist. Though this is not a slam-dunk argument, it stands to show that it is reasonable to hold that the first Christians might have received the Eucharist on the tongue [6].

Patristic and Medieval eras

Moving into the Patristic and the Medieval eras, where we have more extensive documentation, we can more definitively establish the mode of reception of the Eucharist that was practiced in the Church. The following citations show that communion on the tongue was the norm in the Church:

  • The council of Saragossa (380): Excommunicated anyone who dared continue receiving Holy Communion by hand. This was confirmed by the Synod of Toledo (400).
  • Pope St. Leo the Great (440–461): “Hoc enim ore sumitur quod fide creditur” translated as “This indeed is received by means of the mouth which we believe by means of faith” [7].
  • 6th Ecumenical Council, at Constantinople (680-681): Forbade the faithful to take the Sacred Host in their hand, threatening transgressors with excommunication.
  • The Synod of Cordoba (839): Condemned the sect of “Casiani” for their refusal to receive Holy Communion directly into their mouth [8].
  • The Synod of Rouen (878) said: “the Eucharist may never be placed in the hands of a lay man or woman, but only in the mouth.”

In a more indirect way, the following citations also prove the practice of communion on the tongue in the Church. It follows from the premise that if the vessels and the priest’s hands touching the Eucharist had to be consecrated, they wouldn’t subsequently be put in the layman’s hands.

Pope St. Sixtus I (circa 115): “The Sacred Vessels are not to be handled by others than those consecrated to the Lord” [9].

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274): “Out of the reverence towards this Sacrament [the Holy Eucharist], 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” [10].

The Contra Position

Every individual making a case for an item of faith, morals, or tradition should make a strong case for his contra position so as not to suffer from confirmation bias or arguing against a straw man. I’d like to thus look at some of the texts used to support communion in the hand as it relates to ressourcement, since it is usually the main argument for communion in the hand.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (350)

“When thou goest to receive communion go not with thy wrists extended, nor with thy fingers separated, but placing thy left hand as a throne for thy right, which is to receive so great a King, and in the hollow of the palm receive the body of Christ, saying, Amen” [11].

At first glance, this quote seems like a strong case for the practice of communion in the hand in the Patristic era. This excerpt comes from one of the five poSt. Easter (Mystagogical) lectures ascribed to St. Cyril. His 18 lectures for catechumens preparing for baptism are undoubted, but there is debate on whether these five follow-up lectures have been rightly attributed to the great saint. Dr. Taylor Marshall is one scholar who doubts this. He posits that some manuscripts do not attribute these lectures to St. Cyril [12]. Further, he writes that this same quote goes on to mention that the body of Christ should be brought to one’s eyes and forehead and that the communicant should touch his lips with the precious Blood of our Lord [13].

Furthermore, the same Catechesis Mystagogica offers some seemingly confusing texts for proponents of communion on the hand:

“Do not stretch out your hands, but, bowing low in a posture of worship and reverence…”

“… take care to lose no part of It [the Body of the Lord]. Such a loss would be the mutilation of your own body. Why, if you had been given gold dust, would you not take the utmost care to hold it fast, not letting a grain slip through your fingers, lest you be so much the poorer? How much more carefully, then, will you guard against losing so much as a crumb of that which is more precious than gold or precious stones?” [14].

It seems reasonable to doubt the legitimacy of this quote since it has some confusing and odd statements on the reception of the Eucharist and since some scholars doubt that it has been rightly attributed to St. Cyril of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, I am willing to concede its authenticity.

St. Basil (330–379)

St. Basil is often used as a source to prove the existence of communion in the hand in the Patristic era. Nevertheless, he clearly states that to receive communion by one’s own hand is permitted only in times of persecution, or, as was the case with monks in the desert, when no deacon or priest was available to give it [15].

Other Works

St. Athanasius (298–373), St. Cyprian (210–258), St. John Chrysostom (349–407), and Theodore of Mopsuestia (350–428) can all attest to the practice of Communion in the hand. St. Athanasius refers to the washing of the hands before receiving. St. Cyprian, St. John Chrysostom, and Theodore of Mopsuestia mention similar things such as receiving in the right hand then adoring Him and kissing Him [16].

It is not clear which was the widely utilized practice from the apostolic times up to the issuance of the Edict of Milan (313). From these works one can clearly see that communion in the hand was practiced in the first part of the Patristic era of the Church (circa 313–400). However, it seems that by the close of the 300s and onward, communion on the tongue was becoming popular and would be the normative means of receiving. Communion in the hand had thus intensely diminished by the end of Patristic era and would eventually carry serious consequences such as excommunication.

Why this shift in practice at the end of the Patristic era? Texts like those of St. Cyril of Jerusalem and Theodore of Mopsuestia can give us good insight. They mention the touching of the Eucharistic body and blood of our Lord to one’s eyes, lips, and forehead [17]. The Church, with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, saw fit to change the practice for something more fitting to proper adoration of our Lord. The burning coal of the Seraphim [18] was now the basis for proper liturgical reception of the Eucharist. Other factors that were clearly taken into account were the possible scattering of Eucharistic particles and the possibility of stealing hosts. Since the Eucharist is the “source and summit of the Christian life” [19], it thus follows that protecting it would have been the first and foremost concern of the Church. Finally, the Church saw in the practice of communion kneeling and on the tongue a way to increase faith in the substantial Real Presence of our Lord in the Eucharist. A nice way to confirm this assertion is to look at the Protestant Revolution. Zwingli and Calvin denied the Real Presence, and their solution to reduce the belief on this central tenet of the Faith was to introduce communion standing and in the hand [20].

What is to be done?

It is no wonder that belief in the Real Presence has plummeted since Vatican II. Kenneth C. Jones’s Index of Leading Catholic Indicators shows a decrease in all major statistical categories of the Catholic Church from the late ’50s to the mid-’60s to the year 2000. Arguably, these figures are worse 20 years later. Also, the new Pew Research Center’s study on Catholics’ belief in the Real Presence is staggering. I know that this crisis cannot be put solely on the change in the mode of reception of communion, but I cannot help but think it has the most to do with it. Lex orandi, lex credendi cannot be more apparent than in this particular instance.

The question seems to have an obvious answer attached: abolish communion standing and in the hand for the obviously more reverent and appropriate communion kneeling and on the tongue. Bring back the altar rails! Cardinal Sarah believes that it would certainly be one of Satan’s top priorities to attack belief in the Real Presence. It’s hard to argue with his assessment.

Since the indults given by the Holy See starting in 1969 are not infallible in nature, they could easily be revoked. It would take some humility to admit that returning to communion in the hand was an imprudent mistake. Church tradition would support such a revocation. Heck, even current Vatican documentation supports communion on the tongue over communion in the hand.

On a parting note, consider one of the most popular private revelations in the Catholic Church. Fatima is well known for its three-part secret, revealed by Our Lady. What it is less known for is its treatment of the Eucharist.

When the angel appeared to them at the Loca do Cabeço, he was “holding a chalice in his hands, with a host above it from which some drops of blood were falling into the sacred vessel.” The Angel left the chalice and host suspended in the air and prostrated himself upon the ground with the children and prayed the following prayer with them three times:

Most Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, I adore You profoundly, and I offer you the most precious Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, present in all the tabernacles of the world, in reparation for the outrages, sacrileges and indifference with which He Himself is offended. And through the infinite merits of His most Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I beg of you the conversion of poor sinners. Amen.

The angel then rose, and taking the host, he gave it to Lucy, and to Jacinta and Francisco he gave the contents of the chalice, saying as he did so: “Take and drink the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, horribly outraged by ungrateful men. Repair their crimes and console your God.” Then he prostrated himself once more with the children and repeated the prayer to the Most Holy Trinity three times, then disappeared.

The Angel and the children prostrate themselves before the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Our Lord to make an act of adoration praying for the reparation of the sins of the world. Lucia’s testimony and traditional artwork of this scene shows the angel giving communion to the children in their mouths, while they are still kneeling. They then make thanksgiving. What a beautiful testimony to a proper mode of reception of the Eucharist.

As the Church invites us to emulate the angels and saints, should we not harken to her invitation and receive the Eucharist as the angel shows us?

For a more complete treatise on the subject, I recommend the excellent work by Bishop Athanasius Schneider entitled “Dominus Est.”

[1] A quick study of the New Testament and Old Testament revealed several instances where this was true.

  • Nb. 22:31 (Balaam falls flat on his face when God reveals to him the angel standing in his way)
  • Is. 6:2 (Even the Seraphim are covering their faces in the presence of God)
  • Mt. 2:11 (The wise men when encountering the infant Jesus)
  • Mt. 28:9 (Mary Magdalene seeing Jesus risen from the dead)
  • Rev. 5:14 (Elders in heaven fell down and worshiped)
  • Rev. 11:16 (Twenty-four elders who sit on thrones fell on their faces and worshipped)
  • Rev. 1:17 (John seeing Jesus fell at His feet as though dead)
  • Mt. 28:4 (Angel appears to the tomb guards and they fall like dead men)

[2] The proper term for this notion is Proskynesis.

[3] Is. 6:7, Jer. 1:9, Ez. 2:8–9; 3:1–3

[4] 2 Sam. 6:7

[5] 1 Chro. 15:2

[6] For the sake of integrity, I want to note that in Rev. 10:10, the angel gives the book to John to eat, and John takes it from his hands.

[7] “Ore” is here in the ablative; in the context, it denotes instrumentation. So, then, the mouth is the means by which the Holy Eucharist is received.

[8] Bishop Athanasius Schneider, “Dominus Est,” p.47

[9] Liber Pontificatis, ed. DUCHESNE, I (Paris, 1886), 128

[10] Summa Theologica, Part III, Q.82, Art. 3, Rep. Obj.8.

[11] Catechesis Mystagogica V, xxi-xxii, Migne Patrologia Graeca 33

[12] Another such scholar is Michael Davies. You can read his treatment of this question in his work: Communion in the hand and other similar frauds, P.8


[14] Bishop Athanasius Schneider, “Dominus Est,” p.23, 26 (citing Catechesis Mystagogica V, ii, xxii)

[15] St. Basil, Letter 93

[16] Bishop Athanasius Schneider, “Dominus Est,” p.29

[17] This practice can also be found mentioned in works by Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrrhus and St. John of Damascus.

[18] Is. 6 :7

[19] CCC 1324

[20] Bishop Athanasius Schneider, “Dominus Est,” pp. 37–38

4 thoughts on “Hand or Tongue: The Eucharistic Reception Debate”

  1. Pingback: 3connoisseur
  2. Andre’, pour moi, il n’y a pas des diffferences entre la bouche ou la main. Mais, le Seigneur a donne’ le pain et le vin sur la bouche ou dans les mains des apostles?

  3. Given the position of these citations at the crux of the controversy, can you supply the citations and link to any internet location (or at least physical location) of the following references:

    *The council of Saragossa (380): Excommunicated anyone who dared continue receiving Holy Communion by hand.
    *This was confirmed by the Synod of Toledo (400).

    *6th Ecumenical Council, at Constantinople (680-681): Forbade the faithful to take the Sacred Host in their hand, threatening transgressors with excommunication.

    *The Synod of Rouen (878) said: “the Eucharist may never be placed in the hands of a lay man or woman, but only in the mouth.”

    These references are only as useful to us as they can be sourced.


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