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Pope Paul VI Promoted Communion on the Tongue

Saturday within the Octave of Corpus Christi

Editor’s note: as part of our campaign for the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus in June, we offer this article for our readers to share especially with their Catholic friends and family (as well as priests and bishops) who are concerned about Eucharistic revival, but may not be aware of this information.


Warning: If you receive Communion in the hand, this article may make you feel uncomfortable. Trusting in your love for Our Eucharistic Lord, I invite you to read on.

Jesus! my Lord, my God, my all!
How can I love Thee as I ought?
And, how revere this wondrous gift,
So far surpassing hope or thought?

These famous words from the hymn by Fr. Faber can serve as a sort of Eucharistic examination of conscience. How can I love our Eucharistic Lord as I ought? How can I appropriately revere this most wondrous gift?

In light of poll numbers in recent years in the United States showing that only one-third of Catholics believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and in light of the U.S. Bishops’ ongoing Eucharistic Revival, these are questions that all Catholics should be asking. This article asks these questions in relation to one particular Eucharistic practice: that of distributing Holy Communion into the hand of the communicant.

Communion in the Hand as the Norm?

Growing up Catholic in the 1980s, my Catholic teachers taught me to receive Holy Communion in the hand. As far as I knew, everyone received in the hand. I don’t remember even knowing of another option.

Even today, with catechesis and liturgical practices generally improved since the 1970s and 1980s, I would still estimate that the vast majority of American Catholics receive Communion in the hand. In contrast, for at least 1,000 years prior to the 1960s, Catholics exclusively received Communion on the tongue. How did this widespread change come about? Let’s turn to St. Paul VI’s Memoriale Domini, issued by the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship in 1969. This document accurately reflected the Pope’s mind in response to the controversy that had arisen at that time concerning Communion in the hand.

Memoriale Domini’s Defense of Communion on the Tongue

In this Instruction on the manner of distributing Holy Communion, the document addressed the recent practice, “introduced [in certain places] without prior approval,” of receiving Communion in the hand. While acknowledging that the Communion in the hand was practiced in some places in the early Church, it is also noted that it was practiced with great reverence and prudence:

Thus, “let nobody . . . eat that flesh without first adoring it.” [St. Augustine, On the Psalms, 98, 9.] As a person takes (the Blessed Sacrament) he is warned: ” . . . receive it: be careful lest you lose any of it.” [St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Mystagogic Catechesis, V, 21.] “For it is the Body of Christ.” [Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition, n. 37.] [Emphasis added.]

The document of Pope Paul then explained that, as “there came a greater feeling of reverence towards this sacrament,” the practice of receiving Communion on the tongue was established.

This method of distributing holy communion [on the tongue] must be retained, taking the present situation of the Church in the entire world into account, not merely because it has many centuries of-tradition behind it, but especially because it expresses the faithful’s reverence for the Eucharist.” (Emphasis added.)

Further: “This reverence [in the custom of receiving on the tongue] shows that it is not a sharing in ‘ordinary bread and wine’ that is involved, but in the Body and Blood of the Lord.”

We should note that, contrary to those today who suggest that it matters not whether we receive on the tongue or in the hand, the document expressly connected the manner of receiving Holy Communion on the tongue with what we believe regarding the Eucharist, i.e., that it is not ordinary bread and wine but the Body and Blood of the Lord.

The document issued under the Pope then gave several concrete reasons in support of the practice of receiving Communion on the tongue:

Further, the practice which must be considered traditional ensures, more effectively, that holy communion is distributed with the proper respect, decorum and dignity. It removes the danger of profanation of the sacred species, in which ‘in a unique way, Christ, God and man, is present whole and entire, substantially and continually.’ Lastly, it ensures that diligent carefulness about the fragments of consecrated bread which the Church has always recommended: ‘What you have allowed to drop, think of it as though you had lost one of your own members.’ [Emphasis added.]

Paul then stated that he has polled the world’s bishops on this subject and that the “vast majority” of bishops remain in favor of the customary practice of receiving Communion on the tongue and

that the present discipline should not be changed, and that if it were, the change would be offensive to the sentiments and the spiritual culture of these bishops and of many of the faithful. (Emphasis added.)

How Did Communion in the Hand Become so Universal?

Given Memoriale Domini’s many statements in defense of Communion in the tongue, how did it come about that, within a few short years of its publication in 1969, the practice of Communion in the hand effectively became normative in large parts of the Church?

Despite the strong defense of Communion on the tongue in Memoriale Domini, Pope Paul VI concluded it by allowing Bishop’s conferences to request an indult for Communion in the hand. Presumably, he did not believe the new practice would soon subsume the traditional practice he said “must be retained.” In the United States, the Bishops Conference voted down the proposal for Communion in the hand two times (arguably three), until in 1977 it approved the practice. By the time of my First Communion in 1988, the practice had effectively become universal.

In 2023, it would seem that Communion in the hand remains how the vast majority of Catholics receive Holy Communion in the United States.

The Problem with Communion in the Hand

So what’s the problem with Communion in the hand?

Memoriale Domini foresaw two principal problems: the risk of profanation of the Eucharist and the danger of loss of belief in the Real Presence–concerns which truly are interrelated. In the last fifty years, we’ve unquestionably seen a great decline in belief in the Real Presence. There are often many contributing causes, but for all the reasons Pope Paul defended the Communion on the tongue, it’s foolish to deny that Communion in the hand has contributed to the decline.

Let’s now look more closely at the concern for the profanation of the Eucharist, a concern I’ve long had.

The Risk of Profanation of the Eucharist

When I was about fourteen, my father shared something he had recently learned: Holy Communion on the tongue remained the norm in the Church, and Communion in the hand presented a greater risk of profanation of the Eucharist. Our whole family immediately began receiving on the tongue.

About the same time I began receiving Communion on the tongue, our family switched parishes and I became an altar boy. At our new parish, the altar boys used patens–a small metal plate on the end of a short stick–during the distribution of Holy Communion to ensure that no hosts would fall to the floor. (The regular use of patens was another unfortunate casualty of the post-Vatican II period. Oddly, although patens are almost never seen in practice, both G.I.R.M. 118 and Redemptionis Sacramentum 93 retain the use of the paten, or Communion plate.) I soon came to realize that small particles from the hosts routinely fell onto my paten. After distribution of Communion, the priest would wipe any such particles from the paten into the chalice, cleanse the chalice with water, and consume the water and any particles. But if particles of the Eucharist regularly fall to the paten, is it not likely that particles are also adhering to people’s hands after they receive Communion in the hand?

After my father became a permanent deacon, he informed me of another problem with Communion in the hand: people often receive casually and haphazardly, and it is not uncommon for a person to walk off with the host without having first consumed it. My father has personally had to stop this from occurring on at least a few occasions (and I’m sure that not all distributing Holy Communion are as attentive as my father). Others have told stories of finding hosts in the pews. Presumably, the individuals receiving (sometimes children) simply had no idea what they were doing.

Only a few weeks ago, I saw something new. Some well-meaning and devout Catholics in my parish (and I’ve also seen this at a second nearby parish) have, after receiving Communion in the hand, started inspecting their hands for particles of the Eucharist. Perhaps they are heeding St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s warning, quoted by Paul VI in Memoriale Domini, “be careful lest you lose any of It.” God bless these people for taking seriously this risk! In one recent instance, I saw a person licking any particles she found, which apparently were several.

Obviously, I’m pleased that some people are finally taking seriously the possibility that Eucharistic particles are adhering to their hands. Yet if anything, this new practice suggests that, at any given Mass, there is a widespread profanation of the Eucharist since the vast majority are not inspecting their hands. It also seems to me that, despite the best of intentions by those scrutinizing their hands, the proper response to discovering that Eucharistic particles are adhering to your hands is to discontinue the practice of receiving in the hand and to start receiving on the tongue.

Editor’s note: a scientific study published at OnePeterFive concluded that particles of the Lord fall into the hand approximately 15-20% of the time with Communion in the Hand.

Communion in the Hand in the Early Church

Promoters of Communion in the hand frequently defend it as being practiced in the earliest days of the Church. In a commonly cited passage, St. Cyril of Jerusalem in the 4th Century stated:

Coming up to receive, therefore, do not approach with your wrists extended or your fingers splayed, but making your left hand a throne for the right (for it is about to receive a King) and cupping your palm, so receive the Body of Christ; and answer: “Amen.”

Many of us may have heard this portion of the quotation before. But the full quotation is less frequently cited, and continues:

Carefully hallow your eyes by the touch of the sacred Body, and then partake, taking care to lose no part of It. Such a loss would be like a 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 by 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 and precious stones!

In his excellent book Dominus Est, which argues for a restoration of the traditional practice of receiving Communion kneeling and on the tongue, Bishop Athanasius Schneider addresses the subject of Communion in the hand at length. He includes numerous citations to early Church fathers warning against losing even the smallest fragment of the Eucharist. Most interesting to me was his reference to the early Church practice of ritually washing one’s hands both before and after receiving Holy Communion. This brings to mind the fact that, still to this day, ritual ablutions remain a part of the Mass:

Whenever a fragment of the host adheres to his fingers, especially after the fraction or the Communion of the faithful, the priest is to wipe his fingers over the paten or, if necessary, wash them. Likewise, he should also gather any fragments that may have fallen outside the paten.[1]

Supporting this point, a friend recently informed me that, in his experience distributing Holy Communion, it is quite common for there to be many particles of the Eucharist affixed to his fingers, and that the ablutions are quite necessary.

I suggest that every Catholic should be concerned with the risk of profanation of the Eucharist, and that most Catholics simply have not given the issue, or its connection to Communion in the hand, much thought.

A Challenge to Those Who Receive Communion in the Hand

Given all the above, I now offer a friendly challenge to all who receive Communion in the hand:

  • Do you know why you receive in this manner?
  • Are you familiar with the modern introduction of Communion in the hand and Paul VI’s concern regarding profanation of the Eucharist?
  • Are you aware that Communion on the tongue remains the norm for Roman Catholics and that Communion in the hand is a modern indult?
  • Have you ever inspected your hands being “careful lest you lose any of It”? (If not, please think about stopping receiving in the hand.)
  • How have you instructed your children on this subject? Do they know why they receive the way they do? Have you taught them to be wary of losing even small particles of the Eucharist?
  • When others (including non-Catholics that may be in attendance) see you receiving Communion in the hand, is your manner of receiving likely to communicate your belief in the Real Presence?
  • Do you, as St. Cyril did, consider the loss of even a particle to be “like a mutilation of your own body”?
  • And most importantly, how sure are you that your past receptions of Holy Communion have not resulted in the profanation of a particle of our Eucharistic Lord?

Again, I know many good and pious people who receive Communion in the Hand. I do not wish to make them feel bad by my questions. But I think there are ample reasons to be concerned that Communion in the hand is resulting in the widespread profanation of our Eucharistic Lord, whether through the loss of small particles or in other ways, so I feel compelled to raise this challenge.

The Connection to Eucharistic Belief

Lastly, let’s return to the present decline in Eucharistic belief throughout the Church. How sure are we that the practice of Communion in the hand is disconnected with this decline? If we don’t take the utmost care to protect the Eucharist from profanation, aren’t we showing an implicit disregard for Catholic belief in the Real Presence?

Former Prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship Cardinal Robert Sarah addressed this when he questioned the practice of Communion in the hand in 2018:

Let us now look at how faith in the real presence can influence the way we receive Communion, and vice versa. Receiving Communion on the hand undoubtedly involves a great scattering of fragments. On the contrary, attention to the smallest crumbs, care in purifying the sacred vessels, not touching the Host with sweaty hands, all become professions of faith in the real presence of Jesus, even in the smallest parts of the consecrated species: if Jesus is the substance of the Eucharistic Bread, and if the dimensions of the fragments are accidents only of the bread, it is of little importance how big or small a piece of the Host is! The substance is the same! It is Him! On the contrary, inattention to the fragments makes us lose sight of the dogma. Little by little the thought may gradually prevail: “If even the parish priest does not pay attention to the fragments, if he administers Communion in such a way that the fragments can be scattered, then it means that Jesus is not in them, or that He is ‘up to a certain point’.” [Emphasis added.]

Of course, this is another instance of lex orandi, lex credendi, i.e., the law of prayer is the law of belief. How we pray affects what we believe. It’s my view that the introduction of Communion in the hand has weakened Eucharistic belief. And I certainly see no evidence that Communion in the hand has strengthened Eucharistic belief or provided any other meaningful benefits. In any event, the practice comes with a grave risk of profanation of the Eucharistic, and the post-Vatican II Church’s fifty years of experience with this have not proven otherwise.

Much more could undoubtedly be said on this subject. But let’s end with a quote from the Congregation of Divine Worship’s document Redemptionis Sacramentum. After acknowledging that communicants have “the right to receive Holy Communion on the tongue,” (emphasis added) and permission in certain areas to receive in the hand, the document states:

If there is a risk of profanation, then Holy Communion should not be given in the hand to the faithful. (Emphasis added.)

I submit that this risk is present every time Communion is distributed in the hand, whether from the scattering of particles or from the risk that someone walks off with the host; hence, the practice of Communion in the hand should be suppressed. And whether or not the Church suppresses it, we ourselves can, and should, choose to return to the traditional practice of receiving Holy Communion on the tongue.

Sweet Sacrament! We Thee adore!
O, make us love Thee more and more! Amen.

[1] General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 278.

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