Today we want to relaunch an initiative which seems to us both legitimate and desirable, at a moment in which the sense of the sacred is being continually eroded, also within the Church, by other concerns and priorities, often linked to passing fashions. We reprint here a letter which the ex-Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Cardinal Canizares, now Archbishop of Valencia, sent to his priests in January, which may be found at Nuova Bussola Quotidiana. Among other things, the archbishop wrote, referring to a pastoral letter of some time ago:
“In this same letter I recalled how to exchange the sign of peace and how to receive communion. I confess to you that there are times when I am angry seeing how some people come forward, without any recollection or devotion, without any gesture of adoration, as if they were taking a cookie or something similar. I insist on that which I said in that letter on the Eucharist: one may receive communion directly in the mouth, or with the hand so as to then place the Body of Christ in the mouth. But I must add that the form most consonant with the mystery of the Body of Christ which one is receiving is to receive it kneeling and in the mouth. In saying this I am not turning back the clock; I am merely stating what is in accord with [the nature of] communion.”
And precisely in these days a request has been made, to all the Catholic bishops, to which anyone may show their support by signing it. This is the text.
Letter Addressed to the Bishops of the Catholic Church
We ask for kneelers for the faithful who wish to receive the Eucharistic Jesus kneeling; a petition promoted by the “Committee United to the Eucharistic Jesus through the Most Holy Hands of Mary.”
On the reception of Communion in the hand
In order to understand the importance of the way in which Holy Communion is received, it is necessary to begin with a brief reflection on the significance of the Mass, during which the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. The document Sacrosanctum Concilium of the Second Vatican Council affirms two central things: the Mass as a sacrifice and the Real Presence. In addition, the formulation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, under the direction of [Cardinal] Ratzinger, restated these Catholic connotations regarding the Eucharist. It was the very pope who concluded the Council, Paul VI, who even felt inclined to publish an Encyclical letter in which he reaffirmed the sacrificial character of the Mass and the legitimate validity of Eucharistic adoration by the faithful outside of Mass.
In the meantime, the national Bishops’ Conferences were given the faculty to grant an indult for the reception of the Eucharist in the hand, the communion rails and kneelers were eliminated, the tabernacles were moved from the center of the churches, notwithstanding the fact that the Catechism (still in 1992) restated that the tabernacle ought to be situated “in an especially worthy place in the church and should be constructed in such a way that it emphasizes and manifests the truth of the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.” Concerning the question about the reception of the Eucharist, one must above all remember that in the Conciliar documents – including in those which make the most progressive statements concerning the most significant innovations proposed in the liturgy – not a word is spoken about communion in the hand. And yet it is considered to be something the Council wanted even though the Council did not even address it. In reality the reception of the Holy Eucharist in the hand remains only an indult of the Apostolic See. When the Italian bishops approved communion in the hand (with a majority of only two votes), there were those, like the President of the Bishops’ Conference who was obviously against it and very concerned, who had inserted a recommendation to the faithful, especially to children and adolescents, that they ought to be sure their hands were clean. Instead of stopping the abuse, they concerned themselves from the outset only with trying to limit the extent of profanation. It was precisely this generation of Catholic youth, raised in the 80s and 90s which (apart from the counter-tendency of those in prayer groups linked to the Tradition or to the apparitions of Medugorje) showed a certain disinterest regarding devotion to and adoration of the Holy Eucharist, not having any perception of Who is received. The document in question – the Instruction on Eucharistic Communion – is that of May 1989, followed by the decree of Italian Bishops’ Conference which contains it, dated July 19, 1989, and which came into force on December 3 of that year, the First Sunday of Advent.
The text of the Instruction on Eucharistic Communion concerning this new way of receiving the consecrated host explains: “it appears particularly appropriate today to come forward processionally to the altar and receive the Eucharistic species standing, with a gesture of reverence, professing with an “Amen” faith in the sacramental presence of Christ.” We recall that we are dealing here with an indult. By means of the Instruction Memoriale Domini promulgated by the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship on May 29, 1969, the Holy See allowed individual Bishops’ Conferences the possibility of requesting the faculty to introduce the practice of receiving Communion on the hand. A possibility does not oblige! Yet it is not an irrelevant question, because it pertains to none other than the Real Presence of Jesus. It is not therefore, merely a quaint practice of the traditionalists; it is rather the central affair of the entire Church, which, prior to concerning itself with ecological matters, or the question of immigrants, ought to guard and protect the Eucharistic Lord with that love and fidelity with which Saint Joseph protected the Infant Jesus. In the Eucharist, in fact, out of love for souls, Jesus makes himself vulnerable as he was when he was a tiny infant, attacked by the murderous hatred of Herod.
This aspect was configured by Bishop Schneider as ius Christi, that is, the law of Christ. Even recently, commenting on this intuition of Schneider, Cardinal Burke, grateful for this intuition, said, “recalling the total humility of the love of Christ who gives himself to us in the tiny Host, fragile by its nature, Bishop Schneider recalls our attention to the grave obligation to protect and adore Our Lord. In fact, in Holy Communion, He, moved by His unceasing and immeasurable love for man, makes himself the smallest, the weakest, the most delicate among us. The eyes of Faith recognize the Real Presence in the fragments, even the smallest, of the Sacred Host, and thus lead us to loving Adoration.” As St. Thomas Aquinas taught, Jesus is really present whole and entire in the least fragment of the consecrated Host. The great Dominican theologian affirmed that the Eucharist is sacred and thus may be touched only by consecrated hands; he made reference to the practice of receiving communion only on the tongue, so that the distribution of the Body of the Lord would be done only by the ordained priest. This is so for several reasons, among which the Angelic Doctor mentions also respect towards the Sacrament, which “ought not to be touched by anything that is not consecrated: and therefore the corporal, the chalice, and also the hands of the priest are consecrated, in order to be able to touch this Sacrament. It is not permitted to anyone else to touch it outside of cases of necessity: if, for example, it should fall to the ground, or in other similar situations.”
An experiment conducted in the United States demonstrated that, when placing communion in the hand, various fragments, difficult to see with the naked eye, remain first impressed into the palm of the hand, and then fall to the ground. In addition, along with the risk of continuous profanation, there is also the problem of “black Masses” and Satanic circles, which, almost astonished at the new practice, can now more easily steal the host and take it away. Recently, various isolated but significant voices have been raised in the Church, calling for a reflection on the damage caused by and risks of communion in the hand. Particularly deserving of mention is the plurennial work of the already-mentioned Bishop Schneider, Auxiliary Bishop of Astana, who, in several essays translated into various languages, courageously has denounced the great dangers of communion in the hand. So also Benedict XVI, although he expressed himself to be in favor of both practices (both kneeling as well as in the hand), always wanted to give preference to the practice of receiving kneeling during Pontifical Masses. Still more recently, the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship (meaning the #1 man of Catholic Liturgy!) spoke in Milan with unmistakably clear words about the dangers of communion in the hand. Also worthy of mention in Italy is Fr. Giorgio Maffei who has been fighting for a long time on this topic. He has made many appeals, all falling on deaf ears, in which with authentic priestly zeal he has appealed to his brother priests, as when for example in one of his various contributions on this theme he wrote: “with the practice of Communion in the hand, the fragments remain on the hands of the faithful, who usually don’t even look at them, don’t even care or don’t notice, so that the fragments end up on the ground where they are trampled on, swept away and desecrated. This is well known, and all priests know it well, because as has been said, they have daily experience of it.
Also young priests, who have been instructed to give Communion on the hand and not to use the communion plate, know just as well this particular problem of losing fragments of the Host, even when it is not touched. The faithful have less experience of this and are less culpable than the priests.” This well-known traditionalist priest has also favored at least re-introducing the communion plate, for which argument he has suffered humiliation and ridicule as an old-fashioned priest who does not understand what “real problems” are. However, Fr. Maffei has firmly maintained that the use of the communion plate can significantly reduce the concrete risk of fragments falling to the ground during the giving of Communion. On several occasions, not without reason, this priest from Bologna even expressed concern about the risk of excommunication for those who have permitted the profanation of the fragments of the host through the practice of communion on the hand, because, he has said, a sin committed against God and his Christ is a harbinger of excommunication, and what more serious sin could there be than that of an outrage against the Eucharistic species? Among the mystics, we recall the testimony of the Austrian woman Maria Simma, who had an exclusive rapport with the souls in Purgatory, who revealed to her that all of the Pastors of the Church who had approved Communion in the hand, if they died in the state of grace, would nevertheless remain in Purgatory until the day when the Church revoked the indult permitting it.
It is possible to think that this innovation, which did not originate with the Second Vatican Council, at least not directly, originated in the movement [after Vatican II] which infiltrated its way into the ranks of the national Bishops’ Conferences, especially those of northern Europe. This movement outwardly claimed to be returning to the practice of the ancient faith, but in fact sought to delegitimize all of the reforms made by the Council of Trent. I will try to explain myself better. All of the circles which requested communion in the hand were linked in a radical way to progressive theology with its origin in Modernism. In reality, the slogan of a desired return to the patristic sources (however appealing and meritorious that may have sounded) meant from these people the discrediting of the era of the Council of Trent. And why? Because the discrediting of the era of the Council of Trent would permit the rehabilitation of Martin Luther. This was a consideration of Ratzinger the theologian just after the Council. And thus, at any rate, the liturgical reform oriented itself unilaterally in the direction of the patristic era, but as a veiled rejection of the Tridentine era. As if to say, yes, the first five centuries are normative, don’t pay attention to the rest. This thesis of a non-existent opposition [between the practice of the ancient Church and the reforms of the Council of Trent], however veiled, accompanied the liturgical reform tampered with by the modernists. They held in high regard the practice in use in the first centuries of Christianity, abundantly attested to by the Fathers of the Church, of receiving the Eucharist in the hands.
In the first Christian communities it was normal to receive the Body of Christ directly in the hands; in this regard there are numerous testimonies, both in the Eastern and Western Church: many Fathers of the Church (Tertullian, Cyprian, Cyril of Jerusalem, Basil, Theodore of Mopsuestia), various juridical canons during synods and councils (the Synod of Constantinople of 629; the Synods of the Gauls between the 6th and 7th centuries; the Council of Auxerre which took place between 561 and 605), all the way to the testimonies of the 8th century of St. Bede the Venerable and St. John Damascene: all of these attest to the same widely-practiced tradition. And it was certainly useful to recognize this practice. But at this point one must ask what happened – in terms of theological and liturgical legitimization – as the next step taken by the faith of the Church. When, in the Medieval period, certain schools of theology began to discuss the modality of the Real Presence of Christ in the Most Blessed Sacrament – some ending by defining it only as an empty sign which recalls from a distance the substantial reality of the Lord present among us [only spiritually] – the reaction of the ecclesial community was to greatly emphasize the veneration and adoration given to the Eucharistic Species, to the point of introducing the new rite of receiving Communion directly in the mouth while kneeling, precisely in order to emphasize the greatness of the Real Presence of the Body of Christ. If there had not been such an intervention, there would have been the real risk that the Eucharist would have been completely profaned.
We would like to add, humbly, that also from a hygienic point of view it is much better if the host is only touched by the priest and does not pass through hands that perhaps have not had the chance to be washed before Mass. Hands, like my own, which [on the way to Mass] have been handling a bicycle, or driving a car and dealing with keys and locks, all of which are certainly not the most hygienic things…anyway here is the link.
Translated by Giuseppe Pellegrino. Originally published at MarcoTosatti.com, and edited for 1P5.
Marco Tosatti is a renowned Italian journalist and Vatican expert. He has been covering the Holy See since 1981. His written work appears in La Stampa and La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana. He is the author of several books, including The Prophecy of Fatima and Investigation of the Holy Shroud. He blogs at Marcotosatti.com.