By Fr. Thom Hennen
Q: I have seen numerous comments regarding receiving the Eucharist on the tongue versus the hand, and how wrong American Catholics are for receiving in the hand. Could you please clear this up for us?
As you indicate, this can be a hot topic in some Catholic circles. A quick internet search will bring up all sorts of articles either defending or condemning the practice of receiving Communion in the hand. Some consider the practice, at best, disrespectful or careless and, at worst, the greatest form of sacrilege and everything that is wrong with the modern Church. I would suspect that for most American Catholics it is not a big deal. It has practically become the norm in many parishes, though even in my last 20 years of ordained ministry I have seen a lot of change, with more people receiving Communion on the tongue in recent years.
Historically, there is ancient precedent for receiving Communion in the hand. Most often cited is a passage from St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s 4th century Mystagogic Catechesis. He writes, “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.’”
He goes on to say the faithful should “hallow their eyes by the touch of the sacred body, and then partake, taking care to lose no part of it.” He writes, “Why, if you had been given gold dust, would not take the utmost care to hold it fast … How much more carefully, then, will you guard against losing so much as a crumb of that which is more precious than gold!”
This tells us two things. First, there was an ancient practice of receiving in the hand, but with the greatest reverence and care. Second, even St. Cyril seems to have witnessed or foreseen the potential for carelessness or abuse. It is probably for this reason that in time Communion on the tongue became the norm in the practice of the Church. Even today, Communion in the hand is allowed as something of an exception when approved in certain countries or dioceses, as it is in most (including our own).
Anthropologically, I think that Communion in the hand (again, when done reverently and carefully) makes sense. It is a very human act to raise food to our mouth and we do so as early as we are able. It is also hard to imagine Jesus at the Last Supper doing anything but taking the bread (which was undoubtedly more substantial than the neatly packaged, uniform hosts we use today), breaking it and handing it to his disciples, as he said, “This is my body.” At the same time, I don’t imagine it was a “Cookie Monster” scene with crumbs flying everywhere.
Anecdotally, I think most people who present themselves to receive Communion in the hand do so reverently. However, I have occasionally seen just one hand lazily put out or down low or someone coming up with their “pinchers” ready, as though to take rather than to receive Communion. Those who experience severe arthritis may have good reasons for doing so, if they are worried about dropping the host, but then perhaps Communion on the tongue would be the better option.
The bottom line is: Communion in the hand is allowed and there is historical precedent for it. However one receives Communion, the larger issue is one’s interior disposition toward the sacrament and how that is reflected in one’s reception of the Eucharist.
(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport. Send questions to email@example.com)