Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: When the bishop in a diocese allows the faithful to receive Communion in the hand or on the tongue, can a priest, who objects on the grounds of conscience, refuse to give the faithful holy Communion in the hand? If he is a religious priest, what actions can a legitimate superior take as regards the member who denies Communion in the hand? — W.R., Goa, India
A: The answer to this question is somewhat complex. Among Catholics, there is a sincere difference of opinion with respect to the opportunity of this practice, as to its possible spiritual benefits or detriments.
These views are sometimes strongly held. Over the years I have read a multitude of opinions for and against, and occasionally perceived false arguments.
For example, to say that Communion in the hand is a sign of spiritual maturity, or that Communion on the tongue reduces the lay faithful to infancy, is belied by centuries of lay saints who received in this manner. It is still the practice of millions of committed Latin-rite Catholics all over the world and of many Eastern Churches who administer the Eucharist under both species on the tongue. It is simply reading too much into this practice, and it is not correct to support something one favors by denigrating another practice.
At the same time, it is not justified to claim that Communion in the hand is necessarily less reverent or inevitably leads to abuses. There are many devout Catholics who find this practice helpful.
From the historical point of view, we can say that there is strong evidence that the practice existed in early centuries in some areas of the Church. It is not clear as to how widespread it was or if it was a regular practice. As with all historical practices, one must examine the context and circumstances which are usually not repeatable.
In this context, I think it is fair to say that the present practice of Communion in the hand is not a simple restoration of a historical custom but rather introduced a new practice in new circumstances which, while it has some historical justification, is essentially motivated by current pastoral concerns in some parts of the world.
From the point of view of liturgical law, the relevant documents are the following.
A letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship to presidents of bishops’ conferences on May 29, 1969: AAS 61 (1969) 546-547; Notitiae 5 (1969) 351-353:
“In reply to the request of your conference of bishops regarding permission to give communion by placing the host on the hand of the faithful, I wish to communicate the following. Pope Paul Vl calls attention to the purpose of the Instruction Memoriale Domini of 29 May 1969, on retaining the traditional practice in use. At the same time he has taken into account the reasons given to support your request and the outcome of the vote taken on this matter. The Pope grants that throughout the territory of your conference, each bishop may, according to his prudent judgment and conscience, authorize in his diocese the introduction of the new rite for giving communion. The condition is the complete avoidance of any cause for the faithful to be shocked and any danger of irreverence toward the Eucharist. The following norms must, therefore, be respected.
“1. The new manner of giving communion must not be imposed in a way that would exclude the traditional practice. It is a matter of particular seriousness that in places where the new practice is lawfully permitted every one of the faithful has the option of receiving communion on the tongue and even when other persons are receiving communion in the hand. The two ways of receiving communion can without question take place during the same liturgical service. There is a twofold purpose here: that none will find in the new rite anything disturbing to personal devotion toward the Eucharist; that this sacrament, the source, and cause of unity by its very nature, will not become an occasion of discord between members of the faithful.
“2. The rite of communion in the hand must not be put into practice indiscriminately. Since the question involves human attitudes, this mode of communion is bound up with the perceptiveness and preparation of the one receiving. It is advisable, therefore, that the rite be introduced gradually and in the beginning within small, better-prepared groups and in favorable settings. Above all, it is necessary to have the introduction of the rite preceded by an effective catechesis so that the people will clearly understand the meaning of receiving in the hand and will practice it with the reverence owed to the sacrament. This catechesis must succeed in excluding any suggestion that in the mind of the Church there is a lessening of faith in the Eucharistic presence and in excluding as well as any danger or hint of danger of profaning the Eucharist.
“3. The option offered to the faithful of receiving the Eucharistic bread in their hand and putting it into their own mouth must not turn out to be the occasion for regarding it as ordinary bread or as just another religious article. Instead, this option must increase in them a consciousness of the dignity of the members of Christ’s Mystical Body, into which they are incorporated by baptism and by the grace of the Eucharist. It must also increase their faith in the sublime reality of the Lord’s body and blood, which they touch with their hand. Their attitude of reverence must measure up to what they are doing.
“4. As to the way to carry out the new rite: one possible model is the traditional usage, which expresses the ministerial functions, by having the priest or deacon place the host in the hand of the communicant ….
“5. Whatever procedure is adopted, care must be taken not to allow particles of the Eucharistic bread to fall or be scattered. Care must also be taken that the communicants have clean hands and that their comportment is becoming and in keeping with the practices of the different peoples.
“6. In the case of communion under both kinds by way of intinction, it is never permitted to place on the hand of the communicant the host that has been dipped in the Lord’s blood.”
The congregation returned to this issue in the instruction Immensae Caritatis, January 29, 1973: AAS 65 (1973) 264-271; Notitiae 9 (1973) 157-164:
“Part 4. Devotion and reverence toward the Eucharist in the case of communion in the hand
“Ever since the Instruction Memoriale Domini three years ago, some of the conferences of bishops have been requesting the Apostolic See for the faculty to allow ministers distributing communion to place the eucharistic bread in the hand of the faithful. The same Instruction contained a reminder that ‘the laws of the Church and the writings of the Fathers give ample witness of a supreme reverence and utmost caution toward the Eucharist’ and that this must continue. Particularly in regard to this way of receiving communion, experience suggests certain matters requiring careful attention.
“On the part of both the minister and the recipient, whenever the host is placed in the hand of a communicant there must be careful concern and caution, especially about particles that might fall from the hosts.
“The usage of communion in the hand must be accompanied by relevant instruction or catechesis on Catholic teaching regarding Christ’s real and permanent presence under the eucharistic elements and the proper reverence toward this sacrament.
“The faithful must be taught that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior and that therefore the worship of latria or adoration belonging to God is owed to Christ present in this sacrament. They are also to be instructed not to omit after communion the sincere and appropriate thanksgiving that is in keeping with their individual capacities, state, and occupation.
“Finally, to the end that their coming to this heavenly table may be completely worthy and fruitful, the faithful should be instructed on its benefits and effects, for both the individual and society, so that their familial relationship to the Father who gives us our ‘daily bread,’ may reflect the highest reverence for him, nurture love, and lead to a living bond with Christ, in whose flesh and blood we share.”
In 1980 St. John Paul II wrote in the apostolic letter Dominicae Cenae:
“In some countries, the practice of receiving Communion in the hand has been introduced. This practice has been requested by individual episcopal conferences and has received approval from the Apostolic See. However, cases of a deplorable lack of respect towards the Eucharistic species have been reported, cases which are imputable not only to the individuals guilty of such behavior but also to the pastors of the church who have not been vigilant enough regarding the attitude of the faithful towards the Eucharist. It also happens, on occasion, that the free choice of those who prefer to continue the practice of receiving the Eucharist on the tongue is not taken into account in those places where the distribution of Communion in the hand has been authorized. It is therefore difficult in the context of this present letter not to mention the sad phenomena previously referred to. This is in no way meant to refer to those who, receiving the Lord Jesus in the hand, do so with profound reverence and devotion, in those countries where this practice has been authorized.”
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says the following:
“160. […] It is not permitted for the faithful to take the consecrated Bread or the sacred chalice by themselves and, still less, to hand them on from one to another among themselves. The faithful receive Communion kneeling or standing, as established by the episcopal conference. However, when they receive Communion standing, it is recommended that the faithful make appropriate reverence, according to the norms established, before receiving the Sacrament.
“161. If Communion is given only under the species of bread, the Priest raises the host slightly and shows it to each, saying, The Body of Christ. The communicant replies, Amen, and receives the Sacrament either on the tongue or, where this is allowed, in the hand, the choice lying with the communicant. As soon as the communicant receives the host, he or she consumes the whole of it. If, however, Communion is given under both kinds, the rite prescribed in nos. 284-287 is to be followed.”
From these documents, we can deduce the following points.
The legitimacy of Communion in the hand is not in question.
Communion on the tongue remains the usual and common form of administering Holy Communion.
Communion in the hand is legitimate only where permitted, and it remains in the realm of a permission.
When permitted, the choice as to the form of reception falls upon the communicant and not upon the priest. However, since it is a permission, it does not generate an absolute right, and the pastors can rescind the permission, either generally or in particular circumstances if objective motives exist for doing so.
This would be done especially if it is very difficult or impossible to fulfill the necessary conditions as outlined in the documents above. For example, although Communion in the hand is generally permitted at the Vatican, in recent years ministers administrating Communion at large at papal Masses have been enjoined to distribute Communion only on the tongue. The large numbers of faithful and the general hustle and bustle at the moment of communion make it quite easy for a host to fall to the ground. It is also difficult to ensure that the person who receives Communion effectively consumes the host. The sad fact that in recent years hosts consecrated by a Pope have been offered for sale on the Internet further motivates this precautionary measure.
In the light of the above, we can come to the heart of the matter as to whether a priest may invoke the question of conscience in order to refuse to distribute Communion in the hand. This is more a question of moral theology than of liturgy.
Archbishop Anthony Fisher, OP, of Sydney published an excellent paper on the topic of conscience and authority which can be found at:https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=7833 or, in a slightly briefer form at https://zenit.org/articles/bishop-fisher-on-conscience-and-authority/.
We should weigh very well the matters in which we appeal to conscience. They should be grave and objective questions related to good and evil.
For this reason, since the question of Communion in the hand is not a question of faith as such, and it has been approved by the legitimate authority, I do not believe that a priest can invoke conscience as a motive for refusing to apply a legitimate law. It must be presumed that a priest has sufficient formation in moral principles so as to exclude an erroneous conscience in such matters.
A parish priest, or the rector of a sanctuary, might have objective reasons for not applying the permission if there is any danger of profanation or lack of respect.
If a priest has great personal difficulty due to deeply and sincerely held views regarding this practice, he can always petition the bishop for a personal exemption or a permission to not apply this permission to his parish. However, this is likely to lead to many embarrassing instances for the faithful who approach communion unaware of the situation.
Personally, I think that when a priest with the care of souls holds the view that Communion on the tongue is preferable to the alternative practice, then the best thing he can do is inform the faithful of the bishop’s permission. He can freely share with the faithful his reasons for preferring to adhere to the traditional practice and encourage the faithful to continue doing so.
However, he should not refuse to administer Communion to those faithful desirous of availing themselves of a legitimate authorization.
A priest who is not directly responsible for the care of souls should be even more respectful of local practice.
Finally, ensuring the application of liturgical law is above all the responsibility of the bishop and only indirectly the religious superior. The bishop, however, might sometimes deal with the religious priest through his superior in these matters.
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