"I sought among them for a man that might set up a hedge, and stand in the gap before me in favor of the land." Ezekiel 22:30

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Communion with Christ or Others?

A couple weeks ago, I posted an article on facebook from One Peter Five with the headline "Will the USCCB Ever Revisit Communion in the Hand." The article was written after the USCCB announced that the bishops would meet in Baltimore for the fall general meeting with five liturgical items on the agenda. The five items up for discussion would generally change things that most Catholics would rarely, if ever, be witness to or experience. Not that that makes them unimportant; all elements of the Church's liturgical life are important. It's just to say that these changes probably wouldn't affect the average Catholic's weekly Sunday Mass experience at all or that little.

Having said that, I posted the article because I think the question to ask is "why not?" If you're like me, you notice many things at the average Catholic parish's Mass that fall somewhere on a spectrum between "frustrating, but well-intentioned" to "mind-numbingly irreverent and liturgically incorrect." Poor altar servers, the congregation holding hands during the Our Father, an army of "extraordinary" ministers of Holy Communion, a priest who "improvises" during the Eucharistic Prayer, and bad music are just a few items that could use some critique and review.

Of course, that leaves out the main reason for this post: reception of communion in the hand.

It is true that the USCCB has granted an indult (an "exception") for reception of communion in the hand, but that doesn't mean it should be preferable. In fact, the universal law of the Church makes it clear that reception on the tongue is the preferred method for receiving communion.

Expecting to get a little push-back on the post, I received a private message from friend of mine in which he asked the following question:
"In your opinion, (but feel free to use sources [I'm a history major, I love sources]) what is wrong with receiving communion in hand?"
My friend also explained that he was never aware that there this was a "hot-button" issue. I told him I would respond, and well, it's been a couple weeks, but I'm finally responding.

Since my friend asked specifically for my opinion, I will outline them. But there are others, much more educated than me, who have explained the beautiful reasoning behind communion on the tongue. One such example can be found here. Another example written by a co-worker of mine, though not specifically about communion in the hand but on communion in general, can be found here.

So, in my opinion, there are three main considerations in this matter:
  1. Receiving on the tongue is a sign of submission. Think about it: as a child when you are perfectly helpless and can't feed yourself, you rely on your parents to spoon-feed you that apple/spinach/carrot mush or whatever they decide to blend together on a given day (parents, you know what I'm talking about). We must be the same way in our spiritual life. In Matthew we read Christ's words: "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Mt. 18:3) This can apply to any number of things in our lives, but there is hardly a more visible action whereby we can exhibit complete trust in God than by submitting even the reception of our spiritual food to the priest who is an alter Christus. Typically, when communion is received on the tongue it is also received kneeling. Kneeling is another sign of submission, and even goes back to ancient times when soldiers considered the knee a sign of a man's strength. Take out a your opponent's knee and you've reduced his strength and ability to fight. It all makes perfect logical sense. Pope Benedict XVI explains the theology of kneeling in Spirit of the Liturgy.
  2. Vessels that hold the Eucharist are anointed with holy chrism. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:

    Chrism is used in the administration of the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders, in the consecration of churches, chalices, patens, altars, and altar-stones, and in the solemn blessing of bells and baptismal water. The head of the newly-baptized is anointed with chrism, the forehead of the person confirmed, the head and hands of a bishop at his consecration, and the hands of a priest at his ordination. So are the walls of churches, which are solemnly consecrated, anointed with the same holy oil, and the parts of the sacred vessels used in the Mass which come in contact with the Sacred Species, as the paten and chalice.

    This is part of the reason why confirmation used to be administered along with baptism, or at least before First Communion, because our bodies need to be anointed with chrism in preparation for reception of the Eucharist, just as the ancient temples and our churches today. In the literal sense, we become temples of the Holy Spirit, prepared to receive the body of Christ. Yet, though my body has been anointed, my hands have not been directly anointed. That is reserved for the priests at their ordination. Knowing that the chalice which holds the precious blood is consecrated, the paten and the ciborium which hold the body of Christ, and specifically the priest's hands, how can I, a mere layperson, presume to receive Christ's body in my unconsecrated hands, even momentarily? In moments of emergency, or to save a consecrated host from being desecrated I would not hesitate to touch it, but in the regular reception of communion, I would never even consider the possibility.
  3. Less chance for abuse or sacrilege. Communion in the hand opens up any number of possible abuses, from theft of the Holy Eucharist itself, to unintentional abuses of the Body of Christ. Because the Catholic Church teaches that any part of the consecrated host, even the smallest particle, is completely and entirely the Body of Christ, then care should be taken to ensure that no part is allowed to fall on the floor, or be left unconsumed. Notice the next time you go to Mass how the priest takes care (at least he should take care) to clean the paten(s), ciborium/ciboria, and chalice after communion. Bishop Juan Rodolfo, former bishop of San Luis, Argentina said "With Communion in the hand, a miracle would be required during each distribution of Communion to avoid some Particles from falling to the ground or remaining in the hand of the faithful." Think about it. Why risk it?
I would consider these my main three reasons for receiving communion on the tongue. I know it doesn't address every possible problem, scenario, or explanation. I'm sure that you or my friend who posed the question to me may have other questions or objections to some of my reasoning. Feel free to start a discussion with me about it.

I will also add that none of what I have said should be taken as a condemnation of any of my Catholic brethren who do receive communion in the hand. Again, the USCCB has granted them that opportunity as an exception to the rule. I think there are many, many Catholics who do receive communion on the hand reverently, but probably do so out of ignorance or naivity. My personal belief is that 75-90% of Catholics would stop immediately if they had the proper upbringing and catechesis.

Ultimately, we must remember that communion is a gift, and not a right. Reception of Our Lord in communion is not merely an act of "communion" or unity with our fellow church-goers, but instead it is primarily about a union with Christ. If we could truly comprehend the mystery of that communion, none of us could ever approach with enough reverence or understanding to receive it worthily.

With that in mind, the question then becomes this: 

If that tiny little piece of bread really is the body of Christ, the King of the Universe, the Son of God, the Lord of All Creation, the Redeemer of Mankind, why not make a conscious and visible effort to show as much reverence as possible?

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