Rorate Caeli

FIUV PP3: the Manner of Receiving Communion

Today I can publish the third paper in our series, on the Manner of Receiving Communion, about receiving communion directly in the mouth, as opposed to in the hand. The PDF is on the FIUV website.

Naturally this paper owes a good deal to Bishop Athanasius Schneider, and his little book 'Dominus Est', which I very much recommend, on this subject. I met Bishop Schneider when he came to England for one of the LMS priest-training conferences in 2010, where he gave a couple of wonderful talks and celebrated Pontifical Solemn Mass for us in Downside Abbey Church. I sent Bishop Schneider the paper for his comments, and he was kind enough to say:

I am content with your text and agreeing. This text could be spread also regarding the Novus Ordo,
because the arguments are objectively valid and have an universal dimension.

The Position papers are not directly concerned with the Novus Ordo, but I hope they may be a contribution to the wider debate going on about liturgy in the Church.

The next paper will be about Liturgical Orientation (ie celebrating Mass ad orientem or versus populum), which I'll publish in two weeks' time.

Comments can be sent to 
positio AT
Full set of papers, including the introductor disclaimer, can be downloaded from the FIUV website.


The Manner of Receiving Holy Communion

11.      As with the issue of service at the altar by men and boys,[1] the question of the manner of receiving Communion at celebrations of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite is settled by the Instruction Universae Ecclesiae (2011), which upholds the bindingness, in celebrations of the Extraordinary Form, of the liturgical law in force in 1962.[2] This specifies that Holy Communion is to be received by the Faithful kneeling and on the tongue.

22.      Whereas service at the altar by females has been permitted in the Ordinary Form at the discretion of the local Ordinary, the prohibition on the reception of Holy Communion by the Faithful in the hand was expressly reiterated by Pope Paul VI,[3] who merely noted that applications for a derogation of the law would need to be made by an Episcopal Conference to the Holy See. To explain the value of this practice, as this paper seeks to do, is to explain the value of the Church’s own legislation.


33.      As Pope Benedict XVI has observed. ‘Kneeling does not come from any one culture—it comes from the Bible and its knowledge of God.’[4] As he goes on to elaborate, kneeling is found in numerous passages of Scripture as a proper attitude both of supplicatory prayer, and of adoration in the presence of God. In kneeling, we follow the example of Our Lord Himself,[5] fulfil Philippians’ Hymn of Christ,[6] and conform ourselves to the heavenly liturgy glimpsed in the Book of Revelations.[7] The Holy Father concludes:
It may well be that kneeling is alien to modern culture—insofar as it is a culture, for this culture has turned away from the faith and no longer knows the One before whom kneeling is the right, indeed the intrinsically necessary gesture. The man who learns to believe learns also to kneel, and a faith or a liturgy no longer familiar with kneeling would be sick at the core. Where it has been lost, kneeling must be rediscovered, so that, in our prayer, we remain in fellowship with the apostles and martyrs, in fellowship with the whole cosmos, indeed in union with Jesus Christ Himself.[8]

44.      It remains to observe that the moment of one’s reception of the Body of Our Blessed Lord in the Blessed Sacrament is an appropriate moment to kneel, and doing so is a very longstanding tradition in the West.[9]  Blessed Pope John Paul II reminds us that the proper attitude in receiving Holy Communion is ‘the humility of the Centurion in the Gospel’:[10] this attitude is both manifested and nurtured by the recognised posture of humility, of kneeling. The requirement, in the current discipline of the Church, that a ‘gesture of reverence’ be made before Holy Communion is received,[11] is fulfilled in a most natural and unforced manner by receiving while kneeling.

On the Tongue.

55.      The reception of Holy Communion on the tongue, as opposed to in the hand, while not the exclusive practice of the Early Church, does go back to the earliest times. It is attested by St Ephrem the Syriac,[12] the ancient Liturgy of St James,[13] Pope St Leo the Great,[14] and Pope St Gregory the Great.[15] Our Lord seems to have placed bread directly in the mouth of Judas at the Last Supper,[16] and may have used the same method for the Consecrated Species. The spread of this method throughout the Church (with distinct variants for East and West) derived naturally from the great concern of the Fathers that no particle of the consecrated Host be lost. St Cyril of Jerusalem (invariably cited for his description of Communion in the hand)[17] cautions that fragments of the Host should be considered more precious than gold dust;[18] a similar concern is shown by Tertullian,[19] St Jerome,[20] Origen,[21] St Ephrem,[22] and others.[23] This concern is rooted in Scripture, in the command of Our Lord to the Disciples following the Feeding of the Multitude, a type of the Eucharist: ‘Gather up the fragments that remain, lest they be lost.’[24]

66.      This concern is reiterated, and linked to the value of reception on the tongue, by the Instruction Memoriale Domini (1969), which summarises a number of considerations in favour of the traditional manner of distributing Holy Communion:
In view of the state of the Church as a whole today, this manner of distributing Holy Communion must be observed, not only because it rests upon a tradition of many centuries but especially because it is a sign of the reverence of the faithful toward the Eucharist. The practice in no way detracts from the personal dignity of those who approach this great Sacrament and it is a part of the preparation needed for the most fruitful reception of the Lord’s body.[25]

This reverence is a sign of Holy Communion not in “common bread and drink”[26] but in the Body and Blood of the Lord. …

In addition, this manner of communicating, which is now to be considered as prescribed by custom, gives more effective assurance that Holy Communion will be distributed with the appropriate reverence, decorum, and dignity; that any danger of profaning the Eucharistic species, in which “the whole and entire Christ, God and man, is substantially contained and permanently present in a unique way,”[27] will be avoided; and finally that the diligent care which the Church has always commended for the very fragments of the consecrated bread will be maintained: “If you have allowed anything to be lost, consider this a lessening of your own members.”[28]

77.      The possibility that Holy Communion in the hand might lead to a ‘deplorable lack of respect towards the eucharistic species’ was confirmed by Bl. Pope John Paul II.[29] The danger of deliberate profanation of the Blessed Sacrament, also noted in Memoriale Domini, has also sadly become evident, in an age in which sacrilegious acts can be made public on the internet to the scandal of Catholics all over the world. This issue is raised again by the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum (2004), which again refers to the distribution of the Blessed Sacrament exclusively on the tongue as the effective remedy:
If there is a risk of profanation, then Holy Communion should not be given in the hand to the faithful.[30]

88.      Bl. Pope John Paul II raised a related issue when he wrote ‘To touch the sacred species and to distribute them with their own hands is a privilege of the ordained’.[31] He links this to the consecration of the hands of the priest.[32] This recalls a famous passage of St Thomas Aquinas, cited in this regard in an official statement of the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff:[33]
…out of reverence towards this Sacrament, nothing touches it, but what is consecrated; hence the corporal and the chalice are consecrated, and likewise the priest’s hands, for touching this Sacrament. Hence, it is not lawful for anyone else to touch it except from necessity, for instance, if it were to fall upon the ground, or else in some other case of urgency.[34]

99.      Insofar as we see this traditional method as having developed over time, this is not an argument against it but a testimony to the important considerations which consistently led to its adoption. As Pope Pius XII famously affirmed in Mediator Dei (1948), more ancient practices are not ipso facto to be preferred to practices which have evolved under the guidance of the Holy Spirit over many centuries.[35]


110.  The importance of an inner attitude of humility, stressed both by Bl. Pope John Paul II, and by the requirement for a ‘gesture of reverence’,[36] is not only a matter of decorum before the Real Presence of Our Lord, important as that is. Rather, the grace received by the communicant is dependent upon his or her disposition, and the cultivation of the correct disposition, that of humility and child-like receptivity, is facilitated by reception both kneeling and on the tongue. As Pope Paul VI emphasised: it is ‘part of the preparation needed for the most fruitful reception of the Lord’s body.’[37]

111.  This value of the traditional method was reiterated by Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to distribute Holy Communion himself to kneeling communicants on the tongue. The official commentary on this decision cites both the concern about the loss of particles of the Consecrated Host, and a concern
to increase among the faithful devotion to the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.[38]
Further, the traditional method is called an ‘external sign’ to ‘promote understanding of this great sacramental mystery’.[39]

112.  In the specific context of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, the exclusive practice of receiving Holy Communion kneeling and on the tongue goes hand in hand with the great reverence shown to the Blessed Sacrament in that Form by the celebrating priest. Two examples would be the priest’s double genuflection at the Consecration, and the holding together of thumb and forefinger, from the Consecration to the Purification of the Chalice. Reception of Communion in the hand would create a harmful dissonance with other elements of the liturgy. The matter is well expressed in the Instruction Il Padre, incomprensibile (1996), addressed to the Oriental Churches, on the importance of maintaining the manner of receiving Holy Communion traditional to those Churches:
Even if this excludes enhancing the value of other criteria, also legitimate, and implies renouncing some convenience, a change of the traditional usage risks incurring a non-organic intrusion with respect to the spiritual framework to which it refers.[40]

[1] FIUV Positio 1: The Service at the Altar of Men and Boys
[2] Instruction Universae Ecclesiae (2011) 28
[3] Instruction Memoriale Domini (1969): ‘the Supreme Pontiff judged that the long received manner of ministering Holy Communion to the faithful should not be changed’
[4] Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph, Cardinal Ratzinger) ‘The Spirit of the Liturgy’ (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000) p185
[5] Luke 22.41 (during the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane).
[6] Philippians 2:10: ‘That in the name of Jesus every knee should bow’:
[7] Revelations 5:8
[8] Pope Benedict XVI op. cit. p194.
[9] In the West, the development of kneeling for Communion can be traced back at least to the 6th Century: see Athanasius Schneider ‘Dominus Est’ (Pine Beach NJ: Neman House Press, 2008) p27.
[10] Encyclical Letter Ecclesia de Eucharistica (2003) 48: ‘cum demissione centurionis in Evangelio’
[11] General Instruction on the Roman Missal (2002) 160
[12] St Ephrem the Syriac Sermones in Hebdomeda Sancta 4, 5: ‘Isaiah saw Me [sc. Christ], as you see Me now extending My right hand and carrying to your mouths the living Bread.’ The reference is to Isaiah’s vision of the live coal with which the angel touched his lips (Isaiah 6.6-7).
[13] Bozestwennaya Liturgia Swjatago Apostoloa Iakowa Brata Boziya I perwago bierarcha Ierusalima (Roma-Grottaferrata, 1970) p151: ‘The Lord will bless us, and make us worthy with the pure touchings of our fingers to take the live coal, and place it upon the mouths of the faithful, …’
[14] Pope St Leo the Great, Sermon 91,3
[15] Pope St Gregory the Great, Dialogues 3,c. 3
[16] John 13:26-27: ‘Jesus answered: He it is to whom I shall reach bread dipped. And when he had dipped the bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon. And after the morsel, Satan entered into him.’
[17] St Cyril of Jerusalem, Mystagogical Catechesis 5, 21f
[18] Mystagogical Catechesis 5, 2
[19] Tertullian De Corona 3: ‘We feel pained should any wine or bread, even though our own, be cast upon the ground.’
[20] St Jerome In Ps 147, 14: ‘…if anything should fall to the ground, there is a danger.’
[21] Origen In Exod. Hom. 13, 3: ‘…when you have received the Body of the Lord, you reverently exercise every care lest a particle of it fall.’
[22] St Ephrem Sermones in Hebdomada Sancta 4, 4: ‘…do not trample underfoot even the fragments. The smallest fragment of this Bread can sanctify millions of men…’
[23] Notably, from the Canons of the Coptic Church: ‘God forbid that any of the pearls or consecrated fragments should adhere to the fingers or fall the ground!’ Collationes canonum Copticae (Denzinger, Ritus Orientalium I, p95)
[24] John 6.12. Cf. Matthew 14.20 and 15.37; Mark 6.43 and 8.9; Luke 9.17
[25] [Footnote 6 in Memoriale Domini (MD)] Cf. Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos, 98, 9: PL 37, 1264-1265.
[26] [Footnote 7 in MD] Cf. Justin, Apologia I, 66: PG 6, 427; cf. Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, 1.4, c. 18. n. 5: PG 7,1028-1029.
[27] [Footnote 9 in MD] Cf. ibid. n. 9, p. 547.
[28] [Footnote 10 in MD] Cyril of Jerusalem, Catecheses Mystagogicae, V. 21: PG 33, 1126.
[29] Bl. Pope John Paul II Letter Dominicae Caenae (1980) 11
[30] Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum (2004) 92, reiterating the Congregation of Divine Worship’s response to a dubium given in 1999, recorded in Notitiae 35 (1999) pp. 160-161
[31] Dominicae Caenae 11
[32] Ibid, the preceding paragraph: ‘But one must not forget the primary office of priests, who have been consecrated by their ordination to represent Christ the Priest: for this reason their hands, like their words and their will, have become the direct instruments of Christ.’
[33] Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff: ‘Communion received on the tongue while kneeling’ (2010)
[34] St Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologiae, IIIa Q82 a3 c: ‘in reverentiam huius sacramenti, a nulla re contingitur nisi consecrata, unde et corporale et calix consecrantur, similiter et manus sacerdotis, ad tangendum hoc sacramentum. Unde nulli alii tangere licet, nisi in necessitate puta si caderet in terram, vel in aliquo alio necessitatis casu.’
[35] Pope Pius XII Encylical Letter Mediator Dei (1948) 61: ‘The liturgy of the early ages is most certainly worthy of all veneration. But ancient usage must not be esteemed more suitable and proper, either in its own right or in its significance for later times and new situations, on the simple ground that it carries the savour and aroma of antiquity. The more recent liturgical rites likewise deserve reverence and respect. They, too, owe their inspiration to the Holy Spirit, who assists the Church in every age even to the consummation of the world.[ Matthew 28.20] They are equally the resources used by the majestic Spouse of Jesus Christ to promote and procure the sanctity of man.’ (Haec eadem iudicandi ratio tenenda est, cum de conatibus agitur, quibus nonnulli enituntur quoslibet antiquos ritus ac caerimonias in usum revocare. Utique vetustae aetatis Liturgia veneratione procul dubio digna est; verumtamen vetus usus, non idcirco dumtaxat quod antiquitatem sapit ac redolet, aptior ac melior existimandus est vel in semet ipso, vel ad consequentia tempora novasque rerum condiciones quod attinet. Recentiores etiam liturgici ritus reverentia observantiaque digni sunt, quoniam Spiritus Sancti afflatu, qui quovis tempore Ecclesiae adest ad consummationem usque saeculorum (cfr. Matth. 28, 20), orti sunt; suntque iidem pariter opes, quibus inclita Iesu Christi; Sponsa utitur ad hominum sanctitatem excitandam procurandamque.)
[36] See paragraph 4
[37] Memoriale Domini
[38] Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff: ‘Communion received on the tongue while kneeling’ (2010).
[39] Ibid.
[40] Instruction Il Padre, incomprensibile  (1996) 53