I recently had cause to attend a mass celebrated according to the “ordinary form”. I was in the first pew — a rarity for me, since I’m typically wrestling small children in the narthex — and so I had a literal front-row seat to witness the manner in which communion was received by the faithful.
This was not my usual parish, and the priest offering the mass was himself a visitor. I know him very well, however, and he shares most of my opinions on liturgy. He celebrates the traditional mass whenever possible, but as a diocesan priest, he is obligated to celebrate both forms.
As I attempted to pray, I found that I was distracted by the long line of people making their way to the front and, for the most part, thrusting forward their hands to take the precious Body and Blood of Our Lord from the priest’s consecrated fingers.
There was one child who walked about five steps away before shoving the host in his mouth. I followed the worried eyes of the priest as he considered whether or not he would have to confront him. At another moment, I glanced over at some commotion I saw out of the corner of my eye and found the priest talking to a woman who was nodding vigorously, the host still in her hands. I later asked him what happened, and he told me that the host had broken. He had been trying to explain to her that she needed to consume all the particles, because they all contained Christ’s True Presence in its entirety.
“She had no idea what I was talking about.” he said.
In any discussion among well-informed Catholics about the propriety of receiving communion in the hand, one typically encounters the teaching of St. Cyril of Jerusalem on how to do so reverently:
In approaching therefore, come not with your wrists extended, or your fingers spread; but make your left hand a throne for the right, as for that which is to receive a King. And having hollowed your palm, receive the Body of Christ, saying over it, Amen. So then after having carefully hallowed your eyes by the touch of the Holy Body, partake of it; giving heed lest you lose any portion thereof ; for whatever you lose, is evidently a loss to you as it were from one of your own members. For tell me, if any one gave you grains of gold, would you not hold them with all carefulness, being on your guard against losing any of them, and suffering loss? Will you not then much more carefully keep watch, that not a crumb fall from you of what is more precious than gold and precious stones?
If one were to receive on the hand, there seems no better advice than this. And yet, as described above, it is precisely the opposite disposition one most commonly finds in those who approach the Blessed Sacrament with hands outstretched. There is a reason why the Church has long since determined that this method of receiving communion, though common in the early Church, is not advisable: because despite the best intentions of the most pious, as a common practice it leads to sacrilege.
For my part, as I knelt there, watching people literally grab the most sacred substance on earth as if it were a potato chip or a deli ticket, I couldn’t bring myself to look anymore. I had to close my eyes, and I felt them filling with tears. I felt true sorrow for the irreverence shown to the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar — an irreverence that has become common practice for Catholics around the world.
I was deeply concerned for the priest as well, who under the compulsion of norms founded in abuse and disobedience was forced to participate in something that he knows results in daily desecrations of the Blessed Sacrament. I attempted, however poorly, to make reparation through prayer. I prayed also that the Church would come to its senses and reform its practice — which would really amount only to enforcing its own discipline. I prayed perhaps most fervently that God would strengthen this priest, whom I knew was forced at every mass offered in the “ordinary form” to allow these abuses to continue, despite what his conscience and good sense was telling him. He — and others like him — is given no choice but to acquiesce to something I lacked the fortitude to even look upon.
All of this leads me to question: Where is our sense of the sacred? Why do we not venerate our Eucharistic Lord?
Several years ago, I read a moving anecdote about the innate sense of the Christic presence in the Blessed Sacrament:
Following the papal indult of 1984, Holy Mass was celebrated according to the old rite in a small, unusually hideous chapel on the second floor of a former Kolping house that had been turned into a hotel. It was decorated with dreadful ecclesiastical art: a concrete Madonna in a geometrical style and a crucifix made of red glass that looked like raspberry jelly; these were the sacred objects honored by the incensation. At any rate, no one could have been accused of going to this chapel out of aesthetic snobbery; this cheap slur, so often leveled at those who frequent the old rite, could not be directed at the Frankfurt faithful. The lay people who assembled there did not know very much about how things had to be got ready; they did not know the sacristy customs and only slowly acquired the necessary knowledge. Then a group of women who were in the habit of praying together began looking after the altar linen. I would like to tell you about these women. One day they asked the person in charge of the chapel what happened to the used purificators, that is, the cloths the priest uses to wipe away the remains of the consecrated wine from the chalice. He told them that they were put in the washing machine along with the other things. At the next Mass the women brought a little bag they had made specially, and afterward they asked for the used purificator and put it in the bag. What did they want it for? “Don’t you see? It is impregnated with the Precious Blood: it isn’t right to pour it down the drain.” The women had no idea that in former times the Church did indeed require the priest himself to do the initial washing of the purificator and that afterward the wash water had to be poured into the sacrarium or into the earth; but they just could not allow this little cloth to be treated like ordinary laundry; instinctively they carried out the prescriptions of an ancient rule—albeit one that is no longer observed. One of these women said, “It’s like washing the Baby Jesus’ diapers.” I was a bit taken aback to hear this. I found this folk piety a little too concrete. I observed her washing the purificator at home after praying the Rosary. She carried the wash water into the front garden and poured it in a corner where particularly beautiful flowers grew. In the evening she and another woman prepared the altar. Adjusting the long, narrow linen cloth was not easy. The two women were very intent on their task, and their actions showed a kind of reserved concern, as if, in a sober and efficient manner, they were taking care of someone they loved. I watched these preparations with a growing curiosity. What was going on? All the accounts of the Resurrection mention the folded cloths—“angelicos testes, sudarium et vestes”—as the Easter Sequence says. There was no doubt about it: these women in the hideous, second-floor chapel were the women beside the grave of Jesus. They lived in the constant, undoubted, concretely experienced presence of Jesus. They behaved with complete naturalness in this presence, in accord with their background and education. Their life was adoration, translated into very precise and practical action: liturgy. Observing these women, it was clear to me that they believed in the real presence of Jesus in the Sacrament of the Altar. That shows what faith is: the things we do naturally and as a matter of course.
– Mosebach, Martin. The Heresy Of Formlessness. Ignatius Press.
This is the faith Jesus asks of us! How can we do less than revere this sacred mystery?
[F]or my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.
As I sat down to write this, what came to mind was the Seefield Eucharistic Miracle, which took place almost seven centuries ago in Tirol, Austria. It is less well known than the Eucharistic miracles of Orvieto and Lanciano, but perhaps more appropriate to the crisis of our time:
On the night of Holy Thursday 1384, a knight named Oswald Milser attended Mass at the parish church in Seefeld. Guardian of a nearby castle, he was a man of great arrogance and pride.
During Mass, the knight approached the high altar with his sword drawn and a band of intimidating armed men, demanding the large host for himself – the small host normally given to the congregation was too ordinary for him.
The frightened priest handed him the host, and Milser remained standing as he took it. But as soon as he had the host in his mouth, the knight sank into the ground up to his knees. Pale with terror, he grasped the altar with both hands, leaving imprints that can still be seen.
The knight begged the priest to remove the host from his mouth. As soon as it was done, the ground became firm beneath him again. The humiliated knight rushed to the monastery of Stams, confessing and repenting his sin of arrogance. The velvet mantle he had worn that night was made into a chasuble and given to the Stams monastery.
In the remaining two years before his death, the knight continued to perform penance for his sacrilege. In accordance with his wishes, he was buried near the entrance of the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament.
Please understand me: it is not my intention to accuse the many millions of Catholics who receive communion on the hand to be guilty of such hubris. Most never give it a second thought, because it is what they were taught to do by the very priests whose job it is to confect and safeguard the Blessed Sacrament.
I, too, was taught to receive communion on the hand. I honestly can’t remember when I came to the realization that this was wrong, only that once I made the switch to receiving on tongue, I could never go back.
Christ nourishes us with His Body and Blood, and we are fed at His own hands, the priest acting as alter Christus as he places the host on our tongues. The Church is our mother, and she, too, nourishes us with her most prized possession, feeding us with her mystical spouse as a mother feeds a child.
Like those charged with the care of the Ark of the Covenant, it is not our place to lay hands on what is sacred. A priest is called by God Himself to touch the Eucharist, to call forth the Divine Presence from heaven in the prayers of Transubstantiation. According to the old rite of ordination:
After the first verse of the hymn the bishop rises and sits on the faldstool (wearing the mitre). He removes his gloves but puts the episcopal ring back on his finger. The gremiale is placed over his knees. The ordained come forward and one by one kneel before the bishop. He then takes the oil of catechumens and anoints both of their hands which they hold together palms upward. First he anoints the inside of the hands, tracing a cross from the thumb of the right hand to the index finger of the left, and from the thumb of the left hand to the index finger of the right. Next he anoints the entire palms. He says as he performs the anointings:
May it please you, O Lord, to consecrate and sanctify these hands by this anointing and our + blessing.
And having made the sign of the cross over the hands of the ordained he continues:
That whatever they bless may be blessed, and whatever they consecrate may be consecrated in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the Summa, St. Thomas Aquinas instructs us to remember who should touch the consecrated host, and when:
The dispensing of Christ’s body belongs to the priest for three reasons. First, because, as was said above (Article 1), he consecrates as in the person of Christ. But as Christ consecrated His body at the supper, so also He gave it to others to be partaken of by them. Accordingly, as the consecration of Christ’s body belongs to the priest, so likewise does the dispensing belong to him. Secondly, because the priest is the appointed intermediary between God and the people; hence as it belongs to him to offer the people’s gifts to God, so it belongs to him to deliver consecrated gifts to the people. Thirdly, because 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.
This reverence was, for so many years, built right into the mass. Altar boys wore white gloves when there was even the possibility of touching the sacred vessels. Everyone received communion kneeling and on the tongue.
Interestingly, Pope Benedict XVI, in the latter years of his papacy, was seen to only distribute communion to those who received it kneeling and on the tongue. There are a number of pictures of this:
It is probably too much to hope, at the present time, that the old and venerable practice of receiving this way be restored. It would be a tremendous boon to the faithful, since treating the Eucharist as if it is actually Christ’s Body and Blood enhances our belief that this is true. When we act casually, as if it weren’t an important thing worthy of our reverence, is it any wonder to discover that so few Catholics believe it?
But more than for any other reason, we should do this out of love for our Divine Savior. For the sake of our own deference to Christ, we should not treat this sacrament as something which we are owed, which we get to take on our own terms. Stolen hosts are routinely desecrated by those who revile the Eucharist, and yet are easy to obtain when received in the hand. Particles are lost, containing His entire Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. Sometimes whole hosts are found in the pews or on the ground outside, only to be trampled underfoot.
The Blessed Sacrament deserves our greatest respect, and should be treated with the utmost care. If you are in the habit of receiving on the hand, out of love for our Eucharistic Lord I urge you to try instead to begin receiving on the tongue, according to the Church’s ancient practice. If you are able to do so without causing obstruction, also receive kneeling, as you would if you found yourself in the presence Christ the King. (Because, in fact, you are in His presence!)
It may seem unlikely if you are unfamiliar with the practice, but I guarantee it will have a positive impact on your faith.